Fifteen years later, how do we “get to 9/11?”

A new report released by the New York City Fire Department finds that even as 9/11 responders’ self-reported physical health has declined over the years, they have consistently reported their mental health-related quality of life as better than that of average Americans.
A new report released by the New York City Fire Department finds that even as 9/11 responders’ self-reported physical health has declined over the years, they have consistently reported their mental health-related quality of life as better than that of average Americans.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
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In the first minute of Hulu series Difficult People, an impatient New Yorker is stopped on the street by tourists in need of directions. An older woman in the group brandishes her camera and asks, ”Hello, can you please tell us how can we get to nine-eleven?”

What kind of nitwit confuses a date with a place? More than just a fictional one. Architectural critic Philip Nobel has recounted being asked for directions to 9/11, and I too first heard the question around eight years ago. Ever since what was once “Ground Zero” became a tourist attraction—the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is ranked third on TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in New York City, right after Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the area has been packed with disoriented tourists in search of ”9/11.”

It almost makes you laugh. As might the release of a previously unheard standup routine by George Carlin, the only bit the comedian ever shelved for taste. Recorded on September 10, 2001, the bit is called “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.” It’s taken 15 years—and the often unsuccessful experimentation of other comics with 9/11 jokes—for audiences to maybe possibly be ready for punch lines about planes again.

A rocky recovery

Does this mean that it’s no longer “too soon”?  That we have sufficient distance from or clarity about the events of September 11?  Judging by the controversy that still flames up around pretty much anything related to 9/11, the shortest answer is no.

Take just a few events of the past year. July saw the release of 28 pages of previously classified congressional inquiry into, among other things, Saudi Arabia’s connections to al-Qaeda. In April, Donald Trump paid his first visit to the September 11 memorial to bolster his defense of “New York values,” prompting many to question why it was his first visit. That same month, the September 11 museum made headlines when one of its guards stopped a group of students on a field trip from singing the National Anthem on the concourse. Just this week, Congress approved a bill permitting families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia (Obama is expected to veto it), a Florida Walmart embarrassed itself with a “tribute” to 9/11 made from Coca Cola products, and a mattress store put itself out of business with an appalling 9/11-themed ad.

The commercialization of the attacks continues to be an issue. Just in time for the 15th anniversary, the new Westfield World Trade Center shopping mall opened inside the WTC transportation hub. John Legend may have played a ”smooth medley“ at the grand opening in August, but critics call the mall an “absurdity” that is ”uninformed by its sacred land.” The concerns echo those raised about the September 11 museum gift store, and the idea (raised soon after the attacks by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani and president George W. Bush) that Americans support their country best by shopping. Just as Park51, the controversial Islamic community center proposed two blocks from the World Trade Center site, was dubbed “the Ground Zero Mosque,” at least one new outlet has called Westfield the ”Ground Zero Mall.”

But maybe commerce is itself a return to normalcy, and by proxy a show of resilience. After all, the original World Trade Center also included a shopping center in its subterranean concourse. For those of us who lived in the neighborhood, the WTC was our mall.  Below the humming center of global finance, we shopped at Banana Republic, J. Crew, the Gap, and Victoria’s Secret.  We bought sandwiches and salads at Au Bon Pain, magazines from the newspaper stand, and books at Borders. After 9/11, television footage showed the mall’s dark, ruined concourse—frozen escalators, racks of merchandise covered in toxic white dust, like some ravaged undersea landscape—but just days before we had walked those corridors with all the carelessness of suburban teenagers.

Where we go now

The domestic and global repercussions of 9/11 seem endless and ever-deepening; the attacks sent ripples, large and small, throughout private and public life, local and global.  Even the term “9/11″—by which I mean its implications, its fallout, its political foreshadowing and aftershocks—has expanded beyond anything we could have imagined in 2001. For those who lost loved ones that day, it’s hard to fathom anything that could ever compensate for that raw, terrifying, and senseless devastation. Our impulse to move on, recover, rebuild, and grow should be balanced against the impulse to linger, learn, process, and mourn.

Today, the World Trade Center is a big, noisy, chaotic construction site full of macho buildings, confused tourists and, yes, stores.  The museum is still figuring out what it should be. The memorial, for all its impact, still lacks the elegant simplicity of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, or the Cenotaph in London. Like everything else in the area, our physical tributes to September 11 reflect both the strengths and the shortcomings of our recovery.

But there is one standout element at the new WTC site: Santiago Calatrava’s transportation hub, ”The Oculus.” Avian, biomorphic, ribbed, and blindingly white, it gleams—a dome flanked by outspread wings, like some creature that has just dropped down from another planet. Yes, it was over budget. Yes, it took a lot longer than expected. Yes, not everyone likes it. But The Oculus offers a note of optimism, idealism, and playful otherness that nothing else in the 16-acre area does. Energetic and spiritual, its curves are a contrast to the aggressive verticality of the surrounding skyscrapers. Its snowy bones are starkly opaque against the slick reflective surfaces of the buildings nearby. Its design makes no obvious reference to the twin towers, and that comes as a relief. There is currently a giant American flag strung up inside, but the outside shell of The Oculus is unmarked by logos or symbols of patriotism. Its flowing form elaborates its function: moving people to and from New York. Read symbolically, Calatrava’s creation is not mired in the traumatic story of 9/11, nor does it rehash the architectural cliches of money and power.

It’s encouraging that The Oculus will be the portal through which many people “get to 9/11.”  Not because they will shop there, but because a built environment like that creates a tone, just as glorious Grand Central does. Calatrava’s hub brings an international note of creativity, aesthetic challenge, and wit to a site that’s otherwise split between business-as-usual capitalism and unbearable sorrow.  The shops inside?  So it goes. It’s prime Manhattan real estate. But Calatrava’s building transcends what it contains.