Soundings

Nicole Gelinas
Remembering
New York’s 9/11 memorial opens at last.
Autumn 2011

The 9/11 memorial in New York City, open since September 12 this year, is impressive. It consists of two square pools that occupy the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Water cascades down the inner walls for several stories to the void below. Victims’ names are engraved into angled bronze slabs that define the pools. Trees and benches form the backdrop.

You need a (free) pass for entry, and all available passes have been given out until November. I got mine a few weeks in advance and showed up early on September 14, expecting a line. But despite an entrance gauntlet of checkpoints, metal detectors, and bag searches, the process moved swiftly, and security guards and police went out of their way to help.

Before 9/11, I had walked across the World Trade Center’s plaza hundreds of times to my office at 195 Broadway. Stepping onto the site for the first time in ten years was disorienting. As I strolled around the waist-high panels and observed the engraved names of the victims, I noted how, thanks to deep etching and generous spacing, each stood on its own—including those familiar to me: Olabisi Layeni Yee, a colleague of my husband’s, who gave me the key to the restroom of my husband’s office on the 79th floor of One World Trade (a key I still have on my keychain); Andrea Haberman, a young midwestern woman who had never been to New York City until she arrived for a business trip late on 9/10 and whose parents I have come to know since; Amy Toyen, a young woman who worked in another city for my employer and who, like Andrea, had flown in just hours before the attack; David Rivers, whom I met two years before he would die at his company’s conference at Windows on the World; and David Bernard, who lived in the town where I grew up and who also had come to New York for a meeting. The victims’ families can take some comfort from the fact that even when they’re far away, someone will be looking at their loved ones’ names.

I saw, too, the names that we’ve all seen in the press in the years since 9/11, from Todd Beamer to Charles Burlingame. The words “and her unborn child” followed the names of at least seven women, including Monica Rodriguez Smith, the one woman who died in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. These, too, you don’t have to look for—the words leap out.

Victims’ names are grouped into “adjacencies.” First responders and people who worked together in the towers are near one another, as are those who died on the four hijacked planes and at the Pentagon. Andrea is next to Damian Meehan, a colleague whom she didn’t know before 9/11. Since Andrea’s death, her parents, by getting to know Damian’s family, have come to understand that the people with whom she spent her last moments would not have left her alone. Olabisi, too, is near her colleagues.

Because the names are engraved so deep, the memorial is tactile. Some visitors carefully traced individual names with their fingers. One man trailed his hand slowly across the panels as he walked around looking into the waterfalls. People have left mementos, from photos to flowers to an expensive-looking jewel. The memorial isn’t depressing. If I still worked downtown, I could imagine taking regular walks there, sitting on the benches under the trees to read or eat lunch.

For now, though, security prevents downtown workers or residents from forging a relationship with these transformed acres of Manhattan. Checkpoints, metal detectors, and X-ray machines seem jarring in what must become a public space again, part of New York again.

Nicole Gelinas is a City Journal contributing editor and the Searle Freedom Trust Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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