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Living history in New York:

Vigilance, context, remembrance and love come together in New York on 9/11
By Bonita Mersiades
Date: September 11 2012
Tags: travel, history,
Editor Rating:

Another one of the many things you notice when walking around New York are the ever present aircraft. Nearby are three major airports, each of them bigger than Sydney Airport – JFK, La Guardia and Liberty at Newark – as well as some smaller ones and a heliport on both the East River and Hudson River.

With their proximity to Manhattan, it’s not hard to imagine that people making their way to work on September 11th 2001 did not take a lot of notice at first of the two aircraft that ultimately flew into the former World Trade Centre buildings and killed 2,977 innocent men, women and children.

Just like the same day eleven years ago, September 11th 2012 is a beautiful Autumn (Fall) day, with brilliant sunshine, not a cloud in the sky and a perfect temperature of around 25 degrees. In that respect, nothing much has changed.

But in every other aspect of New York life, things will never be the same again because overlaying the entire city is a regular reminder of ‘9/11’ and the people whose lives were sacrificed. The reminder is in four ways.

First, there are the things you would expect; the outward signs of security presence and awareness. The New York Stock Exchange and City Hall are now off limits to visitors and surrounded by very visible security. Visiting iconic tourist sites such as the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Centre, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island require airport-style screening including of belts and, if the security officer deems it necessary, trouser legs. Other places require a minimum of a bag check. The subway regularly broadcasts messages reminding people to be alert to certain behaviour or to baggage left alone.

For all of that, however, none of this appears to interfere with the day-to-day living of New Yorkers.

The second reminder is 9/11’s place in an historical context. Because it’s a relatively recent event in our lifetime, we tend not to think of it as a seminal event in the broad sweep of New York, American or world history, but New Yorkers are very conscious of this.

Visit St Paul’s Chapel which faces the east side of the World Trade Centre site for a reminder that is both sombre and uplifting. Despite being so close to the site, the Chapel was not touched and served as a refuge for rescue and recovery workers for eight months afterwards. For many of the tireless fire fighters, police officers, construction workers and others, it was a home-away-from-home during this period. New Yorkers used the Chapel’s fence as a place to post messages of hope, prayer, offerings of help, memorials and flowers. (St Paul’s Chapel is also the oldest surviving Church building in Manhattan and also survived the Great Fire of 1776 during the American War of Independence).

The third is a much softer one which has probably helped bind the remarkably rich and diverse New York community more than any other in our lifetimes. It is unlikely that there is anyone who lived in New York prior to 2001 who isn’t touched in some way by 9/11. New York is vigilant about remembering those people who were lost, either as workers in the buildings or the group of emergency workers known as the first respondents, and appreciating those who continue to work in emergency response or security occupations today.

At Yankee Stadium for a baseball match, the crowd of 50,000 stood to a person for the national anthem and ‘God Bless America’, but were spine-tingling silent for a prayer and minute’s tribute to the lost men and women of 9/11 and “for the brave men and women who continue to keep us safe today”. Every speaker to the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions paid tribute to the same people, as well as the service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a determination never to forget.

Finally, there are those who survived. They exude a quiet dignity as well as an enthusiasm and appreciation for life that comes to those who survive a tragedy or significant illness. They honour those who perished; they count themselves as blessed; they live each day as it comes; and they absolutely cherish their city.

These four aspects – of vigilance, context, remembrance and love - come together at the World Trade Center site and the 9/11 Memorial. The 16 acre site not only includes a new One World Trade Center (1 WTC) building, which will be the third tallest building in the world on completion next year, but will also incorporate four other high rise buildings, a performing arts centre, a transport hub and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

The Museum is not yet open but the Memorial was dedicated last year on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It comprises two pools set in the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Waterfalls of approximately 10 metres cascade into the pools which then flow into a central void. The names of the victims are inscribed around the pools grouped by work place or other social grouping. It is both magnificent and solemn at the same time, reflected by the respectful demeanour of the many visitors to the site.

An important part of the Memorial is the ‘Survivor Tree’, a Callery pear tree planted on the original site in the 1970s. It was reduced to an 8 foot stump after 9/11 but was nursed back to health in another New York park, where it was uprooted by severe storms in March 2010 and again survived. The tree was returned to its rightful place in December 2010.

For New Yorkers, the Survivor Tree embodies the story of survival, resilience and dignity that represents their living history from September 11th 2001.

Lest we forget. 

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