Omni on the World Trade Center
Total Destruction and then Transcendence September 2001
The Transcendence Continues November 2001
The Transcendence Explodes I March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes II March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes III March 2002
Appendix To The Transcendence: "Bin Laden On The Keyboards, Bin Laden" July 2002
Post-Transcendence: Surfin' USA  November 2002
Five Years After The Transcendence January 2007


The Transcendence Explodes
by Adam Sobolak

The Transcendence Explodes II, March 2002
North side of Vesey, opposite St. Paul's: two official Landmarks (Cass Gilbert's NY County Lawyer's Association, Kohn's Art Nouveau NY Evening Post), none visibly the worse for wear, and probably off-limits more as a logistic formality. I can feel the pain of workers for whom this post-Sep 11 B.S. must be as aggravating as a conga line of rubbernecking motorists, or nimrods who disregard walk-left-stand-right escalator procedure ...a sentiment literalized in front of St. Paul's Chapel. If there's an "entrance front", a "main facade" to Ground Zero's perimeter, it must be St. Paul's; strategic, as the first signal of "thereness" heading south along Broadway, as the palpable fulcrum opposite the tip of City Hall Park, Park Row, the Brooklyn Bridge approach, any number of public transport approaches, as the old historic thing which once had the Twins directly behind, etc. Its primary role was clear even before the observation platform opened; it felt tight, determinate, and thanks to its age and pre-Revolutionary classical-portico'n'steeple distinction, a worthy and positive symbolic locus for the Ground Zero circuit. Here was an urban immediacy which neither leaked like a sieve, nor (thanks to the churchyard's expanse) sealed off awareness of what it concealed. An uncrossable Propylaeum, reminding us of the Acropolis beyond. But a symbol, we all knew, of survival.
                  The Propylaeum could not be traversed, for the chapel was primarily the domain of those behind the fencing, and the churchyard and burial ground was off limits and mutely difficult to "read" through the fencing --hardly a take-into-your-own-hands place of contemplation. (On the other hand, the fringe-benefit overhead view of St. Paul's churchyard from the Ground Zero observation platform must be stirring in a way that few Ground Zero-obsessed visitors would be prepared to appreciate.) What took centre stage was the memorializing out in front --the cards, the canvas sheets, the candles, the victims' photos, the flags and bears and messages from across the USA and the world. And the people. Looking, adding their own messages, interacting, passing by and passing through. History was an easel for this. I was impressed. Scanning the horror vacuii was unavoidable --though I fairly promptly forgot what I was unsystematically scanning. And as the first place where I encountered a whole whack of WTC memorials, it was also the first place where, over several visits, it became a little tiresome, borderline tourist-trap, fuel for cynicism. It was the all-American, acceptable-face, coffee-table rendition of witness-bearing Ground Zero grief, the logical spot for dumb tourists to hit'n'run without getting lost and forlorn and disoriented. At least, too many visits can lead one to think so. Especially when the pedestrian bottlenecks become intolerable, and make one wish to go beyond, elsewhere, somewhere presumably more serene. I could just feel the everyday incoming commuters cussing at the spectacle; they didn't want a theme-park full of Space Mountain lineups in their midst, blocking the way. Darned Osama, for that reason, if nothing else...
                  ...the next block's the ex-AT&T; as solid and pristine as though nothing happened to it, or September 11th led it to undergo a thorough Proctor & Gamble scrubover. Its lobby was as if sealed off and frozen in aspic, save for security guards and measures --an unseemly compoundment of its trabeated surrealism. The Millenium behind it was slight, mute, and difficult to make much of from anywhere other than within Ground Zero proper. (What disconcerted me more on this trip was my realization of its less-than-flattering black-glass-box lineage, from the banal 70s shaft alongside Madison Square to Trump World.)
                  In distinct contrast was the following Dey-to-Cortlandt block (incl. along Broadway, the tiny Germania Bldg, B20 in AIA's Broadway-Nassau tour), a microcosm of Downtown NYC's sloppy, messily ad-hoc small-merchant's culture along the Broadway-Nassau back blocks --and that included the sidewalk, where a spoor of roast nuts and WTC memorial pictures and fenced-or-counterfeit electronic and leather trinkets spanned the distance from St. Paul's to Trinity. You guessed it: Ground Zero: opportunist's paradise. Let'em; they're fundamental to the scenery, and big deal if any of them are funny-named immigrants from the axis of evil. And I made, on impulse, my first Christmas Eve Ground Zero purchase here, from a dense little tres-Noo Yawk goods shop perched by the Dey entrance to the Fulton St subway and just within the off-limits zone: an $3 or $4 umbrella. (The one I still had was getting moldy.) Hey; give'em business --and make no beans about it. Functional purchase. And if that umbrella had been covered with dust and asbestos and entrails three months earlier, big deal. Skoodley doo. Also spontaneously spotted across Broadway: Chelsea Jeans, with its dust-caked display window preserved in memory of September 11's impact. (I'd heard about it, but didn't realize it'd be so easy to stumble across.) Some stores open; some stores still closed; but altogether, this Red Groomsian retail amalgam was giving a good fighting try --this (with the delicious bits and superchunks of cast-iron-Romanesque-Eclectic upper-floordom peeking down upon one and all) was the real chaotically cranny-filling cement that held together and humanized Lowermost Manhattan's bulls and bears. A true Jane Jacobite slopsville which never succeeded in being superblocked, urban-renewed, or otherwise spiffed-up. But it still didn't feel as though it was kicking out the jams-maybe the holiday season was an added damper, but weekdays in Broadway-Nassau felt more like weekends. (Disregarding the fact that yuppie repopulation had already done its part to create weekend-weekday parity in Lower Manhattan.)
                  Still off limits at the WTC end of the block was that glam garment-deal nirvana known as Century 21, including the 22 Cortlandt tower and the ex-East River Savings Bank. Upon one later visit, I was surprised to see that a scrum of spectators had broken through the Cortlandt police barrier and were clambering up the green fence for a gawk before the police shooed them away --and an intrepid few young'uns even scaled the Art Deco door grillage of ERSB/Century 21, not minding the fact that its upper surfaces still appeared caked with the otherwise now-rare (except as preserved in Chelsea Jeans' window) "WTC dust"…
                  But all of Broadway-Nassau's chaotic camaraderie was utterly pummelled by what stood on the next block: 1 Liberty Plaza, proof positive that Osama Bar Sinister couldn't get the Led out. And I take back what I said about 1 Liberty appearing anticlimactic once all the smoke and dust had cleared. It defies anticlimax; in fact, it's so overpowering as to teeter, like so much of Led Zeppelin's recorded oeuvre, on the knife edge of borderline absurdity. No two ways about it; from near and from afar, viewed from the retail depths of Soho or from across the Hudson or East Rivers, this building is a splitting headache. Such a headache, it's madly hilarious. Across Broadway, SOM's earlier essay in Freestanding Black Miesiana, Marine Midland, demonstrates urban agility by kind of smoothly shimmying itself into the urban fabric; and behind it, SOM's earlier-still Chase Manhattan merely heroically coexists amidst the old; but this just gives the bird to agility by clomping into place like a Bonham-beated Godzilla. Nor was I kidding about September 11, er, enhancing 1 Liberty; but as enhancements go, it's the height of perversity --a hyperthyroid heavy-steel shelving unit in the meanest off-black shade imaginable, juxtaposed against a horribly pregnant void. (In fact, 1 Liberty appeared practically embraced by the void, thanks to its offering the south-of-Liberty half of its plaza for Ground Zero worker functions.) And in some bizarre way, the perversity attained another level through the fact that, already, 1 Liberty Plaza was fully repaired and functional and didn't make you forget it for one freaking second. (Although the plastic-wrapped furniture and office equipment visible on the floor above ground level hinted that tenant rehabitation was still in the works.) Incidentally, contrary to White & Willensky, the plaza's bollards and chains were sacrificed on behalf of a more elegant granite plaza treatment perhaps a decade or so ago (what were you expecting --hedgerows?), and the lobby's also been given a shiny, fashionable 90s-tech gloss --though nobody saw fit to "remedy" the fundamental (anti-?)urbanism, so it still has the crushingly depressed "basement" lobby as if stomped by a giant Monty Python foot --no extraneous "humanizing" excrescences-- and humongous steel beams low enough and amply flanged enough to perch a flank of coffee cups in lieu of boiling oil within. And why not? Not only was 1 Liberty Plaza intact, and repaired, and practically good as new, it served a public function by brashly harbouring what must surely have been, in 2001's final months, the most heavily trafficked Starbucks outlet anywhere. A heady place to linger (all the better if you can find one of those stylish portable metal tables and seats available; fat chance) and take a gander around at the surreally empty-beyond-the-Starbucks-zone lobby, the office workers crossing the security scrum, the physical and human scenery outside all that wraparound windowage, and to reflect on how this space had played such a startlingly critical September 11 role as morgue and triage centre… can it be real? This profane place was a sacred zone --and already, it was back to serving its standard profane purpose. It enveloped you like a crushing womb --a womb cheek-by-jowl with a crushing mass tomb. Even post-renos (let alone post-repairs), soaking up that lobby was like hearing "Houses Of The Holy" on headphones. Too dogged to be defeated by September 11, 1 Liberty needed that functioning Starbucks to attain the proper level of the transcendentally perverse, to emit its best self-parodic Robert Plant shriek. Thanks to all the false rumours of partial collapse, the building was already an Abe Vigodaesque punchline; it wasn't long before I came to impulsively mutter a "Liberty Plaza's Falling Down, Falling Down, Falling Down" melody when in these environs (but, out of mercy, not too loud). And, of course, because it's 1 Liberty Plaza, make sure your Starbucks coffee is black. And strong. Very strong. The old rot-gut post-hangover Dazed-And-Confused blend.
                  The official 9-11 rally cry is "Let's Roll"? In 1 Liberty Plaza's case, it's more like "Ramble On"…
                  Here's a performance-piece proposal. Get a set of loudspeakers, place them around 1 Liberty Plaza, and play every single Led Zeppelin studio album in sequence, full blast. Laser light show optional.
                  And it makes me wonder…
                  Next down on Broadway: Trinity and U.S. Realty, F.H. Kimball's twin slices of 1900s neo-Gothic toaster bread sandwiching narrow Thames St, a splendidly urbane dual delineator between two hyper-dissimilar urban breakages --God and Led: Trinity Church and Liberty Plaza. Stylistically, they're less the high-tech "Skyscraper Gothic" of Cass Gilbert than the last strains of c19 Pugin/Upjohn/Renwick archaeology (and properly so for a Trinity neighbour); but urbanistically, they were very modern, and very egalitarian --as Gothicky twin edifices in Lower Manhattan go, the anti-WTC. (Please, all, suppress the "good riddance" sentiment.) Hoardings that further narrowed the Thames St canyon were the most obvious hypothetical reminder of September 11's collateral impact; otherwise, these buildings were up and running, a take-out pizzeria was advertising itself from the north side of Thames, and on Xmas Eve, I couldn't resist a slice --as well as a washroom break. I was directed through a door into U.S. Realty's bowels (oh great, no pass card, I could have had the run of the place), and to a toilet that was in such ludicrously vile condition, I'm glad I wasn't female. (Who knows --maybe I could have been able to venture to an upper floor and better toilets. And this close to Ground Zero, yet. Full of upsy-downsy lairs of basement barbers and garrets to go all Eloisian in: I love these buildings.)
                  Thames St's rivulet-ride down from Broadway btw/ the twin pop-up toaster slices is the next stage in the Ground Zero circuit. At the bottom along Trinity St are the murky, dormant, forlorn NYU Grad Sch of Bus Adm buildings (in AIA) and the American Stock Exchange (not in AIA), and barricades and green fences blocking much from view: instant backwater of mystery. Over the fence: the off-limits Cedar-Trinity-Greenwich-Thames blocks, that little urban cluster familiarly pinning the SE angle of Ground Zero, the closed zone's token dose of Broadway-Nassau ad-hocism --low-rise taxpayers and Italianate remnants, at least a couple of ancient (and now red gauze-clad) "high-rises" (including 125 Cedar, whose address I'd earlier mistook for the Hugh Ferrisian step-stool alongside 90 West St). In terms of the long-term WTC urban-renewing impulse, this dilapidated patch was the "one that got away". (Did it have a Krispy Kreme or something? If so, perfect.) In all my visits, I could never make much of this flotsam, barely asserting itself above the fencing --though from Greenwich, especially, one could see the last remnants of commercial signage burnt and bent, the WTC calling card: paradigmatic "urban blight" through terrorism. Dunno what it all means for the future of an "unremarkable" building cluster such as this --for big bad planners, the bottom of the Ground Zero-zone pecking order. Parts of it, at least --including 125 Cedar, a century-old spec-Romanesque office block-turned-apartments-- will probably live on in a post-war, pragmatic, salvage-any-salvageable-building-fabric spirit; but other parts are probably too humble and/or insurance-hogtied. Truly, if a multivalent approach to recovery's in the cards, a block like this, resembling so many others but for its exalted adjacency to Ground Zero, deserves to be part of the equation and part of the vision…
                  …it's mysterious along Trinity, and along all the streets spilling downhill west of and parallel to Broadway, the "humble" backside to Trinity Church. One can feel the ghostly medievalism of the street plan, but also the garb of gray from old B&W photography and, more recently, from the Twins' collapse; even the sidewalks and asphalt and hard surfaces look curiously, maybe suspiciously, as in recently, "scoured". (Sometimes you see the street sweepers doing their own kind of scouring.) Some subway entrances open; others closed. (One piece of plywood shielding a closed entrance had blown forward; I propped it back up.) And everything eternally bathed in aura. It's a territory of mystery, the back alleys of the financial core, redolent of ruffians and roustabouts and "just folks", always a backwater, now even more so and more haunted out of happenstance, a place for Ground Zeroers to get lost and disoriented, to wander aimlessly, to feel unprotected, to dissipate. A zone to feel insecure in, if not precisely "insecure" --one feels as safe as in a hooligan-proofed police state. (Think of Soviet countries pre-Perestroika vs post-Perestroika.) Trinity St was a little more genteel, as one would expect of a block in the shadow of Trinity's churchyard --but as a result of the reconstruction of Rector St, it felt more stranded and disconnected. Difficult to tell whether Rector's reconstruction was related to September 11 or something longer-term, but with the street opened up to mud and ancient heavy timbers and tin piping, and pedestrians directed to the precarious catwalks with spraypainted beseechings of no-passage and Moran's now open…the mysterious Kilroy of south-of-Ground-Zero: Moran's restaurant, all handwritten signs and notations pointing to it…the Rector excavation seemed an enigmatic archaeological site…
                  …diverting to Trinity Church; hereabouts I stood in the pouring rain for the Pope's tickertape procession in 1979, but now it's Atgetian mystery, almost generically tight and medieval, almost humble in the manner of Peekskill or Poughkeepsie, much like a lot of European travel makes all the medieval towns fade into a blur… a quick btw/3'n'4 walkaround Wall St Broad St Exchange Place, felt to be in Surrealist early-after-hours mode, and much of Wall and Broad around the Stock Exchange cordoned off almost as if an exclusive Christmas event was to take place, but the cordoning was more serious and semi-permanent than that; still, room for a grand tree in front of the main portico…Xmas eve and an awful lot of weird new NYC was rushing to me…


                  …back down Rector to the land of mystery and Moran's; at Greenwich St, the first real evidence of the flatbeds and pickups servicing Ground Zero, exiting, waiting their turn for entry, gallivanting, participating in the urban dance. A transplanted sanitary-disposal mundaneness --not so mundane in the transplantation. Up north on Greenwich, past Carlisle, the fact of this being vehicular approach and egress to Ground Zero is announced by a gleaming white vista-finishing "Gateway Arch" --the stilted metal-and-fabric arched form where vehicles are washed and decontaminated. If anything, these strategically located Gateway Arches define my personal-experience "imaging" of Ground Zero more than any actual building wreckage (while taller, the cranes lacked that strategic urbanistic role). The wreckage overwhelmed the work crews; the ablutionary Arches are at one with them, not least for serving them. They cleanse the trucks; they cleanse us of undue preoccupation with the ruins that were. And they're ill understood, as people come to Ground Zero for a mess --not for this high-tech clean-up operation array.  Tough.
                  To the left of the foreground of this vista is the grimly unveiled Albany St backside of Bankers Trust, its vast windows still dark and begrimed --perhaps the best extant hint of how grim the weeks following 9-11 really were. Bizarrely highlighted by its traumatization, Bankers Trust would otherwise merit opprobrium for its outscaled "Water St Modern" Emery Rothian urban inappropriateness --now it recalls footage of Euro-Modern office blocks in the path of domestic terrorist bombs. London? Manchester?  Wherever…
                  The circuit follows Carlisle St…the mysterious Moran's is south on Washington St, along with the vehicles in front of a trying-hard-not-to-be-exalted NYPD office…north is a view of the other corner of Bankers Trust, along with the blackened backside of 90 West and its stepstool neighbour. Carlisle feels so placid, it's difficult to imagine we're a block away, that the stuff to the right is frozen, fundamentally off limits.
                  Then a burst out of the medievalism onto West St's suspended-animation expanse --complete with a flatbed truck with a big bent steel beam on it. A sight which quickly becomes rather commonplace, but for the first-time visitor to behold such a thing is Nirvana itself, a photo op on a par with Mickey or Goofy at Disney World. (Though I thankfully wasn't noticing many if any taking that photo op.) With the helter-skelter shifting barricade and double-barricade arrangements and other intrusions, utility gangways, security huts, etc, it was difficult to discern what was off limits or not, or which path we were to use to traverse West St, or even if we were allowed to traverse West St --but the fluid ad hoc spontaneity put the fun into it, every day, every hour, a little bit different. And the vastness of West St makes this the first opportunity to get an exhilarating sense of being dwarfed by "Ground Zero scale", hitherto blocked off by urban tightness. And you know what? Still couldn't see much of anything. But did it matter? Here, at the Brooklyn-Battery inflection of West St, dreamscapian Ground Zeroness finally unfolds about you orgasmically. You feel so small, yet so enveloped: a whack of spatiality following claustrophobic density following prim propriety. Accentuated by the presence of absence --not just of twins, but of wreckage, of anything but a vehicular-wash gateway, cranes, the eternal floodlights glaring upon urban surgery, ancillary structures and checkpoints and beings. Lotsa absence present and highlighted here. We, the beholders, disappear. We are but children, fascinated children. Even the reverse view toward the Battery fascinates. The whole 360 matrix fascinates.
                  One surprise: South Bridge still stood, telescoping across West St, truncated but more intact than anybody'd expect, as if bets were still being hedged over its future.
                  Off to the immediate right on the Carlisle-Albany blockfront is the Marriott Financial Center, a blaringly insistent shaft of parapeted orange brick, possibly the bottom of the 80s PoMo barrel for NYC. (It was in the '88 AIA, but deleted for the 2000 edition.) And despite its unappetizing proximity to 90 West and still-evident trauma to the ventilation louvers, it was already advertising its January reopening --I couldn't believe it. It appeared too toxic to be ready for prime time so soon. The very thought makes one want to cough the Ground Zero cough. (As a matter of fact, it did reopen as per plan --and from all reports was as bizarre a lodging experience as to be expected.)
                  And ah, Cass Gilbert's 90 West, now encased in scaffolding and black sheathing in order to spare us its trauma: call it visual mothballing. (Its blackness contrasted mightily with the white terra-cotta soar and gleam of its architect's later Woolworth Bldg across the void. Somehow, the HQ of the eventual Foot Locker empire sings a happier post-Sep 11 skyline song than anything else in Lower Manhattan, as if this was all divine liberation. A sunny morning at the old five-and-dime, birds chirping, et al. You cannot help but smile.) 90 West gauntly loomed like a 2001 slab (the movie, not the year) with a fancy copper mansard added for good measure: Kubrick goes PoMo. I find it so odd that photos of Ground Zero's surrounding structures are so difficult to come by --or maybe I shouldn't be. Remember that for all the lamentation over Penn Station's loss, its familiar demolition images are almost exclusively "posed", overdramatized (and all too frequently interiorized) a la Richard Nickel --weren't there ever any matter-of-fact "street shots"? Maybe that explains why, at Ground Zero, what's within has outflanked what's around-but then, most people couldn't tell Cass Gilbert from Cass Elliot, thus very few visitors are conditioned to value what's around. (Not even architects? Or was this physically off limits for too long? Didn't anyone have telephoto, or was there too much wreckage in the way? Guilt complexes, maybe?)
                  In order to comprehend what September 11 wrought upon 90 West, look upon the one unclad part, the mansard: as one'd expect, the section facing WTC is very badly singed, dormers and cresting buckled and fallen --but it still holds its form; and the further south it gets, the more deliciously pistachio-green-icing-sugar unscathed it appears. I guess the future of the whole array all hinges upon insurance costs --but I reiterate: remember Triangle Shirtwaist. Notoriety and mayhem's no barrier. Never say die. Still, a mansard can't tell it all; the trouble is, the rest of 90 West lay under a sheath. It appeared that you could see through the building on some floors (evidence of a blasted-out situation), but it was fiendishly difficult to tell what state the façade et al was in, whether from the West & Albany worm's eye or from across Ground Zero. One had to squint and squint in order to discern the damage. A hole here? A gouge there?
                  The game of gazing at and discerning the damage to 90 West is a game of eyeaining obsession. It makes one feel like a Celebrity Sleuth on the lookout for award-show starlets' aureoles.
                  The Battery Park City neighbourhoods of the Rector Place et al to the SW seemed sealed in spirit --for a stranger to venture within felt, at this delicate moment, like trespass. Like the proverbial cop standing in front of the police tape saying, "out of the way folks, there's nothing happening here". The Albany St extension was wide open --yet felt ominously patrolled. On the north side, the disturbingly open maw of the garage/service entrance for 1 World Financial Center --indicative of an edifice that was functional, yet dysfunctional. Something felt stillborn, like this 80s yuppie urban idealism had been transferred from NYC to, say, Detroit. One felt obligated to move fast and not linger, except maybe for shopping. (I bought a grapefruit or two at a deli/grocer at Albany and South End Av.) The most evident BPC residential "participant" was, in fact, the most atypical as well as the most Sep 11-affected: straight from Lefrakistan, the concrete kit-part Gateway Plaza complex. Its NE tower still had some boarded windows; apparently it was the sole remaining unfit-for-habitation BPC residence. But otherwise Gateway Plaza was up and running, and its oddly fitting that BPC's "scullery maids", its residential ugly (innocuous, actually) duckling, was the one offering itself most openly to the Ground Zero-gawking vulgarians. As if they -- we -- didn't deserve to trammel upon the rest.
                  Where South End Av hits the WFC cul-de-sac, it intersects with the Liberty St extension beneath the WFC Gatehouses --about as lively as it gets on the western flank of the circuit, and that's relatively speaking. On the whole Battery Park City was deadsville for Ground Zero buzz; but this was a nexus of some importance, not least for providing access to the Port Authority's viewing platform for officials, families of victims, etc. (Thus excluding we unwashed. I tactfully didn't even twig into its presence right away.) It also provided, beyond the Gatehouses, an awkwardly framed and blocked-out vista of whatever lay beyond. Rising above 1 Liberty Plaza to the left was a photo-perfect 3:30 Christmas Eve daylight moon. That was the cue for me to give in and buy a roll of film at a Gateway Plaza shop. (Though picture-taking still felt like an awkward obligation for the trip's duration.)
                  World Financial Center was on its way back from its face-hit-by-windshielddom --though admittedly, we were on the flipside of the lacerated face in question. The office building lobbies, at least, were surprisingly up and running, gleaming clean --even for 2WFC at the end of the South End cul-de-sac, perhaps the worst-hit building to already be operational and accessible by Xmas. (And I was surprised to discover so --so I went quickly in and out, saying hi to security and glad to see you're up and running already. Hey, they need credit.) But for the pacemaker-propelled lobbies and garage/service entrances, WFC felt eerie; there was little or no life to speak of, no shops, no restaurants, no milling workers, nothing. The buildings were like sealed, airless containers, and felt vaguely unfresh as if something (don't say death!) was nearby. And compounding the barrenness was the stumpscape in front of 2WFC where once was a treescape. Skinny little stumps between the pavers, beneath the feet.
                  With most of the ensuing 2-3 WFC plaza zone off limits, the circuit here shoots west to North Cove. One little somewhat forlorn alcove sporting memorials where the path/road angles back north; and beyond, along North Cove's southern edge, the NYC Police Memorial --its roofed and sheltered north memorial wall sporting, naturally, a plethora of memorials and messages from all over. Maybe it was the somewhat-apart location, or its providentially preordained memorial function, or the individuals commemorated, but it seemed the most serene and gravitas-laden of the memorial spots around Ground Zero. What it lacked was electricity. But it didn't need hyperactive electricity; it was where contemplativa could remain contemplativa. The mourners and witnesses here were better for being apart of the madding crowd. This is where the anti-spectacle quietude of Battery Park City worked on behalf of the Ground Zero urban spectacle. The place where those who really suffered from loss of family or loved ones may contemplate, free of the circus of tourists and pilgrims elsewhere. Humility was the point. I could appreciate it, not least for the serene Hudson vista --but try as I might, I couldn't bond here. I felt too intrusive, in the best way. It's a plain, sincere (albeit "designed") memorial, and doesn't soar or Maya Lin-enrapture as whatever'll lie within Ground Zero surely (?) will --and it shouldn't. It speaks with a pure New York accent; and as such, it demands deference. Let the young families, the parents and widows and orphans (and surely, they were among those I saw looking --who am I to ask?), claim this for themselves. (For parallel reasons, I was never a systematic follower of the New York Times's daily victim profiles. The fact that they existed at all was sufficient.)
                  Can anyone serenely focus upon and across the Hudson now? North Cove was virtually deserted each time I visited, and it couldn't have just been the off season. Across the Hudson, the ever-rising ultra-modern Jersey City skyline beckoned unromantically albeit poignantly; a relative terra incognita for me, although I could understand the heartbreaking post-9-11 draw for uprooted corporate Lower Manhattan.
                  A precariously narrow procession along North Cove's eastern edge, squeezed in/cut off by a crudely haphazard array of Jersey barriers, utility humps and catwalks, and WFC no-go-zone fencing. And because what passed for the path did a clumsy double duty as emergency vehicular access and the route for the free Battery Park City shuttle, it made for some odd check-and-balance dodging. Nothing, yet everything, seemed conducive to foot and motor alike --at least, if you're fit and agile.
                  Taken out of commission, World Financial Center really forms an overbearing wall of office building. The Winter Garden (at what point was it Wintergarden, and at what point was it Winter Garden?) was little more than a sealed-off carapace of trusswork awaiting resurrection; I subsequently found out that the palms within had all died from damage and exposure. Somehow, the WG doesn't ring a bell from my '92 visit --but I did experience Pelli's squared-off and sloped-roof prototype in Niagara Falls NY as early as '82, and found it poignantly lovely. In fact, I probably prefer the rectilinear Niagara version to the bulbous WFC version --though the former gains, in my books at least, from its blightedly bittersweet context. Up to the WG's left, the shredded inner corner of 3 WFC had been neatly stripped away to reveal an open, construction-lightbulbed chamfer. Out beyond, the cranes as well as NY Telephone's tower soared. While Woolworth emits a fresh gleam, NY Tel emits a stylized, impressionistic Deco haziness that makes for a heroically poetic backdrop to the blasted war scene. Maybe it helped that its position was such relative to Ground Zero that it could only be seen and experienced as a backdrop; the closest an ordinary person could come was a formidable block away --something which came to enhance its mountainousness. In its newfound, unwarranted isolated unreachability, its truest NYC peer was Brooklyn's Williamsburgh Savings Bank: a romantic strandedness of being.
                  Path diverts west again, with a little more elbow room as the plaza opens up; then north along North End Av, leaving the North Cove Park pylons up ahead to their own devices. Garage/service entrance to 4 WFC: again, its activity seems surreal now (how much security must be involved nowadays?), a few months after it would have been taken pretty much for granted. (Was New York normal once?) It says something about WFC's physical form that one side can appear and function quite normally while the other side's battered --no Twin Tower-style integrated catastrophe here. But the transplanted edge city cinematic stillness in this zone where the Mercantile Exchange as well as Embassy Suites flesh out the "urbanity" (such as it is) is disturbing. Meanwhile, the under-construction cobbles of the Irish Hunger Memorial slowly cohere to the left, at the end of the Vesey extension. But it still feels wintry-bleak, even on a springlike winter day.
                  You couldn't go far down Vesey, and it was probably the coldest, most uninviting of viewing spots, ample but arid. It does offer a fair view of NY Tel, or 140 West, or Barclay-Vesey, or Verizon, or whatever Ralph Walker's giant parallelogram finger-in-the-sky wants to call itself. It hasn't looked bad from other angles, and doesn't look bad from here on its painful road to recovery. It's the sort of building which, due to its telecom function, suffered more in its contents than in its package, electronically rather than architecturally --and a major reason for all those wooden catwalks and asphalt humps threading through this huge tract. Its intermittent red sheathing seems more revealing of the damaged state of affairs than the funereal black of 90 West, and one could even discern where the little decorative-parapet-detail chips and disfigurements (for now) existed --but the form was whole, and clearly under repair. It looked happy, relieved maybe (not least urbanistically, no longer being stiflingly hemmed in on two sides). And maybe the grievous electronic internal injury has upped the momentum, turned NY Tel/Verizon's resurrection into a functional crusade at least as much as an architectural crusade --if this were just an ordinary office building, the incentive wouldn't be the same. And it all proves that there's more to a city than styling, and this eternal electronic nexus is not just a slide in an architectural history seminar. Really. It's so often forgotten that these textbook icons are functional buildings --and buildings which serve critical functions. Functional buildings as living beings rather than as blank ideograms. In itself, Verizon's recovery merits a documentary.
                  The actual GZ circuit path turns back inland a block north, on the other side of Embassy Suites hotel (which at least had the propriety to keep itself shut tight until the coast is clear, unlike the Marriott Financial Center), and down the extension of Murray St's diagonal. And something incredible --a group of aid workers, real people, progressive-looking people, young, old, not just some antiseptic illusion, evidently just arrived, and joyfully ran past me like some tour group-cum-Scooby-Doo gang to the vast Red Cross tent at the corner of Murray and West, bearing Christmas gifts. I think I kind of happily albeit quickly interacted with them in passing --mere tourists might just gawk. The tent and staging area was a big bubble, a bright warm hypermarket-scaled hearth with stacked boxes of whatever inside, with immediacy for the passerby. Not wanted to violate checkpoints or decorum, I kept my distance, kept to my own proper turf --I wouldn't risk going in, least without authorization, unless I had something to give. But that flock of aid workers crossing my path --and the fact that, with due respect to decorum, I felt at one with them --vindicated my conviction: at Ground Zero, it's all about the people, the beauty is in the people, it would be nothing without the people. It almost makes one forget the saccharine mass-media idolatry of police and fire and rescue teams --to witness the real thing subverts the mawkish myth. A positive spirit of war and duty, the likes of which haven't been seen in, say, sixty years --and no, it's not all about pulverizing evil Islam. It could just as well be about aiding Islam's innocent, and I mean no euphemism. But in turn, the people are nothing without their milieu, their organic physical milieu…
                  The rescue workers and their tent seemed to signal a breakthrough from the somnolent/surreal BPC/WFC environs into Ground Zero's strongest force fields of energy. The north side of Ground Zero had weird magnetism; it felt most intense, most rapturous at all. The energy seemed to emanate from Tribeca, as if Tribeca was claiming Ground Zero as its own; come to think of it, it is the southern tip of the Triangle Below Canal St, and not insignificantly, the AIA Guide entries on the World Trade Center start the Tribeca tour. So consider it a reclamation, then.
                  East of Ground Zero, the predominant characteristic is decorum; south, it's mystery; west, it's stillness; north, it's bliss. Thusly, the clockwise circuit orchestrates itself.
                  And what climactic bliss, what shooting dynamism, what a rushing, explosive embrace of space and scale, what an expression of Ground Zero as a component of something bigger. It's like a ravescape, a technofest, with diverse ordinary folk and spectators rather than kiddies in rave gear, and with the rumble of trucks and cranes and construction equipment rather than the music and BPM --it's a rush, but of the real profane world, the profane rendered sacred. Come to think of it, "techno" has long been in the Tribeca blood, with companies such as NY Tel and Western Union being the pacesetters between the World Wars, with the radio trade hunkered down at the future WTC site, and with the more recent incentives that brought the heart of "Silicon Alley" nearby. But the freneticism also evokes the stuff of real pilgrimage sites --St. Peter's, Lourdes, Mecca, et al. And with this being the most "inhabited" side of Ground Zero --the "community" which appeared to be claiming the site as its own, as well as the side from which the overwhelming bulk of first-day coverage and footage was emanating, effectively the "Rest Of Manhattan" side --it also felt guiltless, like where ordinary folk could just take a casual stroll down, ordinary visitors could park or drop-off and visit and maybe incorporate into a broader Tribecaetcetera itinerary, ordinary kids could come down after clubbing, etc. All were ordinary --even the infinitely aggravated stars and celebs. And they had this spectacle at the end of the street --and with the traffic curtailed and diverted, it was almost like a small town, small yet so vast. New York's never been smaller; at least, not within our lifetimes.
                  Walking inland, through the gap btw/Embassy Suites and the big aid tent, one can spot the steel cross. Looking down West St into Ground Zero, the cross finishes the vista. For some reason, I didn't notice the cross until Christmas Day, as opposed to Christmas Eve. In the evening, lit like a decoration. Look the other way, West Street shoots up into infinity, or Chelsea Piers, Spuyten Duyvil, wherever. Once a busy roadway, now the biggest service entrance in the world. Maybe it's the service entrance to the world.
                  Strangely, heretically, you can chalk up a lot of the dynamism and energy to urban renewal, that which swept away the swath of land north of WTC, west of Greenwich, which led to Greenwich being widened, and threatened to march its way northward into Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village. What is here represents precisely, almost to the geographic letter, what Jane Jacobs fought against. Independence Plaza; Shearson Lehman; CUNY, P.S.234, College of Insurance. Paradoxically, Battery Park City extends (albeit in urbanistically p.c. form) the "urban renewal" spirit to the west, as does West St post-West Side Highway --one feels spin-around-the-hands free around here. A "bleak" contrast to the pulsating heart of Tribeca, across Greenwich --now given its raison d'être. Neither Tribeca nor the urban renewal would have the same oomph without each other; and collectively, they wouldn't have the oomph, the whirrr, the soar and explosion without Ground Zero.
                  Memories of Berlin March '87. Wall still up. Artsy neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg and ill-advised urban renewal as well, cheek-by-jowl with the Wall. Same personal aloneness, contemplativeness, exhilaration. Who would have thought that formula of trauma plus exhilaration would strike Manhattan as well. I was so in love with Berlin in '87, I very nearly declared celibacy. Who would have thought I'd be witness to a Berlin-ing of New York…
                  With what urban renewal and Osama hath wrought, one notices how nearly insular NY Tel is --an insularity accentuated by the north side of Murray west of Greenwich having been virtually entirely coopted as a sort of Ground Zero service yard. (Except for the College of Insurance, which could have been an anonymous utilities building for all anyone cares.) It did have one older north neighbour in the Murray-Barclay block, a warehousey brick mass that would have earned little notice beforehand, but was now a warmly utilitarian hive for police and other Ground Zero types pouring in and out its north service gangway. It's got a touch of the "school book depository" about it, in case one's in the tastelessly black mood to conflate the dates September 11 and November 22. (Putting a different twist on black humour, it's a good thing precious WTC parts weren't stored across Murray from here, lest the Bogardus bandits come back. You see, this is where the infamous "stolen" Bogardus Building once stood. Haw haw.  Oof.  Ouch.)
                  And snuggling those two buildings away from the rest of Tribeca was the Big Ice Bucket at 101 Barclay St, the vast water/sky/milky-green glass-panelled hollow container with the sloped roof, the apotheosis of SOM's TRON/Blade Runner-era ultra-high-tech phase where it's all about atriums, man…and in classic 1984's-just-around-the-corner style, housing none-of-yer-business Bank of New York database'n'stuff functions. (It's somehow most apropos for it to be referred to just by street address, like futurist sci-fi where we have no names, only numbers.) Walking alongside on Murray where neither street nor sidewalk nor utility gangway clearly expresses itself as the primary pedestrian way, I was surprised to see 101 Barclay still out of commission, an airtight box, a sealed glass tomb. (As well as its shops --most incongruous being a Hallmark Card store!) Not only that, but they hadn't even gotten down to replacing the lower-floor broken glass on the south side! Even with its bulk and recognizable profile, 101 Barclay's still an unsung Ground Zero victim. Its situation seems to parallel NY Tel/Verizon's strong skeleton/grievous internal organ damage situation; but in this case I'd speculate that the building itself was so gosh-darned high-tech, that the littlest speck of dust, never mind WTC debris, would have been sufficient to make it go TILT. Just like a satellite hit by space particles. You couldn't simply reboot; you had to abort. Still, it's far-fetched to imagine 101 Barclay would be "aborted", i.e. demolished --of course, that'd mean another notch in evil Osama's cap, patriots! Too much building, too much landmark, and besides, we're definitely left with the better 80s-behemoth architectural end of the deal; next to the late WTC 7 (bleh), 101 Barclay looks cool and benign, as gentle as an anonymously untouched-by-human-hands Ministry Of Truth can get. And aesthetically, it ages better than Atarivision. (70s/80sTechModerne architectural nostalgia: watch for it. And of course, NYC also has Citicorp.) Larry Silverstein's commissioned SOM to do WTC 7's replacement; perhaps that team ought to consider contrapuntally complimentary forms to 101 Barclay, cf. Pelli's Pacific Design Center in LA…
                  As Murray does its lubricated slide along 101 Barclay's back wall, ruling over Barclay's bend at Greenwich and for 2 blocks northward are Gruzen's late 80s Greenwich Court apartments, whose openwork "Hiroshima domes" must earn a booby prize for the most unfortunate architectural imagery this close to Ground Zero. And a different kind of booby prize (airbrushed-nipple this time, rather than skeletal): as I found out/deduced a couple of months later, here resided Stockhausen's Designated Noah's Ark Partner In Hades, "Prozac Nation" authoress Elizabeth "Everyone Was Overreacting" Wurtzel. (Somehow, the shellshocked blogspottery over Wurtzel's like-a-turtleneck-going-over-someone's-head statements only feeds her point. If only Liz Wurtzel and I had hooked up that week; we might have made some kind of beautifully dissonant music together. Or ripped each other to bits. Whatever.)
                  Then the circuit angles south on Greenwich from the corner of Ice Bucket and Wurtzelville and, blammo, we've hit Ground Zero's G-spot, right where Greenwich cul-de-sacs at Park Place, at the doorstep of where WTC 7 went pffft. I speculate that this is where the flaming maw of the wreckage was most frightfully, sublimely "immediate" to the casual visitor --it's the corridor for September 11's terrifying televised parallaxes-- but it's now all clear, and you get a sweeping view of it all. Framed on the right by cool, comforting 101 Barclay, the trip-hop equivalent of a mysterious brick church wall looming over a Lombardic medieval neighbourhood. Framed on the left by CUNY's Fiterman Hall, its 90s-modern hooped canopy staring blankly from behind a plank hoarding, fronting the dusty anon. 50s nip'n'tuck layercake whose south corner was memorably mooshed by WTC 7; now much of the south side of Fiterman's but a stripped-naked concrete skeleton awaiting a fate unknown. Further still to the left and across Park Place, Fiterman's glam 80s sequel in horizontal striping (and an AIA Guide entry; now repaired but for a sprig of red gauze). And like an additional layer of theatrical scenery, NY Tel and the Federal Building framed the WTC 7 void beyond. Only a green fence and guarded checkpoint-usually demurely open, offering tempting ground-level glimpses within --separated us from the greatest stage set in modern humankind, a big basin-like stage with a magnificent backdrop centering upon Bankers Trust, which in lieu of the vanished WTC wreckage staked its rather pathetic wannabe claim as the de facto bleeding-heart above-ground-level architectural icon of Ground Zero. Draped in black, with a big Stars & Stripes spread across the upper floors --and below that; well, if 90 West teased like a starlet's diaphanous clothing, Bankers Trust slit its shield like crotchless panties so we all could gaze at its vulva-like wound, the vertical manifestation of all vaginal metaphor laying prone before it. Although like so much Ground Zerodom at this clean-up stage, the gash in Bankers Trust had been spiffed up through a sort of architectural Brazilian wax job. (Though to no avail. I hear that, akin a yeast infection verging on toxic shock, Bankers Trust's exposure to the elements has resulted in a rampant mould invasion that may yet lead to its demolition, structural soundness or no. It's odd to think of how few if any of Manhattan's humdrum 60s/70s towers have been conventionally torn down…)
                  Or maybe, on Christmas Eve especially, the open and exposed gash in Bankers Trust was less akin to vagina than stigmata --not obscenely profane, but a very sacred sort of wound on display. I clued upon that metaphor right away, and even shared it with others. Don't know who else might have on their own volition. Don't know if it stuck, either.
                  Not that there was any lack of other souls-not at all. This was the easily the most hyperactively intense memorial location; with all the Tribeca karma siphoning inward, it took on the character of performance space, a mini-stage before maximalism. If the Broadway/St. Paul's flank spoke of (relatively speaking) Episcopalian discretion and restraint, this bespoke a kind of quasi-Catholic or evangelical hysteria, complete with votive candles and monetary donations and flowers and photos and relics and witness-bearers verging on speaking in tongues. On Broadway, my urge was to move quickly; at Greenwich and Park Place, the maelstrom soaked me in so that I couldn't get away. I had to gaze stunnedly at the memorials and those gazing stunnedly at the memorials, the memorials augmented at each stage by Christmas messages, a real Christmas tree in the centre --holiness on Greenwich's west side, while the Fiterman hoarding's corner bore a bracketed shrine and plenty of fresh graffiti-scrawling wall. In Catholic-pilgrimage fashion, it was a touch lurid, perhaps, but the touch of lurid was the point. And there was always room for more maelstrom, ample television-truck turnspace and elbowroom for disoriented drivers to drive by in a futile search for parking. There was soul, there was style, and it was democratic; who knows if there were slumming celebs or widowed brides among me, and who cares. I felt stunned, whipped-up, and strangely all-aware, in control --even to the degree of enlightening a pair of visitors with Internet-printed site diagrams as to building identity/status. Me, myself, a lay Ground Zero docent. And as always, it felt more minimally transcendent in the presence of a void than of wreckage. A void that spoke --and allowed us to speak. And each time I came here, I was tempted to stay longer, soak up all the mutual energy I could. It couldn't stop.
                  And then, east along Park Place, back into anonymous urban density where office workers once gawked at the inferni and then ran. Incidentally, with the fires gone, I can't positively identify what could have been the remains of the dreaded "WTC smell", the toxic olfactory mix of fire and death and unknown poison that plagued the area for so long. Perhaps a few desultory sour-sweetish odours from as yet unreclaimed nether regions, or sudden bracing burps of what resembled NYC's familiar chock full'o nuts'n'pretzels street stink taken to the next level. But something seems to have imprinted on me --and not horrifically; more like olfactory kinfolk to the perpetual diesel pong of my Poland. No matter how I slice Ground Zero, it turns up Stockhausen, or Wurtzel. I obscenely like it; I obscenely bond to it…
Circuit over. But not quite.
True, it was darkening and verging on 5PM...

                  …cross West Broadway, turn down Church; the Federal Building and its northern neighbours are big blocks that invite nothing and tell nothing, as if to indicate the "official" circuit's winding down and we're free to feel fatigued. But at Church and Barclay, one last Ground Zero "interaction" of note, which may explain the Catholicizing quality of the bliss hereabouts: the elevated Greek Revival portico of St. Peter's Church, the west side of which provided a rare vulturous Ground Zero obsessive's free aerie upon the ruins. (That the Federal Building's mute-buttoned bulk blocked off the "good stuff" didn't matter; the thrill of seeing anything from above ground level was the draw.) St. Peter's was open, too, on Christmas Eve, and one could go in to see (few were) what a genuine c19 Greek Revival Catholic church hard by Ground Zero looked like --but there was something forlorn, static, incomplete. After all, though it served much more than its relief-effort part in the early days, St. Peter's vis-à-vis Ground Zero was completely overshadowed in "official" religiosity by St. Paul's Chapel one block to the south, or the open-air rapture two blocks westward. (Or, for skyscraper-lovers, Woolie's half a block east.) While St. Peter's survived as unscathed as St. Paul's, it wound up at best a sleeper, and at worst as the grumpy sad-sack bridesmaid to the spectacle, offering little to the Ground Zero spirit but a free porticoed observation deck. Oh well, maybe there's virtue in sad-sackery --though it felt as if St. Peter would have been far more comfortably serene in Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side than as part of this lurid urban war zone. (Somehow, the little gap on its east side, reaching midblock to church-officey ambiguity where dust and soot surely once overloaded, held more urban drama.)
                  And then, we ascend back upon Broadway, Woolworth humbly rising to our left. Circuit over.
                  But not quite. True, it was darkening and verging on 5PM and check-in time. But I'd intended to attend some kind of Christmas service, or at least drop by on one --and recalled that there was supposed to be something Holy Eucharist-wise at 5:00 at St. Paul's Chapel, but didn't know how "public" it was. So I'd see.
                  And they welcomed us in, We entered the inner sanctum. In a real sense, it was the only time I'd breach the figurative green fence, to enter the hitherto "no-go" zone of Ground Zero.
                  Words fail. Every inch of viable surface within the Chapel was covered by banners and cards from all over. The perimeter of the chapel contained the primary relief-center functions, the blankets and pillows, the first aid and the hot trays of food and the volunteers, so many volunteers. And we passed it all by, processionally, en route to our pews. An incomparably historic spot, appropriated by the exigencies of the ultra-present. Words fail to do it justice. Reports fail to do it justice. I must have been dreaming. I had entered the heart of it all --the true, literal "heart" of Ground Zero. The centre of the universe today, right now --5PM, Christmas Eve, 2001. A place of incomparably transcendent beauty, a moment to be cherished. There I was, as if by magical force --less than a quarter of a day after landing at LaGuardia. It had to be an apparition.  It wasn't.
                  I stayed, quietly, through the approximately one-hour service --a humble, happy, intimate Christmas Eve service I'd just lucked in on. In the pew in front of me was a woman with children, she was wearing a police or fire department jacket; this was definitely not tourist stuff. The tourists were outside gawking, or way uptown shopping. This was another realm entirely. Hymns, prayers, a lovely sermon --one that struck a young-child note not unlike my own Ground Zeroish ponderings. Feeling too much the interloper, I didn't go up for the Eucharist. But after the service was over, I thanked the Reverend, and told him I was from Toronto. I was in rapture.
                  Ground Zero is my lover. And this is where the consummation took place.

 


The Transcendence Explodes III March 2002



Omni on the World Trade Center

omni forum