Saturday, February 25, 2017

9/11 Memorial Museum and One World Observatory

 
May 2001

The thing about September 11th, 2001, is that it happened to all Americans… but it happened to some more than others. The facts and the times of that day are stationary, creating a framework, but woven around it are millions of different experiences. Individual threads are wound around the steel structure of events – some loosely, some painfully tight. 

When the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened, many families who’d lost loved ones said they would not visit – the museum was not built for them. And they’re right – museums present facts, a history. They use personal accounts to help support the overall story. But for the families involved, personal accounts are the story, a knot that will never fray. 

 
September 2001
 
The memorial museum is the first I’ve visited for something I actually lived through. I was an eyewitness, but feel almost guilty talking about my personal experience, because so many people and families had their lives changed forever that day. As a U.S. citizen, I was affected, but on a personal level, I remained (thankfully) unscathed. Everything written below is an entirely selfish - intensely personal, sometimes rational, sometimes purely emotional - account of my thoughts and feelings on my experience as I visited the 9/11 museum and memorial. 


A brief background sketch of my perspective: I was in college in Brooklyn in the fall of ’01. I’d moved into the upperclassmen dorms a week earlier and had an incredible view of the Manhattan skyline. That Tuesday was a gorgeous morning. I heard the planes hit the towers and thought it was thunder against a clear blue sky. The picture on the tv that my roommate was glued to was a photocopy of the one out our window. I did not see the towers fall. When a plane crashed into the Pentagon, with another still in the air headed toward DC, it felt like my whole world was being targeted.


It took me most of the day to reach my parents – cell service was wiped out. My dad got through, having been sent home from work as FEMA’s above-ground operations at Mount Weather were suspended while the underground city cloistered members of government. He said he was sorry I’d had to see that, which finally made me cry. My floor took coffee to members of the NYPD and NYFD at Ground Zero a week later. When we tried to pay, the Starbucks manager gave it to us free of charge, so we stuck our money in a donation jar on the counter. 


Fifteen and a half years later, the eighth grade art class I assistant-teach were doing a project on monuments and memorials. A couple of students mentioned visiting the 9/11 memorial. The lead teacher and I realized that this is the first class of kids to be born entirely after 9/11.  (A majority of the kids weren’t even aware of the Oklahoma City bombing.) I wasn’t sure I was prepared to see the memorial and the museum, but I was curious as to how they were presented.


I hadn’t stepped foot near the site since May of 2001. It had been a hole in the ground for years afterwards, then a fenced-off site that felt like trespassing on someone else's grief, then overshadowed by the new tower which slowly rose during my last few years in Brooklyn. It felt like it might be time for me to visit, given where we are now and the gaping question of how we ended up here. (November 8th, 2016 is the only time I’ve experienced emotions even vaguely similar to September 11th, 2001.)

A week before my trip, the Oculus - the dramatic architectural center of the new World Trade Center transportation hub - was in the news, as a woman reached for her twin sister’s escaped hat and fell from an escalator to her death. Entering from the subway, my emotions and memories pushed against the space. The interior of the building is white, modern, and feels like something transported from Dubai and managed by a company whose insignia is plastered all over. For all its incongruousness, the fact that an underground mall has returned to the site made me smile. The last time I visited the WTC was to buy some Harry Potter merchandise from the WB store; the underground mall was my most common reason for visiting. On the corner outside, I spotted St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, finally being rebuilt, close to the spot where its previous incarnation was destroyed by the falling towers.


I walked to the museum and ordered a ticket from one of the machines that line its outer walls. The next self-guided entry was in ten minutes. Going through a security line similar to one you'd find in an airport felt eerily appropriate. (Belts off, shoes on – I set the metal detector off twice, inexplicably.)

As I entered, a line of flags reminded me of the one that used to line the WTC lobby. You enter the exhibit space through a darkened hallway that bombards you with images and sounds of that day. It was accurate, but overwhelming. As I hurried past the last few screens, I questioned, again, whether visiting was a good idea. And then I entered a large balcony and saw the slurry wall that helped support the towers – and I kind of quietly lost it.


I quietly lost it again at the art installation of the color of the sky that Tuesday. I was happy to see multiple “early exits” installed along the way, as upon first impression, the whole experience is just… overwhelming. But then, as I moved through the exhibits, a feeling of resolution started to come over me. I could relate to many of the memories and images. I found myself nodding – this is how it was. I remember this.


The first surprise was a preserved stairway from the plaza. Memories started to come back –not of 2001, but of visits with my family in the late 90s, of the plaza between the towers, of the view from the observatory on top. Other things that stood out or surprised me – a couple of rooms on the 1993 bombing and the rise of Al Qaeda, even tracking the movements of the hijackers once they entered the country; the treatment of the Pentagon and Shanksville sites (not as in-depth, but still portrayed); a sign from the WB store that I remembered, splinters sticking out where it’d been broken; a shopfront featuring 2001 fashion, still covered in inches of the dust that was on the ground past Christmas; clips from movies featuring the towers (the Toby Maguire edition of Spiderman framed that day for me in some respects, from the trailer that featured a giant web between the twin towers, to the part in the movie where New Yorkers stand up against the villain, eliciting a cathartic cheer from my Manhattan movie-crowd).


Many of the galleries didn’t allow photography, but I didn’t take many pictures even in the areas that did. Everyone was respectful, but I still felt an unwarranted sense of anger toward some of the tourists carefully edging around for a picture of a destroyed fire engine. I was conflicted about taking photos at all, but reasoned with myself that I’d taken pictures documenting the event itself, so why not the museum? An exhibit on New York artists and the work they produced after 9/11 spoke to me, in that I felt a little less guilty about my own desire  to write and draw and otherwise create stuff that deals with my personal experience of that day.


Stepping back outside to the memorial, I tried to wrap my head around the site – how the fountains follow the footprint of the towers while the museum below does too – as well as my relation to the space in general. Trying to remember where things were in 1997, in 2001, made me feel not entirely present. I mentally measured the spot between the two fountains and stood exactly where I’d shot a picture of the towers twenty years before, looking up at the present-day view.

 

As I turned a corner and headed west, the wind picked up the water from the the North Tower fountain, lifting it in a spray across the plaza. I spotted one of the roses which are placed by the names of the deceased on their birthday. Even though it made a beautiful, meaningful image, taking a picture felt exploitative. I thought of my mom and how - out of thousands of names - we discovered the name of her classmate on our first visit to the Vietnam Memorial. In 2001, a family at her school lost their grandparents on Flight 77. I saw their names and pictures in the museum and was amazed at how young they seemed to me, now.


I graduated college and left New York in 2004, the summer the cornerstone of the "Freedom Tower" was laid. I moved back to the city in 2011, when the new building was about 55 stories tall. It crept up the skyline, till it could be seen from my perch in Brooklyn as well as during my morning commute across the Manhattan Bridge.

 
Almost complete in 2013.

I never would have expected to want to go up in a tall building - much less the new One World Trade Center - following a trip to the 9/11 museum. But memories of the twin towers and the reminder that everything can change, at any time, sparked a sudden desire to do just that. The line to get in was incredibly short. I asked how long the wait was and was told it was only 20 minutes.

 

I got up to the ticket counter. My mind is lazy – I’m on autopilot half the time, paying as much attention to what’s happening internally as I am to my surroundings - and today, I had an actual excuse for being not entirely present. On the occasions I encounter someone who doesn’t fit in my neat little box of gender expectations, my attention-deprived exterior mind ends up doing a double-take before my internal mind can catch up and tell it off for doing it so. The cashier behind the counter must have seen this struggle play out on my face before I finally settled on a smile. She responded, “You are so nice.  I wish all customers were as nice as you – I’m upgrading you to priority!” And she did, with a stamp on my ticket. I mumbled thanks, half-guilty, half-thankfully. People Can Be Awful could have served as a tagline for my entire day. The bright spots give you hope, and the cashier was my bright spot that afternoon.

 

Thanks to my priority ticket, I flew through the line. There was more airport-style security and then I was herded onto an elevator with a small group of people. The girls next to me were nervously discussing the ride - and then it started. The panels lining the elevator lit up and the screens around us showed New York growing up through time. As you go higher - and farther in time - the buildings around you race you to the top. As you reach the last few floors, the scaffolding of One World Trade Center is built around you. Everyone left the elevator smiling.

 

We entered into some sort of holding room, where a brief show on New York played out on a block-paneled wall. Then the movie ended and the wall began to lift - to reveal the windows behind it, the view stretching out over the city. I may have gotten quietly teary, yet again.


Walking around the observatory was pure joy. The slightly cheesy, commercial elements reminded me of going up in the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building in the 90s. The modern touches - iPad guides, for a fee - reminded me that this was new, now... and here I was, standing not too far from a place I thought I'd never be again.

 

When I heard the plane hit the North Tower, I was sitting on the lawn waiting for class to begin. I was reading 'The Return of the King', the third book in 'The Lord of the Rings' series. Passages from those books gave me comfort over the next few months, as the world changed forever.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I,"
said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

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