When the twin towers crashed to ground New Yorker’s ran frantically away, and then gathered in Union Square with blank faces. A vigil was maintained, flowers and pictures of the missing.
The smell from the fire that burned a month ebbed through the city and many wore masks. ‘A lady who survived Auschwitz said she knew that smell’, says historian Jack Stanley, himself bred and raised in the city.
‘Everything changed that day. The whole system of how the city works changed. And we discovered our humanity. Before that we were just going about our business.’
A dozen years on and the site is still a construction zone. Five new high rise buildings are being built, One World Trade Centre is almost complete and at over 100 stories it is the highest in New York.
The memorial on the exact site of the twin towers is sombre. The exact footprint of each tower is now a deep square well with a waterfall down each side. The pond at the bottom has a square black hole in the centre into which the water crashes down, depths unseen. Along the top is a wide stone surround carved with the names of the victims from that tower.
These two square memorials are surrounded by grassed public areas, and a building with salvaged elements and bent beams is under construction. The route into the memorial is temporary and winds around construction hoardings. A donation is sought at the entrance, and security is tight with scanners and a lot of visible uniforms.
“There are five committees overseeing this, who knows when it will be done”, said Stanley.
Aged in his late fifties, Stanley hosts tours of New York and lectures at Universities. The day of 911 he was leading a group from New Zealand, they had been up the Towers just two days earlier. In the 1970’s he worked in one of the Towers.
Now in the aftermath of the attacks has Wall Street blocked off, with heavy security and checkpoints on streets. The Staten Island Ferry, of which there are always at least two running a shuttle, each have an armed escort boat.
Opposite the Stock Exchange sits the Federal Reserve building which contains the greatest gold reserve in the world, deep under in massive vaults. There is no additional security here because it cannot be breached. ‘They have the ultimate security feature’, says Stanley. ‘If anything untoward is detected, they flood the vaults. The Gold doesn’t care’.
The city recovers well from adversity. When CX first visited in 1987 the place was virtually bankrupt, streetlights on bridges turned off to save money, trash uncollected. Times Square was full of hookers and lookers, dealers and hoardings. Strip shows and porno theatres stood where Disney and new hotels now glow under the worlds biggest video screens, an island of light in the night that can be seen from space.
Mayor Ed Koch led the city out of insolvency, and then a zero tolerance regime drove the dealers and pimps out of Times Square so Disney could move in. Over the 1990’s crime and pornography were reduced to the point where New York is today considered safe and friendly.
As Jack Stanley tells it, New York has been many things in its time. Perhaps these are the best of times, in recent history we’ve seen the absolute worst.