On our fourth day in New York, Gerard and I decide to visit the 9/11 Memorial. We would have gone even sooner after our arrival, but the Boston bombings made us feel a little uneasy. On the same evening, we also go to the Tribeca Film Festival’s Drive-In to see a free outdoor screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at the Financial Centre Plaza. It seems an odd combination of things to do but now that I’m writing about it, it doesn’t seem so odd after all. 9/11 has destabilized our peace of mind forever, and The Birds explores how an unexplained invasion plays havoc with the anxiety levels of a small town.
It’s very cold and threatens to rain all day, but we decide to walk to the Memorial all the same, which takes about 40 minutes from Soho. It’s not exactly straightforward to find the site, partly because there is so much construction going on in the area as the new One World Trade Centre (1 WTC), or Freedom Tower as it is also known, moves towards completion. The building replaces the twin towers, and is based on an initial design by renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind, but he is now taking responsibility for the overall World Trade Centre site while David Childs looks after the construction of the new skyscraper.
We eventually find the official entry point to the Memorial and take a windy little journey around the block, shuffling along with queues of other people through a seemingly endless series of checkpoints and security measures. Finally, we arrive in a big open courtyard surround by skyscrapers, including, of course, the as yet unfinished Freedom Tower. Our arrival feels very ordinary because at first, there is nothing much to see. There is a big, open, concrete courtyard, softened by stands of trees that are only just beginning to bud with summer leaves, and there are lots of people, but there is no sign anywhere of a memorial in the traditional sense. Only as you start to walk around the space do you become aware of the two massive inverted waterfalls that sink, not once, but twice, deep into the ground below. Designed by Michael Arad of Handel Architects, they are sited exactly where the twin towers once stood.
It is a deeply moving experience to stand on the perimeter of these huge, cavernous openings that sink so deeply into the void of the earth. They evoke both beauty and terror – beauty because of the water and its power to regenerate life – terror through the thought of disappearing into the depths of the void below. Both inverted pools are surrounded by steel panels engraved with the names of the almost 3,000 people whose lives were so tragically cut short on September 11, 2001. I run my fingers over some of the names and feel that maybe I should be reading them out loud.
When I visited New York back in 2002, it was just 6 months after 9/11 and the Ground Zero site was still in the final stages of being cleaned up. I wandered around there at night with my friend, Julie Gough, who was the Greene Street Studio resident at the time, and all of the fences in the area were adorned with pictures of people lost in the tragedy. There were ribbons and toys and little trinkets and flowers and messages over every available space. Ground Zero itself was a giant hole in the ground, surrounded by cranes and the partially damaged buildings in the World Trade Centre block. The night I left, the cleaning of the site was finally complete and two beams of light where projected straight up into the night sky.
After our visit to the Memorial, we wander over to the Financial Centre – an extraordinary building with a stunning art installation in the huge entrance foyer – and find the plaza where the Tribeca Film Festival will be screening The Birds later in the evening. There are beautiful gardens nearby and I make friends with a squirrel, feeding it some cashews I have in my pocket. Meanwhile, Gerard has discovered a replica of the famous Kon-Tiki vessel moored in the adjacent marina. The Kon-Tiki was built by scientist Thor Heredahl back in 1947, and he set sail in it to prove that Polynesia was settled by ancient South Americans rather than Asians. The replica is used in the recently launched film about the Kon-Tiki, and we get to go on board! The thought of crossing the Pacific Ocean in what is essentially a glorified raft is terrifying, but Heredahl actually did it, sailing 4,300 nautical miles from Peru to the island of Raroia in 101 days.
Later that evening, we return to the plaza to watch The Birds. It’s cold, it’s dark, there are a few spits of rain but we stick it out to the bitter end. As we button up and huddle together to keep warm as it gets colder and colder, we see people wander around the seating areas dangling stuffed birds above unsuspecting heads. The whole experience of watching the movie outdoors, projected onto a giant blow-up screen, against a backdrop of apartment buildings and a view across the Hudson, is uniquely New York.