Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum

After some debate, Sally and I decided to take the girls to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum as a last family outing before the end of the summer.  The Memorial is, of course, located on the former World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan just a few blocks north of Battery Park.  We went to Battery Park immediately before touring the memorial; the walk north went maybe ten blocks and took no more than fifteen minutes.  I hadn’t been down to that part of the City in ages and was amazed by all of the bike lanes and open space that now exists in Lower Manhattan.  It’s become a truly beautiful part of the New York.
The new World Trade Center building as seen from Battery Park.
The New World Trade Center building.

The decision to visit the Memorial was somewhat emotional for me and Sally both.  I moved to the New York area in August of 2001, just a month before the attacks.  I was in the City on September 11th at a company facility in Queens, just across the East River from the United Nations building.  Some colleagues and I were outside on a coffee break when the planes struck, and I watched dumbstruck as the attacks unfolded.  Sally was teaching at the middle school in Hoboken, New Jersey, that same day and had to try to put the attacks into context for her kids, who could all see the smoke cloud and the attacks’ immediate aftermath from their school building.  Neither of us was particularly eager to relive moments that were indelibly etched into our memories, but at the same time, we wanted to pay our respects while trying to explain to our kids how and why the world changed that day.
A Memorial reflecting pool.
This painting is outside the theater, where you watch a 15 minute film that
attempts to put the attacks into geopolitical context.  The painting itself is of
New Yorkers immediately after the attacks, standing together in numbed disbelief.
There is a great deal of open space around the memorials, but despite intensely hot weather the day we went, the area was crowded with tourists.  The Trade Center sites themselves have been turned into massive waterfall reflecting pools.  The sheer scope of them is hard to grasp until one sees them first hand, and the sounds of the water—thankfully—drown out most conversation.  The area where the towers once stood is hallowed ground, but like the Vietnam Memorial, another generation will probably turn the site into a simple greenspace without the same emotional resonance for those who witnessed the attacks firsthand.
The 9/11 Museum is mostly underground.  The entrance is in a small building just north of the South Pool, but once you enter, most of what there is to see is down a flight of stairs.  The space is enormous, with some basic exhibits outside the main part of the museum.  These include a fire truck that was smashed when the towers came down, a projected display of the “Have You Seen Me?” posters that are most of what I personally remember from the months after the attacks, the Last Column to be taken down during recovery operations, and a perpetual audiovisual remembrance of the attacks’ victims.  The museum itself, the detailed timeline of events, is through another set of doors, and it is truly massive.  The guidebook says that the average visitor spends about two hours going through the exhibits.  Sally, the kids, and I stayed more than four.
These posters were all over Hoboken in the months after the attacks.  Though
only a mile square, Hoboken lost more people per capita than any other part of
the greater New York area.

I won’t rehash the museum in too much detail.  They take you step by painstaking step through the events of 9/11.  If you were there, you can expect to relive it in exhaustively haunting detail.  Some of the television and radio coverage was new to me, but mostly I found the museum to be a searing reminder of the events of the day and the scars they left on the City’s psyche afterwards.  I was disappointed that there wasn’t anything about the telethons and the charity that poured into the City after the attacks, not only because I worked the telethon as a volunteer, but also because the story of the attacks and the recovery are relentlessly depressing.  The uplifting parts of the story—the ways that the City pulled together afterwards and the renaissance that has come to Lower Manhattan in the years since—get lost in the unrelenting gloom of what was a very tough day.  
New York City is today a vibrant and growing community.  Before the attacks, the City had a population of about seven million.  In the immediate aftermath that population shrank, but today there are more than eight million people living here with more coming every day.  The infrastructure engineering that supports this population is interesting, but what’s fascinating is the economic and cultural booms that have made modern New York a reality.  New York is reinventing itself on a daily basis.  We saw this a bit at the Museum of the City of New York, but though the Memorial site is an excellent example of the City’s efforts in this regard, the city’s rebirth is entirely lost within the confines of the 9/11 Museum.
The Last Column.

We emerged from the museum late in the day and walked over to South Street Seaport for dinner.  If you’re coming into New York as a tourist, it seems likely that you’ll put the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on your agenda.  That’s fine, and I urge you to give yourself plenty of time to pay your respects.  However, also take some time to explore the other parts of the City, of which South Street Seaport is a good example.  Once an industrial space, South Street is today a popular cultural space and collection of eateries.  Touring South Street in conjunction with the 9/11 Memorial will show you not only New York at its most-challenged but also how the City has recovered and continues to recover.  This is worth seeing as much as is the museum itself.

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