A Perfectly Clear Day 2021

I have on many years posted “A Perfectly Clear Day” on September 11. This 20th anniversary may be the last.

In November of 2001, I was back in New York and went to an exhibition of 9-11 photography. I purchased this print of a photo by Anthony Domino (with proceeds going to victims’ and first-responders’ funds).

It is a beautiful picture of a horrific ruin. I had it framed. But I can’t look at it often. It sits safely in a closet.

As for today, I don’t know that I could express the mixed feelings any better than I did on A Perfectly Clear Day 2018, so I invite you to read that. The thing that is different now is the pandemic. A far larger, far more catastrophic event. And this time I have not been able to go back to New York. I did not go at all in 2020, and whether or not I will be able to go in 2021 remains a question. The fear, anger, and trauma I have in 2020/2021 are no longer turned outward towards an external threat, but rather inward at people in our own country. But that is a story for another, less perfectly clear day.

So much has happened and changed in 20 years. It is time to put this tradition to rest.

A Perfectly Clear Day 2018

Once again, it’s a perfectly clear day this year. Maybe a little haze, but otherwise a blue sky in San Francisco. But the sounds of the city are a bit sharper today, the foot traffic, the construction equipment, the screeching of the commuter rail and light rails pulling into their stations. And there is a bit of wistfulness, a bit of nostalgia in the most classical sense of the word.

A few things have brought 9-11 back to the fore the anniversary. First, there was the opening of the Cortland Street subway station which serves the 1 IRT line and which was pretty much destroyed in the attack. It’s the last major piece of the puzzle in the rebuilding of the neighborhood, which is a thriving and vital space that includes the transit center, the 9/11 Memorial, and of course 1WTC which has taken its proper place in the skyline.

[Photo by CatSynth]

[Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 2.0 ), via Wikimedia Commons]

Let’s take a moment to emphasize that the building is called 1WTC! It never was, and never will be, the so-called “Freedom Tower”, a name that was obnoxious, jingoistic, and rather gauche. Same thing for the attempts to call the date “Patriot Day”. I always detested that.

The other time bringing today into focus wasn’t 17 years ago, but last year. I was back in New York by coincidence, and the Towers of Light memorial loomed over us in both Manhattan and Brooklyn as we went about simply enjoying being in New York. I posted this picture at the time.

If there is a dominant feeling at the moment, it is more one of homesickness for my home city, the one that will always be The City. And that trip one year ago truly emphasized all its aspect. A wedding on Governors Island with both lower Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfront surrounding us. I rode a record number of subway lines (yes, I’m a total transit nerd). We wandered in Borough Park as well as my usual haunts in Downtown Brooklyn, Chelsea, the West Village, and the Bronx.

17 years ago, the dominant feelings were grief, anger, and (I’m not afraid to admit it) a desire for revenge. That revenge never came – it was twisted by the rest of the country into a nationalistic (and often tacky) morass that turned into multiple wars that left us and the world poorer. The rest of the country rattles its swords, waves its flags, and the great cities suffer. I do hope one day the radical fundamentalism and radical nationalism that grip so many places in the world, including our own country in this moment, will dissipate. And I hope to return home again.

9/11 Tribute in Light

9/11 Tribute in Light

Last night in downtown Brooklyn, we observed the 9/11 Tribute in Light turning on across the river.  One beam was on first, and then later – following the pattern of the towers attack and collapse.

It is a somber reminder.  And it is the second time I have been in New York on 9/11 to witness it.

You can read more about the 9/11 Tribute in Light here.

A Perfectly Clear Day

[By David Jones [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Earlier this year, 1WTC (on the left of the photo above) officially became the tallest building in New York City. It was officially topped off in August at 104 stories. Even last year, the under-construction building dominated the lower Manhattan skyline, with both its reflective windows and bright construction lighting.

I also had the opportunity to visit the new 9-11 memorial that opened last year.

The healing of the city includes modern design and massive scale, and attention to the human level with open spaces and green elements. I am looking forward to seeing how things have progressed when I visit again later this year.

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York

My trip to New York included a visit to the to 9/11 Memorial. As stated on the website, the memorial is “A national tribute of remembrance and honor to the men, women and children killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.” At its most essential level, it is a space rooted in tragedy and loss and remembrance. But it also is a positive space, in harmony with the modern urban landscape, the changes happening as the area is rebuilt, and a prototype for ways to think about public urban spaces for the future.

The memorial is located on the World Trade Center complex, and occupies a large portion of the original site. It is anchored by two large square waterfalls and reflecting pools, each approximately the size and location of the footprints of the original twin towers.

In this photo, one can see how the pools are situated with respect to the other architectural features of the landscape. Behind this pool on the footprint of the original south tower are (from left to right), the existing buildings from the World Financial Center in Battery Park City, the new One World Trade Center building still under construction, and the September 11 Museum (also still under construction).

At the center of each reflecting pool is a dark square hole whose bottom cannot be seen from the sides and into which water from the pool falls.

The trees visible in the above photo are swamp oaks, and form an important part of the memorial. Although orange and rather spare in late November, they form a green canopy that will shade much of the space during the spring and summer and add a sense of life to the space. They are also an integral part of the green design, with the shade helping to reduce stress and energy on the underground parts of the complex (including the major transit hub at the site). Conversely, the paved walkways are designed in such a way as to support the trees and not put undue stress on them or their roots (visit the website for more detail on how that works).

The sides of pools are lined with bronze onto which are inscribed the names of all the people who died in the attacks on September 11, 2001, as well as the six people who died in an earlier attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

It is somewhat reminiscent of the names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, and indeed I did see some people making rubbings of particular names.

The architecture of the pools, with the concentric squares and footprints, grounds the memorial in the architecture of the original site. The museum facade also takes on elements from the long lines of glass and steel structure of the original towers. Even the cascading water into the pools seems to have been designed to reflect the original architecture. The pattern of the water as it cascades over the edge strongly reminds me of the two-story lobbies of the original towers.

Visits to the memorial is still very controlled, and one has to book passes for a particular date and time well in advance. But we were able to get a good time during what is presumably a busy week. I am glad I had a chance to visit at this time, with the overall site still in progress. I would like to see it again in the future as the buildings and the museum move forward.

A Perfectly Clear Day

This photo was taken in November, 2001 in the West 4th Street station. Clearly, at that particular time the E train was not running to the “World Trade Center at all times.”

Earlier in the day, I had been at a photography exhibit and benefit for families of September 11 victims. I did purchase a print, a stark image of the ruins of the distinctive steel structure with the Woolworth Building in perfect alignment behind it. I took the print out of storage today – it is quite beautiful in its way, but not something one can hang on the wall. It has fallen out of place in its frame and now appears tilted. Things like that can happen in ten years.

A couple of days ago, I came upon an interactive feature at the New York Times describing the World Trade Center plaza as it had been. The narration by David Dunlap ended with the phrase “the plaza sometimes seemed every bit as barren as it appears in this re-creation…and yet, I miss it so very much.” The statement, attaching emotion to the stark ultra-modern space truly resonated with me.

Ten years ago, I was about as far away from New York as I had ever been – not necessarily in geographical distance, but emotional and personal distance. My life was spiraling downwards precipitously, and would in many ways get worse in the months to come. That morning was a huge jolt in the middle of it. The violence destruction in New York left me with a huge sense of guilt, of not being there, and of being so disconnected from myself and what I wanted in life. The trip to New York in late November 2001 was necessary and important – it was part of long circuitous journey to find my way back. It is still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the “work in progress” at the site continues:

I was happy to read that the new building has now has its correct name, simply “1 World Trade Center” and not that obnoxious jingoistic name it was originally given. I was little bit disturbed to read this story about the construction process, however.

The new plaza does not have the starkness or detached modernist ideals of the original, but we live in a different time, and it serves a different purpose, of honoring the victims and their families and of reconnecting the site to the surrounding community.

We will see how it unfolds in the coming years.

A perfectly clear day…

Today was a warm, perfectly clear day, notably absent of the fog, cold and wind of the past week…

It seems like September 11 is always a bright, clear day, both here in northern California as well as back in New York. It was certainly a clear day five years ago as well…

There are certainly a lot being written online on this fifth anniverary of 9-11 – some of it genuine (particularly from New Yorkers, though not limited to them), a lot of it propaganda, or phony sentimentality or “patriotism.” I would stay clear of the whole thing if I didn't think I had something unique to contibute…

I begin with quote from this view from the WTC plaza that I read this afternoon:

I arrived in Lower Manhattan at about 8:38. Walking up Dey Street I decided to stop for coffee and walked across Church Street onto the Plaza of the World Trade Center. I called my father on my cell phone and we were talking which kept me from entering the building. I was on a bench right in front of the WTC 1 and turned slowly for no real reason and saw the entire plane hit the tower. I saw the wing extended from the building on the south side and a large explosion. Then smoke. Then everything was frozen, very still, with a perfect New York blue sky framing the backdrop of explosions. I ran when the glass and metal begin to fall from the sky hitting all around me…At that point I began running north. I got to East 4th Street completely dazed. On Houston St. I saw the WTC 1's needle crumble to the ground and heard on blasting radios that both of the towers had fallen. From there I made my way to the Williamsburg Bridge and made my way back home. Tens of thousands of people were walking across the bridge, a surreal exodus no one was quite prepared to cope with…
I never thought I would work in the World Trade Center. But I enjoyed my work there. Like all artists, I needed the money, but I also made many friends and learned a good deal about other parts of life, other skills that I never knew I possessed.
The views of the harbor were magnificent and inspirational. I remember ending long days by looking out the windows and feeling so very refreshed and glad to be in such a beautiful city like New York.
But that view is gone and so much has changed. Though I have felt such anger and frustration, more that ever in my life, I know I will survive. I made it out alive for a reason.

At the same time, I was 3,000 miles away in the totally boring and pathetic Bay Area town of Fremont, arising from bed an hour or so later to face an ordinary day at work 40 miles away along with daily challenges of my unravelling relationship. That was all, at least temporarily, swept away by what I saw and heard on CNN (only after receiving an email exhorting everyone to turn on the news). I didn't get into work until sometime in the afternoon, and then spent much of the day online looking at photos; I continued to wade through photos well into the night after returning home.

Things like this were not supposed to happen, not to New York, not to its iconic and familiar skyscrapers, not to the indistructable momunments of the modern world. Whether it was during my happy years in Berkeley or the miserable year in Fremont that was only beginning, I'd always be able to go back to New York – and suddenly that was no longer something I could count on, everything was mortal, and I was “guilty” somehow for not being there…

I did make it back to New York in Novemember, 2001, and of course had to see ground zero for myself. This is a photo I took looking into the site, from the north (Varick Street, I think):

In the longer view, the thought I have kept coming back to was the idea that something so beautiful (the World Trade Center complex, the New York City skyline, the emblems of 20th Century modernism) were destroyed by something so ugly (Islamic fundamentalism, the tribal and primitive past). Having not lost anyone personally on 9-11, I am able to think about things like this, and how what I want in return is the restoration of modern ideals. I will leave the political and cultural aspects aside for another post (I'm sure I'll get back to it again), and focus for this anniversary on the aesthetic and architectural.

The Skyscraper Museum in New York, which is hosting a commemoration of what it labels the “original World Trade Center,” lends its support the idea that the age of the vertical metropolis is far from over. In that spirit, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) unveiled the latest design for the new World Trade Center complex, including the new major buildings and the memorial:

Having followed the redevelopment story over the past few years, I am used to the new design, and I am mindful of the controversies around the original Twin Towers in the late 1960s as being too “boring” and somehow an affront to New York's skyline, and in the long run nothing could have been further from the truth. The building designs have attracted a certain amount of controversy, but nearly as much as the design for the memorial. Any design certainly has it's imperfections, but as it stands it is perfectly in harmony with the modernism of both the original and new World Trade Center complexes, and it includes the most important generally-agreed-upon elements such as preserving the footprints of the original towers, and even incorporates a piece of the original retaining wall (illustrated in the picture to the right). Certainly, the criticms have their place, notably the concern by 9-11 families for the victims' names. But that's where their “rights” end, at least as far as the restoration is concerned. I mean no disrespect to the people who lost loved ones, but if we followed the advice of some outspoken victims' relatives and the opinions of many unaffected people in Middle America, such as the author of this article (he can't even get his dueling memorial-advocacy websites straight!), lower Manhattan would be overrun with kitch, over-sentimentality and insipid tributes to phoney patrotism. That may be fine for Oklahoma City, but not for New York! It's bad enough that we have to live with middle America's patron saints of mediocrity as our leaders along with their policies that make our great cities targets for more terrorism, let alone have to deal with their ideas of what makes a good memorial…But, I did say I'll save the politics for later. So for now, I leave with with another quote from that original site I references that discusses what not only it's author (Sami Plotkin) but indeed many New Yorkers might have wanted:

None of us wanted to see [the twisted structure of the 500 foot wall] go. We have been comforted over the past two weeks by its presence. We have marvelled at its strange beauty, as it rose from the ruins, an intricate lacy network of sheer strength; a stoic remnant that survived the blast and struck us with its splendor in the golden light of sunset, as bright rays glanced off the building behind, glinting between its metal beams and through the great accidental window which was rent through at just the right height. It was an image of alarming beauty, and the serendipity of its perfect composition was significant to us. In the most simple and sentimental way, the evening light shining through that accidental window was for us a ray of hope. Although we all understood that for now it must come down, whispered questions eddied through the crowd as we wondered, would the pieces be saved? Does the Mayor know that we have already begun to see this as our monument? For we have. That mangled and beautiful skelet! on was a monument that spoke more poignantly of New York's pain and resilience than any artwork we could have devised.