In the autumn and winter months following my husband’s death on 9/11, my strength came from the architects and designers with whom I’d been associated for several years. I was at the time public relations director of a large architecture and interior design firm in New York. I loved the job. Working with architects and designers taught me to visualize; I, in turn, helped them express the intent and the context of their projects through words. It was a good match.
So when I had the opportunity to work with architects, designers, planners and a variety of civic activists, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the devastation first-hand; stood by the crumbling steps that were all that remained of the World Financial Center; gazed upon the sculptured ruins of my husband’s building glowing gold and grey in the filtered sunlight. I’d seen the hell that had crushed my open-minded, optimistic mate and sent his ashes to the four winds. Now I wanted to be a part of a new and better vision, one that would embrace memory, yes, but also vision. Where before there were ungainly monuments to finance, there might be a university or an educational facility, perhaps some sort of journalistic enterprise, a cultural center, even a museum of tolerance and understanding—because to understand was not to accept terrorism but to seek its opposite. All of this might be encased in a beautifully landscaped environment with buildings of inspired architecture. The signage—I was a big fan of signage—would be how we would tell people that they were entering “sacred” ground; made so not by the deaths at the site but by the lives that would be remembered.
Throughout the fall of 2001, even as I worked as a families’ representative in my home state of New Jersey, I stayed part-time in the city to facilitate a series of public meetings where devastated New Yorkers talked about their dreams of an inspiring skyline. In December I huddled in unheated raw space at the South Street Seaport adjacent to ground zero with members of the Regional Plan Association to come up with ideas that would be complimentary to those suggested by Mayor Bloomberg. No, I didn’t live in New York City (although I worked there), but I felt passionately that the best possible direction for us to move forward, to prove we as Americans were not about to give in to the hatred that perpetrated the act, nor the grief it sought to instill, was to make the place where my husband died something truly special.
Nine years later, I’m not simply disappointed, but wounded. Some of it is thoroughly selfish, I admit. The hopes and dreams of organizations like “Renew New York” and projects like “Imagine New York” were mine too. To look now at the blandly functional commercial buildings finally rising at the site is to feel a pang for the days when so many of the deeply wounded, not just family members, thought to create a living, visual and visible symbol of resilience.
But what is worse is the pitiful symbolism ground zero evokes—death over life, prejudice over tolerance, grief over hope, and a backwards, stuck-in-place mentality that tramples the visions of a better future some of us once had. The air of controversy surrounding ground zero is as toxic as anything I ever breathed that long-ago September.
I am laid low about this time, every year since 2001; it’s hard to shake memories of the shock and confusion played out in such a public setting. But I had been feeling better, truly. At heart, I am a forward-looking person, or at least someone learning to live in the moment.
It’s going to be much harder this year. I hate what 9/11 represents, not just the loss of my husband but the loss of our better selves. This is not how I want my husband remembered. And this is not my ground zero.