I’ve been to New York City many times since September 11, 2001. And each time, avoided going anywhere near Ground Zero, now formally known as the National September 11 Memorial. I didn’t want to make a pilgrimage to disaster. Didn’t want to take part in what felt like an act of national piety. And yet I felt oddly guilty about not going.
Last Friday, I was in New York again. It was horrible weather: the whole city in complaint about the bitter cold, the biting wind, the snow flurries. “And in April!” people kept saying, as though the season only added to the insult.
I had an early afternoon appointment way downtown. And when I checked the map, realized it was just two blocks from Ground Zero. It had taken me fifteen years, but the time had clearly come.
I’d seen photographs of the memorial, of course — and much admired the concept of it. Not the conventional obelisk or spire lifting the eyes skyward, nor even the black marble wall built into the landscape of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial in DC. No. This one, by comparison, was unutterably spare. It didn’t lift off the ground or nest into it. Instead, it went deep down into it. Where the two towers had been, two giant squares had been dug, and filled partway with water. Each almost an acre in size, they covered the footprints of the twin towers. And at the center of each pool was a far deeper one, a sharp descent into what seemed to be a bottomless black square — a void within a void.
So why did I need to see this “in the flesh,” as it were? I kept asking myself that question as I followed the thin stream of tourists who’d braved the weather, wool caps pulled low, scarves multiply wound, collars and shoulders hunched against the wind. Were their eyes streaming in the wind like mine? They had to be. There is something about the iciness of a wintry Manhattan wind as it funnels through the high-rise canyons that seems to suck tears out of your eyes.
As we entered the plaza — past three guys handing out pamphlets for the memorial museum, each of them incongruously sporting green plastic Statue of Liberty headgear — I was wondering if there wasn’t something kind of ghoulish about this. All these people going to see where all these other people had died? The site of nearly three thousand horrific deaths becoming an item to be ticked off the tourist checklist? What was I doing here?
Yet I resisted the urge to turn back. As everyone else headed straight for the shelter of the museum building, I went the other way to the North Pool, the one where the North Tower had been. I leaned over the waist-high parapet, its bronze surface etched with names of those who’d died, and the moment I did so, all my questions faded into very small, graceless quibbles.
What I saw was grey on grey on grey. Concrete on concrete. A square within a square, so sparse as to be brutalistic. And this brutalism moved me — deeply and unexpectedly — because surely, it was what was needed.
I made my way to the south edge so as to get my back to the wind, but still it seemed to knife right through me — through the leather motorcycle jacket, through the fleece ski leggings, through the wool beret. My eyes streamed more than ever — was it only the wind? — and as the tears threatened to freeze on my cheeks, I realized how utterly different this was from the photos I’d seen.
They’d showed placid water calmly spilling over from the upper square into the lower one — less my idea of a waterfall than of a large-scale ornamental water feature. But the water this afternoon was anything but placid. It was angry, roiled up by the wind dipping into it and howling over it, raising whitecaps and sending giant silvery curtains of wind-drift over the surface. The water didn’t merely fall into the deep center square: it fell over itself, boiling in icy tumult, tumbling and cascading into the void.
I stood. Still. Shivering. For I don’t know how long. In sadness, in awe, in admiration at how the designer, Michael Arad, had created what felt like sacred space out of public place. Not the kind of sacred space that elevates you, but the kind that fills you with dread, and with the biting awareness of how fragile life can be.
“You should have taken a photograph,” a friend said that evening. But I had no need to. That time I spent leaning over the parapet is unforgettable, and what I saw is etched in my mind as indelibly as the terrible images from fifteen years ago. “There’ll be lots of photos online,” I said. And indeed there are. But all seem to be with the water calm. It seems nobody pauses to takes photographs when an icy wind is blowing. And many of the photographers had clearly waited for dusk, when the walls are lit up for dramatic effect, though all the lighting did, to my eye, was prettify what should never be prettified. After a half-hour of online scrolling, I found not one photo that came anywhere near expressing the forlorn quality of the place last Friday afternoon — the terrible, abandoned greyness of it.
And maybe that’s as it should be. How, after all, do you photograph absence? How do you photograph a void?