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Thursday, February 9, 2023

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The city that doesn’t forget

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The abysses are still there. Fully aware. At the point where the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in quick succession 20 years ago, two huge square holes now gape forever. Ground Zero, sacred land for many Americans.

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Cascades of water rush down into two stone granite tubs. Visitors to the memorial feel the pull: they often lean dangerously far over the parapet on which the names of the 2983 victims who perished here in New York, in the Pentagon in Washington and in the hills near Shanksville in Pennsylvania are engraved.

Never forget! The phrase can be read all around the National September 11 Memorial and Museum: on sweaters, flags, badges, baseball caps in the souvenir shop. The builders around star architect Daniel Libeskind have also ensured that the world does not forget this day, its victims, heroes and perpetrators.

A memorial that is supposed to shake

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The memorial is a gigantic memorial that is supposed to shake. That works, especially in the museum, which is interwoven with the former foundations of the World Trade Center – the visitors seem touched when they silently ride the escalator back into the daylight.

Followed by the voices of the victims during the last phone calls with their loved ones, the picture of the exhibited, half-melted fire truck, the crew of which ran into the burning towers and was buried by them down to the last man. From the NYC T-shirts covered with original dust behind glass and again and again from the photos of this bright blue sky through which the fatal planes glide on the morning of September 11, 2001.

President Biden will visit New York on September 11th

The sky is similarly blue on Thursday, eight days before the commemoration of 20 years of 9/11, when President Joe Biden is also expected. Hardly anything on the southern tip of Manhattan is reminiscent of the night before, when torrential rains once again plunged parts of the metropolis into chaos.

20 years later – naturally this is a different city. You can already see that in the dozen new skyscrapers that are growing higher and thinner. Or the fact that in the evenings the food deliverers hunted back and forth through the streets of New York on their e-bikes and everyone on the subway was staring at their smartphones instead of the newspaper. The world has turned on, wars have started and ended again, the moment of collective pause did not last long.

The coronavirus has changed the city

The city has probably changed much more because of the corona virus, which has already killed more than twelve times as many people. You can’t compare, and yet.

Many office towers are empty, and people still prefer to work from home. Only those who show their vaccination certificate and wear a mask are allowed in the restaurants that have reopened.

New York, which became the symbol of the American catastrophe in the first few months of the pandemic, has grown cautious. However, it is much nicer to sit outside during these weeks than inside in the frozen dining room.

What the terror did not do, the virus does: The little St John’s Chapel on Church Street, right next to Ground Zero, where America’s first President George Washington prayed after his inauguration, and it was the oasis of calm for the many Helfer at the most important crime scene in the world at the time and then a place of pilgrimage for many seekers of consolation has closed until further notice.

Pastoral care is mostly offered virtually

Heavy iron chains lock the gates. For spiritual support, reference is made to the nearby Trinity Church, but these days it usually only opens on Sundays and otherwise offers virtual pastoral care.

On the other side of the street is one of these new high-rise buildings: the Hilton Memorial Hotel, whose once proud room prices have fallen significantly as a result of the pandemic. From many of the rooms in the 55-storey building, the guest has the perfect view to the west: in the evening the breathtaking skyline in the sunset, during the day a direct view of the former death pit of the memorial.

Times Square is boiling again

Impressive – or obscene, that is in the eye of the beholder. For many tourists, the hotel is an ideal starting point.

You have returned to town. Times Square is boiling again, new shows have been announced – even if it is nowhere near as full as it was before the pandemic. Tourists from Europe, for example, are no longer allowed to enter the country. For this they come from other parts of the country, and the memorial is often on the program.

Paula Breene goes along with the names of the victims on Thursday, lingers with those who have a white rose next to them – the sign of a birthday child. When asked about the anniversary, she bursts into tears. “That was the day my son later decided to go to war for his country.” He was in Iraq twice, a total of six years, “a terrible time for me”.

This day means something different for everyone, it was a turning point for everyone. Broene’s partner Tom Rich says they came from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a week before the anniversary to finally feel the feeling of oneness again during this polarized time. “We haven’t had that for a long time,” he says.

The country came together immediately after the attacks, but it didn’t last long. “Here,” says Breene, “we see what a diverse country we are. The names of the dead show that we are a melting pot of cultures. What has become of it? “

The Americans are at least in agreement when it comes to the veneration of their heroes: firefighters have been among the greatest in New York since 9/11 at the latest. Not far from the memorial, the telecommunications provider AT&T is using one of them to advertise its “secure” network.

From Bath County, Kentucky, the group pauses at the part of the memorial where the firefighters are honored. You are on your way to Connecticut to buy a fire truck. “We wanted to take a break here to show our colleagues respect,” says Chris Paul, the other four nod silently. They don’t feel like talking either.

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