This summer I spent some vacation time in New York and had a chance to visit the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. I was skeptical that a memorial could do justice to that immense tragedy without being maudlin or kitsch but I came away from the visit profoundly moved. The memorial and its surrounding park are a magnificent and thought-provoking tribute to the people who died on 9/11.
The neighbourhood around the park is still largely under construction as crews rebuild the area that was devastated by the collapse of the twin towers. It's noisy, hot and dirty and you have to thread your way through hoardings and chain-link fences just to reach the visitor centre to get the free tickets that allow you to visit the site. The enormous skyscraper called One World Trade Center which is nearing completion just north of the site dominates the area.
Once you get your tickets you have to walk a few blocks through the construction to the park entrance where you stand in a long line to pass through security. On a hot July day it was almost unbearable.
When you finally enter the park you cross into a landscaped plaza planted with hundreds of mature oak trees. It's an unusual oasis of green in an otherwise densely built-up area. Hundreds of people mill about laughing and taking snapshots and doing other typical tourist things, which strikes one initially as being a little incongruous given the seriousness of the event that took place here.
In one area of the park is a pear tree from the original World Trade Center plaza that was found badly damaged in the rubble of the collapse and moved to a nursery, coaxed back to health for ten years and then replanted on its original site. Now called the Survivor Tree, it draws reverential crowds.
Gradually you approach the footprints of the vanished twin towers, which have been replaced by two gigantic fountains that outline the exact location of the missing buildings. The white noise of the falling water cancels out all the street noise and conversations and you are left alone with your thoughts as you stare over the lip into the huge holes where the buildings once stood. It's a brilliant idea - memorialize the missing buildings not with a structure but with empty space where the buildings once stood. You are dramatically confronted by their absence in a way that would not be possible with a sculpture or monument.
The water falling over the edges of the void immediately reminds you of the trauma of watching the buildings fall that day in 2001. In the centre there is a dark square opening where the water in the collecting pool falls again and disappears. Gusts of wind occasionally cause the falling water to collect in waves which remind you of the falling debris and the trapped people who leapt to their deaths rather than be burned alive. People standing around the lip stop talking and stare thoughtfully at the falling water.
Around the edge of the fountains is a bronze ledge with the names of the victims of the attacks cut into the metal - the letters form empty spaces in the bronze that reflect the loss of the person named. In a poignant gesture, the names of victims who died together in the same office, fire station or airplane are grouped together. It is very moving. Occasionally spray from the fountain falls on the names of the departed - it can't help but remind you of tears of mourning for the loss of loved ones.
People leave the site quiet and thoughtful, which is an amazingly successful effect for a memorial to have on visitors.
In a footnote to my visit, while walking out I passed by Zucotti Park which was the location of the Occupy Wall Street protest for a few months in the fall of 2011. Today it has been reclaimed as a public space from the anarchists and nihilists who claimed they were going to stay there until capitalism collapsed. Now people sit on the benches under the trees eating lunch and sipping lattes. I walked by around noon and the park was occupied by hundreds of construction workers from the nearby One World Trade Center site who were eating their lunches and ogling women.
It was a fitting final moment to the visit - the people who tried in their own ways to bring down "the system" were replaced by the workers who were literally rebuilding it. I came away with a smile on my face.