Another Voice from Gotham
By Mat Tombers
I want to share something with all of you. On the first or
second night of that dark week that followed September 11th,
a friend sent out to many of us the first in a series of irregular
missives. It was what inspired me to translate my own feelings
into an e-mail that went out to my friends and which was the
genesis for my column for www.haleisner.com.
John Voelker is the man's name. He is a marketing executive
for Ebiza.com and has one of the deepest voices of anyone
I know. He has a dry sense of humor and is a friend of a friend
who has become my friend. We shared the Wednesday night the
12th of September with each other and with a group of friends
and acquaintances at a restaurant in Chelsea where we gathered
to support one another and to huddle in the warmth of shared
What perhaps most united us that night was that both of us
went wide eyed when one of the people at the table asked,
in all seriousness, if we dropped a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan
wouldn't the radiation stop at the border. We were sitting
across from one another at a table of twelve and our astonished
faces mirrored one another.
It has been a long time since John wrote one of his e-mails
but when it came, I wanted to share it with all of you, as
his is a good, strong voice and is the voice of another New
Yorker making their way through all of this. It is a way of
paying tribute to him for his inspiration.
Eight months and counting ... except we're not counting any
more. For me and most people I talk to, the events of 9/11
have passed out of daily discussion. They are now part of
the context of New York. We all nod to them, allude to their
effects. It was a tough winter (facial inflection indicates
meaning), business was lousy (nod to fourth-quarter impact
of "events"), someone's relationship suffered. A
large number of friends are quietly taking anti-depressants.
New Yorkers seem pretty good at parsing the actual effects
of 9/11 from economic downturn and the general travails of
life. The ability to move on is often roughly proportional
to the degree someone was personally affected. I don't know
any of "the relatives," though I know a lot of people
one degree away. A friend who retired from the NYPD is more
immersed than most, having attended dozens of funerals of
colleagues and friends. But for many, 9/11 is just not top
of mind any more. It will always be there, and many of us
have sudden shaky moments. No crying in the streets, but occasional
tearing up unexpectedly.
Meanwhile, residential real estate has come roaring back.
There may be more window-shoppers and tire-kickers, but apartments
are selling almost as quickly as a year ago -- and at close
to the same prices. Manhattan brokers are desperate for listings,
as are their counterparts upstate. I almost fell the porch
when the broker who's offering my place in Woodstock for summer
rentals told me what she wanted to ask for selling it. (It's
NOT for sale!) If Manhattan real estate is selling at full
price, then life has clearly returned to something like normal.
Like others, I looked forward to the "Memorial in Light"
-- twin towers of light commemorating the losses of 9/11 --
when it was lit on March 11. But when I first saw it, it seemed
wrong. From the mid-20s, it was two pencil-thin beams, barely
visible against the night sky and the wash of light at street
level. Walking toward it, the beams ended up in the wrong
place, not at the foot of Sixth Avenue where the WTC towers
had been but closer to the Hudson. And the columns weren't
nearly as thick as the towers, and they were too close together.
Only up close were they strong, solid, shining columns of
light. Still, the floodlights at Ground Zero washed out the
bottoms. And walking back north, turning back frequently to
make sure they were still there, they faded until I had to
search for them among the rest of the city light at street
Perfectly vertical, paired into the sky, they were clearly
NOT light-beam replacements for the Twin Towers. And that's
what I had wanted -- a pair exactly the same, in the same
place and at the same scale, but infinitely tall until they
pierced the sky, to recreate ... what was no longer there.
Instead, the Memorial in Light was a mere spectre. A misty
image, transparent and half-hidden, of something already starting
to fade in memory. A spectre, says Webster's, is "Something
preternaturally visible; an apparition; a ghost; a phantom.".
And that, I came to understand, was the identity and perhaps
the purpose of the Memorial in Light in its month-long appearance.
(I looked up "preternaturally," too; it's "Out
of or being beyond the normal course of nature." That
applies as well.)
The boundaries of the Ground Zero worksite have steadily
shrunk. The site itself is now entirely a void. Nothing is
visible at ground level except a fence and heavy equipment.
Even the massive tide of recovery and cleanup apparatus is
starting to ebb. The cleanup will likely end in 2-4 weeks,
the "bathtub" foundation secured, scoured clean
of debris, the hope for more remains finally snuffed out.
During three weeks in March, almost 1,000 new remains were
located in the pile beneath the ramp that had been carved
into the debris at the start. Between the samples from relatives
and the partial remains recovered, tens of thousands of DNA
samples must be matched. It is a task without precedent, and
it will end with some remains unidentified forever.
The pace of memorial services has finally slowed to a crawl.
Some relatives still have not filed for a death certificate.
But just as hope for survivors was dashed in September, the
hope for remains -- especially intact remains -- is fading.
In a terrible irony, roughly half the lost firefighters have
been recovered, their heavy bunker gear having protected some
of their bodies during the collapses.
But now, downtown, there is little sense of wreckage or debris
or even damage. It all looks like a huge construction site,
perhaps as it did in 1968 when it was being built the first
time. At Ground Zero, the "bathtub" is a huge empty
pit seven stories deep, an empty container with its contents
removed ... a void filled with memories and meaning.
At the very bottom, work has begun on a temporary station
for the PATH trains from New Jersey. The goal is to reopen
around Thanksgiving 2003. Similarly,under the former -- and
perhaps future -- Greenwich Street, crews are working to rebuild
the damaged IRT subway. A group of relatives of the dead told
the press a few weeks ago they were hurt and outraged that
work had begun on transit reconstruction before the recovery
had ended, before the future of the site was known, before
they had been consulted. Many raised their eyebrows at that.
For me, it was the first break in unconditional sympathy and
support for the relatives. Life must go on -- and in NYC,
life often equals mass transit.
As talk of the human losses fades, the question becomes,
what will be built? I attended a community session in mid-April,
one of dozens that allowed NewYorkers to work in a structured
way to produce plans for what we'd like to see on the site.
This is the "community input" part of the rebuilding
Obviously opinions and desires varied greatly. A New York
native of 70-plus wanted it all put back as it had been, but
with the towers now twisted in a spiral shape -- and she had
brought little models made of clear plastic cosmetics boxes.
A preppy office manager in his 40s, a fan of Paolo Soleri,
wanted to build a complete arcology with four high-rise towers
at the corners. One young woman told her working group several
times that she had been at Ground Zero, insisting that anything
other than making the entire site a memorial was unacceptable,
profane and deeply, deeply offensive. She left halfway through
the session; her group was relieved.
But for all that, my neighborhood seems to contain a great
many wannabe urbandesigners and architects. And a remarkable
consensus emerged in four hours. First, the locations of the
tower bases were sacred, and should be included in a memorial.
Second, there should be open space, probably as part of a
memorial. Third, many people wanted a sense of "twin-ness"
-- two of something, to allude to the Towers. Fourth, there
should be mixed uses, not solely office space. And fifth,
restoring street paths and carefully designing the entrances
and borders of the site would tie the results into downtown
Meanwhile, The New York Times points out that the blueprint
for site redesign seems to be largely complete, community
sessions or not. Private talks among state government, the
Port Authority, local government and leaseholder Larry Silverstein
(in about that order) have produced important decisions. Interestingly,
the plan likely to be presented to the public largely matches
the desires of my urban-planner-wannabe neighbors.
The site will have irregular quadrants, defined by remapped
north-south (Greenwich) and east-west (Fulton) Streets. The
lower left quadrant, 9 acres that conveniently contain both
tower bases, will be a memorial, design T.B.D. The other three
quadrants, totaling 7 acres, will be built; certainly office
towers, perhaps residential and/or cultural uses. West Street
will be buried, connecting the World Financial Center and
the waterfront to the rest of downtown -- and to the memorial
Underneath all of this will be a transit mall tying together
a dozen subway lines and the PATH train, linking the World
Financial Center to the center of downtown. It will tie into
a new ferry terminal (one of several downtown), and perhaps
even connect to a shell for a future commuter rail station.
Most importantly, this transit mall will BE a mall -- it will
contain tens of thousands of square feet of commercial space
to replace the money-spinning mall below the WTC.
Yet, as one headline noted, it will be "Years of Work
Underground Before Steel Reaches Skyward" above Ground
On Easter Sunday, I attended services at St. Luke's Episcopal
Church in the West Village -- my first church service in 18
years. The sermon centered on the story of Mary and Martha
attending Jesus' tomb, as described in the gospel of Matthew.
The minister pointed out that the angel tells the women to
look into the tomb, into the void, perhaps to see for themselves
that the body of Jesus is no longer there, and then to go
and spread the word of the resurrection. His talk dealt with
the notion that we are all changed by peering into the void
and by resurrection, that the effects of the one cannot be
separated from the other.
Today, seeing the void has become an observance for people
from all over the world. Most New Yorkers I know no longer
visit; we've done our pilgrimages. Yet the crowds visiting
New York and lining up for the viewing platform are as long
as ever. They take away little news of resurrection.
But just this week, a construction fence went up one block
north of Ground Zero. It surrounds a redefined block that
will hold a replacement for the collapsed 7 WTC. The building
will rise on a parallelogram plot created to allow the restoration
of Greenwich Street, the main north-south artery. By building
out to the lot line, making the new building taller, and reducing
the total square footage, developer Larry Silverstein will
get a replacement tower and Con Ed will get replacement transformers
for those destroyed in the collapse.
The building is universally called "the new 7 WTC,"
though it's highly unclear that six other buildings will be
built or even that the World Trade
Center name will survive. In this curious usage, the city
has unconsciously chosen its first symbol of a resurrection
that will soon take shape in steel and concrete.
In New York, people come and go. The 2,830 victims of 9/11
will never be resurrected (at least in ways understandable
by those of us who don't believe in life after death). But
more and more often, here and elsewhere, we see buildings
brought back from the dead -- refreshed, rethought, reborn.
A resurrection of 7 WTC will not bring back those dead, nor
recreate the Twin Towers. (If I recall correctly, Jesus' resurrection
did not extend to Justas and Dismas, the thieves with whom
he was crucified.) And yet, many of us pause at construction
sites, peer through the holes in the fence, look into the
excavation, mark the progress of concrete for foundations,
the soaring steel girders for structure, and then skin panels
and windows to clothe the frame. When we tilt our heads back
to watch tiny figures at the top mount an American flag on
the highest girder -- a construction worker tradition-- we
know that a new building has been born. The construction of
the new building will be closely watched. I hope it is visible
looking down Sixth Avenue, as the towers were. Its rise will
be important. And perhaps some of us will soon tell stories
P.S. A friend of a friend, Chris Barrett of Athabasca University,
Canada, has posted the complete series of letters on his weblog.
and it's kind of nice to see them all in one place. If you
want to visit,
they're at http://www.telusplanet.net/public/wonko/9-11/9-11.html
always, feel free to circulate this if you know people who