Last week I visited the World Trade Center site. I was in New York on business for a week and of all the things to see and do, this was the only one I felt was really important. It is impossible to be an American in this day and age, and not have an opinion about what went on there. Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 have become inextricably entwined in the rhetoric and sensationalism around our War on Terror. A walk around the WTC site, “ground zero”, seemed like a good way of regaining a bit of perspective.
The visit ended up being somewhat serendipitous. My first morning in Manhattan, I woke early and decided to go for a walk. I had no explicit intention of visiting the WTC site that morning and, if asked, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which way was north, let alone how to get to the site. Rather, I was simply looking to get semi-lost in a new (to me) city – an experience I’ve always enjoyed. My walk consisted mostly of taking a few turns at random, stopping once to get some tea from a street vendor, and just people and city watching all the while. But after a half-hour of this, I was only a little surprised to discover that I’d come across the WTC site. (Later, looking at a map, I found that the route I’d chosen was almost exactly the perfect way to get there. How much should one read into this? I don’t know, but if there is a place to be spiritual and accepting of this sort of thing, this is one of them.)
There is no doubt that the site is visually underwhelming. It is just a big hole in the ground. Even New Yorkers readily admit this. It is the absences that make it special, the voids and empty spaces that our mind tries to fill in, that make up the experience. Most obvious of course, are the lack of the towers themselves. Manhattan is a vertical city, with looming buildings everywhere. In the midst of this, the site is one area where you have to look down to see anything (and even that is a bit difficult – there are fences around the ongoing construction and cleanup effort, so finding a view of anything that might have once been considered to be part of the trade center is not easy.)
There are other absences too. I watched the commuters going in and out of the local subway station to see if there was any indication that they noticed or remembered the events of 9/11, any shifting of the slightly lowered gazes, or hesitation in the brisk walk that seems ubiquitous here. But on this morning I didn’t see any particular sense of reverence among all the people going about their business. On the surface, it was life as usual. Which is not to say that New Yorkers have come to take 9/11 for granted. Merely that it doesn’t seem to be part and parcel of their everyday life; it manifests in other ways. There is no graffiti here, nor is there any trash or litter, or (thankfully) any street vendors to hawk cheap plastic replicas of what once stood. There are no cathedrals, no monuments, but it is sacred ground in it’s own way when it comes to the little battles that make up daily life. If you look closely, there are small impromptu alters spread around the site- a small bouquet of dried roses stuck in the fence, or an area off to the side where visitors have thrown bits of tribute through the fence – spare change (wishing for…?), a Vietnam POW patch.
My time at the site was somewhat limited. I had work to do and a meeting to get to, and honestly, there’s just not that much to see. But after a slow, considered walk around the site, I found what I think I was subconsciously looking for. The vacuum left behind by the 2,973 people who died on 9/11 is a yardstick against which to measure ourselves, individually and as a society. That space will eventually be filled – nature does, after all, abhor a vacuum. This one is as cultural and spiritual as it is physical. What we fill it with and how we fill it will say a lot about us to the generations ahead.