[Not a personal essay, but it kind of goes with the other two on this site that are 9/11 related. This one was published in the travel section of the Toronto Star on July 4, 2009.]
NEW YORK – The last time I visited Ground Zero was Sept. 22, 2001. I lived in Long Island, N.Y., then and the Sept. 11 attacks consumed life for weeks.
Seeing the World Trade Center in fiery rubble was Dickensian bleak and painful. The ruins smouldered, firefighters teemed, anxiety swept over every face.
Returning nearly eight years later, I expected to find Lower Manhattan solemn as it recovers from that horror and the economic crisis. Instead, I discovered New Yorkers are not only getting over 9/11, they’re turning the Financial District into a neighbourhood with more life than before the Twin Towers collapsed.
The World Trade Center stop is the last one on the southbound E subway train. Once on the surface, I noticed construction workers had replaced the army of firefighters as the massive rebuilding job unfolds.
A half-dozen cranes rise from the cavity that many will always view as a tomb to the 2,750 (including 24 Canadians) who lost their lives on that sad Tuesday. It was hard to find a smile among the visitors who watched the frame of the new skyscrapers being hammered and clanged into place. Emotions swelled there and across the street at St. Paul’s Chapel.
People walked slowly around the chapel’s grounds, occupied by centuries-old gravestones, to its doorstep. St. Paul’s, the city’s longest continuously run public building, stands on Church St. Remarkably, the 243-year-old chapel didn’t suffer any structural damage when the towers collapsed. During the recovery efforts immediately after Sept. 11, the chapel was a place of refuge for the firefighters and emergency services personnel. Inside, displays honour the heroes and the fallen.
While St. Paul’s brings back grim memories, the good news is there’s much happening in the vicinity that makes it clear this area is likely to rebound to a state better than it was in 2001. That reason makes Ground Zero a point of interest, not a morbid itinerary stop.
You can get a fantastic panoramic view of the World Trade Center reconstruction and the district’s skyline at the World Financial Center, an upscale but unheralded mall and office tower that pedestrians can access by crossing a bridge over the West Side Highway. Sixteen palm trees and an ornate staircase greet you inside the centre. On the western side of the mall, you will access one of New York’s highlights that doesn’t get nearly enough mention.
The Esplanade is secluded from the WTC construction and everything else in Manhattan. It’s a route for pedestrians and cyclists, ambling alongside the Hudson River. You can grab a coffee at Devon & Bleakley inside the World Financial Center before heading out on the 20-minute walk. If you want to bike it, there are rental shops in the area.
You’ll notice new residential towers and a number of established retailers opening stores. Most of the area was void of activity after about 8 p.m. most nights.
The population in the region has nearly tripled from 2001. Lower rents and a push for gentrification have turned it into a place to live, not just work.
Perhaps no spot exemplifies this spirit more than the restaurant-rich blocks on Stone and Pearl Sts. My favourite is Ulysses’ Folk House (95 Pearl St./58 Stone St.). The food is overpriced and mediocre, but the beer menu has few rivals in New York and the picnic tables that line Stone St. make it feel like a summer barbecue.