The first time I saw New York’s World Trade Center, the towers were already in flames. I was nine years old and watching live TV from home in Hong Kong on Sept. 11, 2001. My parents and I had just come back from roller skating in the park. “The explosions rocked even the other side of the earth, that’s why I fell onto the ground so many times just now and scraped my knees,” I remember saying aloud, while my parents’ eyes fixated on the TV screen.
I don’t remember how post-9/11 events played out. They must have remained in the headlines for several weeks, until terrorism became ingrained in my mind as another aspect of modern life. Then president Bush announced the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the news got buried in the back pages of the Chinese daily we read.
The only image of the World Trade Center that remained, is the one where dark smoke was flowing out of the twin towers, one of them bursting in a cloud of fire.
When I moved to New York over a year ago, the World Trade Center meant today’s One World Trade Center, the single reflective tower over Lower Manhattan.
September 11 is still very much a part of everyday life for many New Yorkers, 15 years later. Professors talk about it during journalism class, the news mentions it, or someone begins a sentence with, “when 9/11 happened, I was…” Longtime city residents will recount in great detail how they found themselves stuck in the subway not knowing what happened, or at home frantically trying to call a loved one, or thinking the stranger telling them what happened must be crazy. When I moved into apartment number 911, I was told it’s an ominous number.
The event has become part of the collective psyche of New Yorkers and Americans, marking a turning point in history that divides the pre-9/11 from the post-9/11 era. Yet for many twentysomethings like myself, all we know about the towers is that they were a critical part of history. We have never seen them standing, never known them as living architectural icons of New York.
All we will have are these grainy film photographs of the World Trade Center, defining the Manhattan skyline from 1966 to 2001.