The World Trade Center’s twin towers fell on 11 September 2001. Almost immediately, Americans began to seek closure, even if the term hadn’t yet fully worked its way into their daily vocabulary. Writing in the New York Times ten weeks later, Shaila Dewan recalled that the idea of “closure” might first have appeared in the public imagination in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when Timothy McVeigh killed a 168 people… Or maybe it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission…
It was, nevertheless, still a new concept in 2001, “a shorthand for which the longhand is unclear,” Dewan wrote. It seemed to be “a flawed concept whose overuse could do more harm than good” by promising the possibility of “moving on” from the trauma without grappling with how it changed everything.
New Yorkers erected spontaneous memorials around what became known as “Ground Zero.” Passerby laced flags, t-shirts, baseball caps, notes, and memorabilia into the fence at Saint Paul’s Chapel, two blocks away at Broadway and Vesey. Close by, at Fulton Street, the owner of Chelsea Jeans preserved a small corner of his shop behind glass, just as it was when the force of the towers’ collapse blew in the front window.
In 2003, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation held a design competition for a permanent memorial to help New Yorkers – and all Americans – find closure. It was a controversial plan that meant setting aside more than eight acres of the most expensive commercial real estate it the world, land that could be used for housing, schools, or business.
Designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial was meant to address some of those concerns by providing an anchor for the economic regeneration of Lower Manhattan. There was always a commercial dimension to the project, and it has been largely successful in attracting as many as four million visitors per year to a part of the city that had been devastated by the attack. Indeed, the 9/11 Memorial rivals Times Square and the Empire State building as one of New York’s top draws for out-of-town tourists, many of whom happily pay the $24 admission price to visit the museum.
Yet, for all of the cynical calculation – this is, after all, New York – the memorial is also strangely moving. It is an enormous public space suggesting the memorial parks of the 1940s and 1950s, focused on two vast pools of water marking the bases of each fallen tower. The names of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, are engraved in the bronze panels surrounding the pools.
They are grouped according to where they were that day, and how they were related to the tragedy at the time of their deaths. So, the North Pool commemorates the passengers and crew of American Airlines Flight 11 and the employees and visitors in the North Tower. The South Pool commemorates the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 175, the employees and visitors in the South Tower, people in the streets and buildings nearby, the first responders who died during rescue operations.
The arrangement of the names creates an unexpected social geography. Names like Kumar, Afuako, Haberman, and Williams – passengers, maintenance staff, employees of the Port Authority – are scattered evenly around both pools. But at the south pool, in the cluster of first responders, one finds Geraghty, Freund, O’Keefe, Marino, McCann: reminding visitors of New York’s historic contours of ethnicity, neighborhood, tradition, and hierarchy.
The names reference both the tragedy itself and our cultural vocabulary for representing and commemorating tragedy. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is the obvious precedent and, just like at the wall in Constitution Gardens, visitors leave offerings. But things are different here; what seems spontaneous and chaotic in Washington feels choreographed and planned in New York. Mourners at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial mark their memories with personal mementos, keepsakes, medals and photographs; around the World Trade Center pools, they are mostly cut flowers and flags.
And while the polished surface of Maya Lin’s wall invites visitors to see their own reflections among the names of the fallen, and contemplate the meanings of the Vietnam War, at Ground Zero they stare into dark, yawning chasms. Waterfalls around the four sides of each pool, representing, some say, tears of mourning, pour endlessly into wounds too deep ever to be filled. It turns out that there is no closure here after all, only a deep, black emptiness.