About two years ago, I was kicking a soccer ball around with a boy I was babysitting, when I noticed the then half-built Freedom Tower, standing in the distance, visible through a pair of large leafy trees. We were in a park near the boy’s school and it occurred to me that from the classrooms, which were all on upper floors, the Twin Towers would probably have been visible. Later, while walking him home I asked the boy if this had indeed been the case, and he reminded me, — with some due frustration — that since he was nine he had not even been alive when “9/11 happened.” Well that stopped me in my tracks.
It had simply never occurred to me that there was – is – a generation of people for whom September 11 is pre-natal event; not a memory, but history, or History. More specifically, there is a generation of New Yorkers, some today as old as twelve, for whom the twin towers are merely History; things they know only from what they have read or been told; from a picture in a book or a parent pointing at a towering shaft of blue sky and saying that once a building had been there, two buildings, big buildings.
To an extent, this is also true of people my age, for whom it is hard to remember the towers, if we have vivid memories of them at all, as anything other than the targets of terrorism. But of course they were much more than that. Unlike the base at Pearl Harbor or the Federal Building in Oklahoma City the Twin Towers were icons long before their destruction. Their two-year reign as the world’s tallest buildings gave them an instant celebrity. They balanced the skyline and anchored lower Manhattan. And their simple yet idiosyncratic design made them as distinct and recognizable (if not initially praised) as nearly any 20th century American building. Any child could draw their silhouette—just two long rectangles with a line protruding from one—and their image, whether on a postcard or in the opening montage of the Sopranos, was ubiquitous long before 9/11. In the 30s King Kong climbed the Empire State buildings, but in the 70s he climbed the Twin Towers.
But now they’re gone, and that is a very strange thing. Though of course we know that a city like New York is constantly changing, we also assume that day-to-day, it will remain essentially the same. New buildings are built, and occasionally old buildings — even large ones like the old Yankee Stadium or Penn Station — are torn down, but these processes are gradual and expected—like evolution, too slow to be observed in real-time. We expect that the New York we go to sleep in will be the New York we wake up in. The breaking of that expectation was just one of the thousand things that made September 11 so unsettling, but it is one that has been particularly well addressed and interpreted by the now eleven-year-old Tribute in Light.
Tribute in Light is, of course, the pair of soaring columns of white light that have shone up from Ground Zero every September 11 since 2003. The Tribute, produced annually by the Municipal Art Society, is first and foremost a memorial to nearly three thousand people who lost their lives. However, I believe that a secondary purpose the Tribute serves is to respond to the sudden disorientation of the attacks with an act of sudden reorientation; to make an instantaneous addition in the face of an instantaneous subtraction. Tonight, when those 88 searchlights are switched on, the evening skyline will once again be made immediately different from that of the day, but it will be on our terms, and there will be more, not less; hope, not fear. And if some young boy looks out his window and sees those twin beams piercing the night sky he may feel that twelve years really was not so long ago, and that the Twin Tower are a part of his New York too.