October 17, 2011 seemed like a fine day to head downtown and see the memorial I’d avoided up to and just after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was another stunning autumn morning, with another cerulean sky visible through towers, half built with aspirations to touch the clouds that floated by. Hundreds of people going about their business were amplified by thousands more whose presence makes this, if not a world trade center, than the world’s visiting center.
I also planned to stop by another, much smaller site I remembered well: a 3300 square foot slip of green my husband would eat in on pleasant days when he wished to escape the long shadows of the World Trade Center. Then, it was called Liberty Plaza Park; now it is Zuccotti Park, renamed after the chairman of the reality company that provided for its restoration after the September 11th attacks devastated it. For several years, Zuccotti Park hosted the annual 9/11 anniversary commemorations. Currently, it’s hosting Occupy Wall Street.
Symbolism is important in making a statement, whether it involves words, notes, or physical space. So is context. The 16 acres known as ground zero was and is sacred ground to some; to others, a historically significant site. For me, ground zero is about the lives that were lost but also the resilience that was found, however temporarily, to go on, to make something better, to be better. Although I was part of a group that lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the addition of a cultural/educational component at the site–living monuments to a possible future and to the important freedoms the attacks didn’t take away—we lost. It helps to have a Visitors’ Center to supply some context, more of which the museum will also provide. Unfortunately, right now it’s possible to bypass the Center and most people do.
As a family member, I was directed around the absurdly long lines to enter the space, which consists of two massive waterfalls conforming to the footprints of the original towers and ringed with low granite walls bearing the names of the nearly 3,000 people.
Using the guide I’d been handed, I made my way to the far side of the north pool and located my husband’s name. I touched the engraved stone and whispered “Well, here you are.” And waited. But the rush of emotions I anticipated– grief perhaps; but also reverence, awe, inspiration, a telescoping of past, present and future—never came. It was all very lovely but somehow…static.
As I walked over to Zuccotti Park, I was struck by the number of tourists; it seemed as if there were more of them than there were protesters. The park initially gave the appearance of being a mess but it really wasn’t; bedding was neatly stacked, except when someone was still sleeping. An older gent did a pretty good rendition of “God Bless America” on the bagpipes. I made my way tentatively into the trees, where people were talking or texting or reading. I saw several meetings taking place, conducted in relatively quiet tones, since neither megaphones nor sound equipment is allowed.
I couldn’t hear what was being said; I’ve read elsewhere that a dedicated corps of occupiers is meeting to try and devise a set of demands. Sure there are some goof-offs, but the few protesters I encountered in my all-too-brief sojourn both wanted a change to a skewed system and felt frustrated that they were characterized as slackers or whiners, or insufficiently prepared to take on the entire system by which banks and businesses that don’t create jobs and CEOs who don’t produce dividends are nevertheless rewarded.
On the way home, I thought about how alive that little slip of green had felt and how…not so much dead as not alive the memorial had felt to me. Of course, that’s not the function of memorials; they are erected to remember the past and to honor the dead. The best of them, it must be said, can also deliver the message: never again.
As for the park formerly known as Liberty, it is teeming with good intentions and honest efforts and a target that its location should not obscure: not so much Wall Street as an economic system that accrues wealth for a disproportionate few; yet fights to keep at arms’ length any regulation that accrues to the common good. It’s the job of the protestors in a free democracy to draw attention to the system’s failings; it’s not their job to fix it. If we and our representatives allow the novelty of a group of people camping out overnight to distract from agreeing on and implementing solutions, then we will have robbed OWS of its important symbolic message: no more.