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Ground Zero, revisited

ASHOAK UPADHYAY
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The National September 11 Memorial… Tragedy remembered as hyper-reality. — Girijaa Upadhyay
The National September 11 Memorial… Tragedy remembered as hyper-reality. — Girijaa Upadhyay

The staggering memorial to the victims of 9/11 says a lot about America today: a country which cannot exist without hubris.

If appellations represent substance, the World Financial Center, a street across the twin towers and abutting Battery Park on the Hudson river, should have been the focus of any attack against whatever New York, indeed America, stands for.

Yet, it was the twin towers of the World Trade Center that bore the brunt of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, claiming nearly three thousand lives, scarring many more and giving the most powerful nation on earth a potent symbol of its capacity to reinvent itself.

Why World Trade Center?

The twin towers were replete with symbolism appropriate to the new millenium and to New York city -- the highest, though not necessarily the most majestic. The Empire State Building, one of the older skyscrapers, is almost epic in its grandeur, and to a keener New Yorker more symbolic of whatever the great city stands for: innovation, a freewheeling, yet benign stolidity. The twin towers stood for vaunting ambition, the relentless drive to literally pierce the highest ceiling, paeans to money power in a way the glass towers of Wall Street further up Manhattan could never be.

Wall Street’s glass towers hid power; the twin towers flaunted it. The twin towers were the face of America, you would remember them always — more than Lady Liberty out on the Hudson; Greenwich Village or the East Village, with their local histories of resistance to Money Power; the crucibles of American popular culture from Walt Whitman to Bob Dylan and more; its long-time residents eager to preserve their Arcadian driftwood-way of life against the press of vapid and manic consumerism.

Erasure in glass

So it is not surprising that the memorial to America’s tragedy and resurrection should be embodied in soaring glass towers, the first of which is nearly complete. This is part of a four-tower complex, The National September 11 Memorial, that “honors the victims”, to remember the brave who “risked their lives to save others” and the “compassion shown in the aftermath.”

From Port Liberte on the Jersey City shore across the Hudson, the glass monolith stands apart from and higher than the other skyscrapers of lower Manhattan; as a late dusk paints the sky with glorious shades of purple, deep red, dark blue and ominous black, the memorial tower, lit up like an obelisk against a velvet-darkened sky, evokes a new dawn, of Promethean resurrection.

The sight is breathtaking as the lower Manhattan skyline has always been; earlier, it was the Statue of Liberty, close to Ellis island, with its symbolism of America’s self-invention as melting pot that gave the horizon from across the Hudson its serene majesty; then it was the Twin Towers; and now their rebirth offering even more hope.

Money power

Get off at the Path Line (the subway line that goes under the Hudson from Jersey City) stops such as Grove Street to Rector Street or Cortland Street stations, and as you walk toward the memorial site the full power of American reinvention hits you.

Rising within the cleared and fenced-in site with entry points for tourists, amidst a jungle of glass and stone high-rises, the cigar-shaped tower erases memory of destruction, replacing it with the visceral image of powerful America, corporate America, real estate America.

The tragedy is now remembered, through multimedia as hyper-reality.

This is where post-millennium America remembers its tragedies in the present time; not with recognition of its weakness and an awareness of its hubris, but with renewed assertion through the mediation it knows best — that of Money and Corporate power. The Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC for instance invokes the desire for a cleansing spirit, to remember its victims with humility.

The exterior of the National September 11 Memorial evokes awe: then, the rush of chirpy tourists from around the world and America (shepherded by aggressively polite city police and local security fully aware of the site’s captivating possibilities, and playing the perfect hosts) wind their way into the “museum” to re-live the tragedy, the bravery and the compassion of the firemen and administration, the resilience of New Yorkers.

White’s epiphany

And resilient New York has been, especially in its universalism. No other city could have entertained a plan put forward by American Muslims for a 13-storey Islamic community centre housing a mosque, two blocks from Ground Zero. Opposition on obvious grounds has been aired and continues to be voiced, but Park 51 meant to promote inter-faith dialogue has Mayor Bloomberg’s public blessing.

So New York offers itself as the site for titanic contests: the worship of sectarian grandeur and of universal tolerance. In the meantime, the city with its mega-monoliths will always remain prey to the epiphanies of its great essayist, E. B. White.

Writing more than 70 years ago, White captured the tragedy vividly: “The city for the first time in its long history is destructible. A single flight of planes, no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers to cremate the millions.

The intimation of mortality is part of New York now… . In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.” (E.B. White: Essays of E.B.White.pp/166-67. Perennial Classics. 2006)

(This article was published on July 24, 2012)
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