A few weeks ago, on a cold and overcast day, I visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
The leaves on the oak trees that had been planted just a few months earlier had turned brown and even with the cold wind whipping them they refused to fall from their branches. It made me think of the tenaciousness of everyone who is helping build the Memorial and the new trade center that is rising about it.
Many might wonder why I would go there in the winter, when in the spring and summer the entire area is so much more beautiful. But I think the austerity of the day actually that made my visit an even more moving experience.
If you want to visit you have to order your ticket in advance and choose a day and time. When we arrived at 2pm on that cold Thursday, we were surprised at how long it took to actually get into the site, a good half-hour at least. We joined a long line which wound its way around one corner of the site, snaking back and forth, until we finally entered a security area with body scanners and bag checks more vigorous than that at many airports. Along the way we were asked to show our tickets several times.
Past security we were ushered outside again onto another line, which finally wended its way to the entrance while the sounds of the ongoing construction reverberated all about. But when I finally took that first step into the memorial plaza all of that noise seemed to fade away.
The plaza is a beautiful, dignified place, an oasis in the midst of construction clatter and the urban chaos of downtown New York. When you enter you immediately see the long ribbon of panels containing the names of the fallen that rim the huge pools and waterfalls. Some of the names that have been etched into the panels have been rubbed so many times the bright brass beneath the surface now shows through. This is especially true for many of the first responders, and here and there you see a flower, its stem tucked into the name of a loved one.
The site’s museum is still under construction but it looks as if it will be incredible when opened. It appeared to me like a building toppled on its side, all glass and stainless steel reflecting the buildings rising about it. Many visitors tried to get a look at it through the glass but could only see it’s still very much a work in progress. Although originally slated to open September 11 this year, its opening has been delayed due to financial bickering between the Museum foundation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the owner of the Trade Center.
There is a temporary museum shop on the site – really part shop, part mini-museum – that is also incredibly moving. In it there’s a display case containing a helmet dug from the rubble, sitting below a large portrait of the firefighter who once wore it. In another case is a wallet and wedding ring of another victim. To the side, a twisted piece of steel taken from the rubble.
The shop offers hundreds of things with a 9/11 motif, especially anything related to the NYPD or NYFD. There are the inevitable 9/11 key chains and refrigerator magnets and everything else that would normally scream kitsch, but here they seem more like little icons, sacred reminders of where you are. All of the proceeds from the store go to the 9/11 Memorial Fund.
One of the most interesting things I saw, however, was the excellent audio-visual presentation near the rear of the shop. It’s exceptionally well done and people from dozens of different nationalities stood staring at it, mesmerized by the very personal stories it told.
What was most striking to me though, was how quiet the place was. Despite it being a commercial establishment, everyone inside spoke in hushed tones, giving it an almost reverent atmosphere I’d never experienced in a store before.
In fact, I’ve heard more of a din in Notre Dame, St. Patrick’s and St. Peter’s than I heard in the 9/11 Museum store that day.
If you go:
Reserve tickets and plan your visit at http://www.911memorial.org/.