The view out my apartment window, looking down over Ground Zero, in November 2006.

Thirteen years after 9/11, the World Trade Center
is undergoing a massive transformation.
What has life been like above the site?

Given the option, I would not have chosen to live above The Hole.

For a long time, that is what I called the land below my window. Assigning no name would have been wise, but we humans stack together phonemes, uncontrollably, our way to bluff jurisdiction over space and time. We require names, so I conjured the most literal — it was a deep, empty, quiet hole.

By the time I had moved into an apartment above The Hole, in the middle of the last decade, usage of the previous term, “Ground Zero,” was thankfully fading. It was a haphazard phrase anyway, a clash of words too evocative of territory (ground) and nothingness (zero). It lingered too long, uninvited, like an expression coined by Sartre, or maybe Rumsfeld.

New Yorkers, who wisely seemed to avoid calling it anything, also seemed to avoid the entire neighborhood. On the rare occasion that I could convince a friend to visit — to dine, or to drink, or to watch the season premiere of LOST, or to do whatever we did in that hazy decade — they would inevitably peer out the window, down onto the fenced space, softly breathing the same words:

“That’s sad.”

It was sad. But tragedy often pairs with farce, and here it was, 35 floors in the sky: a wide-angle view of the world’s most kinetic city, but directly below, an inert plat of earth.

For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.

It was like that for a long time.

But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.

We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.

This is what it means to never forget.


World Trade

“A hundred times have I thought New York
is a catastrophe, and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.”

― Le Corbusier

Now, friends request to visit, and no one says, “That’s sad.”

As most New Yorkers will attest, the skyline changed quickly. One World Trade Center, which is now the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, was suddenly just there. And that name was back: World Trade Center — all three of those words, somehow exactly right, even if the place they describe could not be more different.

The view out my window in August 2014.

Of all lexical dissonance, that is certainly the most perplexing: The landscape has completely transformed, new buildings scraping the sky, yet the names are the same. Three World Trade Center, for instance, was originally a 22-story hotel wedged into the southwest corner of the plaza, but soon it will be a shiny 80-floor skyscraper located on the east side. These structures bear no architectural or functional similarity, yet they share the same Wikipedia entry.

It is the same place, in name only.

A comparison of the World Trade Center grid, before and after 9/11.

This is what it means to never forget.


Fantasy Land

“New York will be a great place, if they ever finish it.”
— O. Henry

No one wanted to live downtown after the tragedy. (The New York Times recently reported that the vacancy rate was over 30 percent.) And for 13 years, commercial real estate was bleak, with tall black glass — high-end retail’s version of boarded windows — hiding vacant spaces all around my neighborhood.

The real estate across the street from me.

Next year, the opaque black windows will be removed, and this space will become an opulent clothing showcase, when a 90,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue moves in.

It will not be lonely.

Nearby, a collision of diphthongs and fricatives will blare, as every fancy-sounding global brand claims some territory: Hérmes, Ferragamo, Burberry, Zegna, DVF, Varvatos, MAC, Canali, Calypso, Hugo Boss, Tiffany, Armani, Umami, Zara, Godiva, Épicerie Boulud, Theory, Mont Blanc, Apple, Aveda, Swarovski, Condé Nast….

Before any of the occupants were even announced, this photorealistic wallpaper was wrapped around the construction site, a mural of aspiration pasted over the once-bleak landscape:

LUXURY

Like a map placed over its territory, this wallpaper is the purest projection of how the city imagines itself. In its new skin, all logos advertise the same product:

LUXURY.

The fonts may change, but the fantasy stays the same.

One World Trade, aka “The Freedom Tower,” rises 1,776 feet (408 of which is the spire), which stacks up to 104 stories.

Of all the lavish refinements, it was that diacritic monster, Condé Nast, which set the fantasy wheels in motion when it announced it had staked out an impressive 24 floors in One World Trade. A cacophony of brand names has been stampeding downtown ever since. To witness old media (magazines, no less!) brandish such influence in our digital age is exceptionally rare. But power always somehow finds gaps to occupy, and The Hole was one big gap.

Later this year, when Condé Nast snuggles in directly kitty-corner to the new Goldman Sachs headquarters, New York City will return to its pre-9/11 form. Or not quite — it’s more like the city will return to how it always imagined itself: the cozy synthesis of finance, media, and fashion (also known as capital, influence, and image).

The new World Trade Center is the embodiment of New York City as the fantasy it has always projected, a constantly refurbished dream of America. In this place, images can change, but names are always waiting to be remembered.

This is what it means to never forget.


Dream City

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

So how do I feel about the transformation of my neighborhood? Conflicted — that’s the word we over-use now.

Watching the site mutate so dramatically has been undeniably fascinating, like a front-row seat in the movie called History. (I deeply regret not creating a time-lapse photo of the view.) And who could be so craven as to deny themselves the pleasure of new restaurant options?

More construction signage around the neighborhood. “Le District” will be like Eataly but with French groceries supplanting Italian.

And yet, as each chic restaurateur spreads their fiefdom downtown, as each new hipster outfitter announces an outpost, as each new lustrous building vaults from the earth — a new city appears in the reflection, a place not meant for inhabiting as much as enduring.

But let’s not romanticize. It’s not like my neighborhood, Battery Park City, was ever a beacon of cultural life. If you devised a Least Cool Manhattan Neighborhood poll, Battery Park City, along with its neighbor, Financial District, would be lead contenders. (The name alone evokes an outer-borough of Jersey, like a mythical province where the coppertops of Duracells are manufactured.) To say that my neighborhood suffers from that most common urban ailment, gentrification, would be negligent. No amount of rehistoricizing could accurately compare it to Bed-Stuy or Bowery, because Battery Park City never protected a working-class enclave, never housed your favorite dive bar, never made anyone’s list of Top 100 Creative Neighborhoods.

This neighborhood was always, from its founding, a fantasy. Fifty years ago, it literally did not exist. When the original Twin Towers were built, rubble from the site was used to push back the Hudson River, creating a new neighborhood out of thin air. I now live on the soil from the original Hole.

Here, the current grid of lower Manhattan, compared to the city of the mid-’60s:

Battery Park City was appended to lower Manhattan in the early ’70s, using the earth from the original Twin Towers site.

The rectangular appendage on the western side of Manhattan was added through land reclamation, a euphemistic process that rebuffs nature and creates new urban space. Nostalgia is impossible here, because the place has no history. It was invented.

This is what it means to never forget.


The Looking Glass

“To be a tourist is to escape accountability.”
Don DeLillo, The Names

If nostalgia is impossible, a different form of wistfulness thrives in lower Manhattan. Now, we residents fondly remember an earlier era, before the tourists.

Liber-Tees, Memorial Tees, and many other gift shops compete for tourist attention.

When you live around WTC, tourism becomes a guiding principle and constant obstacle. Sidewalks congest in unexpected places, crowds gawking at construction sites and memorials, disrupting your commute. Quick, there’s an opening — seeing a path through the congestion, you plunge through the congealing mass, toward the empty space — whoa, wait! You halt, teetering, to avoid crossing a photographer’s sightline — a family portrait, taken with an iPhone, by a cop, with the Freedom Tower in the background.

Every day, on my jaunt to the subway, someone in a new dialect asks for directions. Once, several years ago, as an elderly couple approached, that beseeching look on their faces, I tried to guess — will they ask for directions to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Katz’s Deli?

“Ver eest zee 9/11?” asked the hunched man, in a deep brogue, seemingly German. The first few syllables were a jumble of harsh über-sounds, but the glaring anglicized numbers at the end resonated loudly.

“Where is The 9/11?” his wife repeated, in more familiar English.

Oh. Yes. The 9/11.

“Um, right there,” I replied, pointing at the tall fence, 20 feet away, barbed wire running along the top.

Their disappointment was obvious.

This is not a place to visit, I thought to explain. It is not even a place. There is nothing to see. It is an empty square on the map, the opposite of tourism — no adventure, no leisure, no attractions. It is void. Why would you come here? You cannot see The 9/11.

But the elderly couple moved on, circling the empty fenced space.

Now, years later, there is much to see, especially since this summer, when the 9/11 Memorial opened to the public. You can now walk right up to the Reflecting Pools, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the world.

The victims’ names run along the perimeter of Reflecting Absence. The trapezoidal 9/11 Museum and WTC1 are in the background.
Reflecting Absence at night.

In yet another linguistic conundrum, the memorial is officially called “Reflecting Absence,” yet the slate gray surface reflects nothing.

Was that intentional? Does the contradiction highlight the folly in deriving meaning from absence? Are the waterfalls like language itself, which aspires to be mirror of the world but is more of a foggy window? Or is “Reflecting Absence” merely a wink at the surrounding WTC towers, which reflect each other with abandon, a phalanx of architectural #selfies?

WTC4 reflects the
spire of WTC1.

Perhaps it was a good question after all: Where is The 9/11?

There is no answer, but nearby, in the gift store, you can stock up on memorabilia, like an elegant 9/11 Brooks Brothers tie or an ominous Twin Towers “Darkness Hoodie.” The 9/11 Eraser might be the most ironic object ever conceived.

The 9/11 REMEMBER tray, available in the 9/11 Museum Gift Store.

This is what it means to never forget.


Occupied

“At home, he feels like a tourist.”
— Gang of Four

Though rare, New Yorkers can become tourists in their own city. In the fall of 2011, a magical new attraction opened, and the masses streamed into downtown Manhattan.

When Occupy Wall Street encamped in Zuccotti Park, it was like the world’s best carnival opened on my front lawn. Participation was the preferred mode of interaction, but observation was perfectly acceptable. Most New Yorkers came down to watch the menagerie of drum circles, human microphones, confounding hand signs, hipster cops, anarchic politics, immoral policing, zombie capitalists, 9/11 denialists, redditors, sleeping bag sex, #ketchup, and clever agitprop signage.

Those were the jamboree performers and circus barkers, but along the perimeter, thousands of citizens lined up to watch, flowing in from all boroughs and provinces. No one called it tourism, but it shared the same attributes: spectacle, history, theater, propaganda, crowds, guilt.

Although the catchy moniker implied proximity to financial territory, Occupy Wall Street was actually several blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. However, it was right next to The Hole.

Watching New Yorkers turn into tourists, like Batman morphing into the Joker, was a supreme pleasure. Gotham seldom noticed that their doppelgangers — actual tourists — were across the street, gazing at The Hole. Both groups were strangers in a strange land, tourists on a pilgrimage of memory.

Like many people, I believed in #OWS on principle, even when those principles were unclear, which was more often than not. Occupy’s goals were often baffling, but sometimes the incomprehensible response is the perfect one. And gazing at the incomprehensible in wonderment — even better.

“To watch is to protest,” said one small sign, a fully modernized scrap of cartesian logic scribbled on cardboard, buried in the crowd of spectators.

This is what it means to never forget.


Towers of Freedom

“What is a city if not a space of maximum license?”
Rem Koolhaas

One dark night last September, four men snuck through a hole in the fence around the Freedom Tower. While one watched guard, the other three climbed 105 flights of stairs, to the top of the tower.

Then, they jumped.

BASE Jumpers leap from the Freedom Tower. (The first jump happens at 2:30; a second, at 2:50.)

After parachuting into the middle of the West Side Highway, a security guard at Goldman Sachs spotted them folding their chutes. Four months later, they were identified and arrested.

Their GoPro cameras were confiscated, but the thrilling POV video persists on YouTube. Watching it is exhilarating, especially for someone who lives nearby (OMFG, he landed on the corner between Soul Cycle and The Palm!). The whole neighborhood is viewable, in precise detail, from angles no one ever sees.

Well, no one except the surveillance state.

Before I walk myself off this plank, it might be helpful to know my politics on issues related to security and privacy. Here, a disclaimer, which you may want to skip:

I think our government collects too much information about us, but nearly everyone thinks that. I love GPS, I don’t use TOR, and I seldom think about the NSA. I appreciate many anonymous online communities, but believe the internet is generally better with more real-world identity. I don’t think Google is evil. Facebook is evil if cluelessness is evil, but it will be as relevant as Microsoft in 10 years, so who cares? I hope Secret goes away. I am careless with passwords. I often say I have “nothing to hide,” but suspect it is dangerous to slip into that mode of thought. I think Anonymous is interesting, not much more. (I deeply miss anonymous Tumblrs though!) Bitcoins are kinda silly, but I randomly bought 100 at $6, so w00t! I support net neutrality, but not its alarmist rhetoric, and I doubt the internet will be drastically different if my side loses, which, unfortunately, seems likely. I torrent a ton of stuff, but I spend more money on cultural objects and media products than anyone I know. SOPA was stupid. I visited Silk Road once, just to see it. I went to /r/TheFappening, mostly to understand it, but also to see the Jennifer Lawrence photos, and I feel icky about it. I am not a “meme person,” nor an “emoticon person.” I think Wikileaks is good for society, but Julian Assange is banana monkeyshit crazy. I miss Aaron Swartz. I once voted libertarian for president, but four years later, I voted socialist, so I’m clearly confused. Edward Snowden — I was initially unsure, but after that Brian Williams interview, it was clear he was more hero than traitor. (If those definitions weren’t mutually exclusive, I’d pick both.) Glenn Greenwald seems annoying — to me. (But I’m right. That dude’s annoying.) Red Dawn is my favorite comedy, and The X-Files is my favorite romance, but conspiracy nuts are… nuts.
In short, I am staunchly in the “complacent mainstream” on issues related to security and privacy.

But when you live around The Hole, your complacency is constantly tested.

My neighborhood is nothing less than a surveillance state. You cannot walk outside without being photographed, hundreds of times within a block. In all likelihood, I get photographed inside my apartment. Cameras are everywhere — some obvious, some hidden.

WTC now resembles an absurdist theatrical troupe where robotic cameras take pictures of tourists taking pictures of cops taking pictures of tourists. It’s a fucking panopticon opera down here.

If Ferguson had an excessive display of militarized policing, lower Manhattan has an excessive display of militarized surveillance. These NYPD surveillance “SkyWatch” cranes all over.

Most of the time, I just pretend that the cameras have nothing to do with me. (Being a complacent moderate sucks!, I often mutter to myself.) But one day this past summer, while walking my dog in the throng of tourists, I pulled out my phone to take a picture. A security agent accosted me, and this conversation occurred:

Agent: Excuse me, sir. You can’t take pictures of that.
Me: [Blank stare. Confused.]
Agent: We can’t have you taking pictures of the construction.
Me: “Of the construction?” Are you serious?
Agent: Yes. You can take pictures of the Memorial, but not the construction.
Me: [Looks around at hundreds of people taking pictures.]
Agent: We have had incidents before. You are being watched, right now, sir.

Until that final sentence, this was an inane, humorous conversation. But the agent’s final dictum — “you are being watched, right now, sir” — alarmed me in some mysterious way. It made me want to flee.

As any sentient resident knows, you are always being watched around the Hole, so his words were unremarkable in their literal meaning. But the agent was clearly making a threat, which somehow felt more ominous than the constant threat of surveillance. Months later, I can still hear him saying it:

you are being watched, right now, sir

The ultimate paradox is that this conversation happened at the base of the Freedom Tower.

Throughout this remembrance, I have used that term, “Freedom Tower,” because tourists, who do not know it is verboten, still say it all the time. New Yorkers know we should instead say “One World Trade,” supposedly because some politician or brand strategist determined that “Freedom Tower” was too cocky, that it would embolden terrorists to attack us.

That’s ridiculous. The real reason for the name change is obvious: It was a preposterous contradiction. A “Freedom Tower” cannot exist in a surveillance state. This place is freedom’s antithesis.

This is what it means to never forget.


Rear Window

“Tell me exactly what you saw, and what you think it means.”
― Grace Kelly to James Stewart, Rear Window

I have suggested we would have been wise to leave that tragic space nameless. The idea has some precedent, in a neglected cinematic experience.

In 2002, Spike Lee released 25th Hour, which is the greatest film ever made about 9/11, mostly because it is not about 9/11, at least on the surface. The fallen Twin Towers are characters throughout, but the tragedy is mentioned only in the abstract. 9/11 is a presence without a name.

In this chilling scene, Philip Seymour Hoffman visits his friend’s apartment, just months after the tragedy:

This scene from the 25th Hour has the same view as my apartment. (The film’s opening title sequence also has stark images of this post-9/11 scene.)

The backdrop for this scene might look familiar — it is the same view, a few years earlier, as the photo atop of this page. (I cannot say with certainty that this scene was shot in my apartment, but it was definitely nearby.) As he peers out the window down onto the fenced space, Hoffman gasps.

A gasp — that was my first reaction too.

This meandering remembrance began with a pronouncement: Given the option, I would not have chosen to live above The Hole. When I moved to New York, I signed a lease without seeing the apartment. (I was moving, hastily, from the west coast.) First entering the apartment on a dark winter night, I did not know what I would see. Like Hoffman’s character, I peered over the ledge, and gasped. For a long time, it seemed the only suitable reaction — it was sad as hell down there.

But this morning, September 11, 2014, I awoke to a new place. The land is completely different — a new skin of America, a luminous carapace shimmering with optimism, but ambivalent about forgetting its past and fantasizing its future. I am still unsure what to call the land below, but for the first time, I can embrace not knowing.

This is what it means to forget.

Rex Sorgatz resides in a tree house known as @fimoculous.