One last night in New Jersey as the sun set and the moon appeared through a rainbow of clouds. In the morning we were headed to New York City, two days and a single night, and two very important places that I have always felt drawn to visit; the 9/11 Memorial Museum and Ellis Island.
There is an ease to traveling on the East Coast. We left Beach Haven and made our way to the mainland, driving north to Toms River. You can catch a bus into New York City for approximately $25 each way. We headed up the Garden State Parkway, past the Newark Airport, through the deep Holland Tunnel (your ears adjusting to the sudden change in pressure) and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by enormous buildings and no sense of direction.
We were dropped off at Port Authority. Stepping out, I found myself overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. New York feels big, it feels alive and ever-moving. There is a feeling of old and new as skyscrapers stretch tall next to historic cathedrals. There is also a sense of how small we are.
I recently spoke to a friend and she described her first visit to New York City filling her with possibility; everything she could be. This, my first visit to New York City, made me feel lost.
I generally have a wonderful sense of direction; perhaps it is in my connection to the moonrise and the sunset. I know where I stand based on the turning of the earth. In New York, I felt like an ant among these giants with no connection to the earth. The buildings blocked my view of the horizon.
Given time, I imagine I would learn landmarks and discover where I fit on this island, but these days, I felt confused and overwhelmed. So many moments of certainty that I was heading in the right direction, only to discover I was going the wrong way.
We dropped our bags off at our hotel (more on that next week) and Pat, our New Jersey hostess began to show us around. She would be sending us on our way in a few hours, but for the time being, she gave us a grasp on the city.
So many landmarks are pressed together on this small strip of land; Times Square is around the corner from Rockefeller Center which is across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral which is around the corner from the Rockettes and a few streets from Broadway and all of this is down the street from Central Park.
Before this trip, I didn’t understand that it was all so close.
We found our way to St. Andrew’s Cathedral, bordered by 5th and Madison Ave. The cathedral began being built in 1858 and construction stopped during the Civil War, finally being completed in 1879. It is the largest Gothic Revival Catholic Cathedral in North America.
When you see architecture like this amongst the modern buildings, you are reminded of the antiquity of New York’s history. Having had the opportunity to travel through parts of Europe, New York is unique in its blend of old and new, neighbors within history.
Europe has a tendency to keep the old with the old. New York seems to keep a bit of the old and then grow bigger on what no longer serves them.
St. Andrew’s is beautiful with its sculpture and mosaic and stained glass windows. Walking inside, you could imagine that you are no longer within the United States, but rather wandering through a European city. It is a surprise to your senses when you step outside into the shadows of glass and steel.
Pat needed a quick visit to the Apple Store before her own journey to Scotland (which you can read about through her journals here). Never before have I seen such a beautiful Apple Store. Having left the Gothic history of St. Andrew’s, here we enter the modern world of technology today.
You enter through a large glass facade that reflects the buildings around it. You are met by security before spiraling down two stories through a twisting staircase lined with plants and mirrors. The large underground room spreads out, decorated with living trees and open space and a multitude of tables and products and assistants.
It feels futuristic while familiar.
After Apple, we walked across the street with Pat and into Central Park. Central Park deserves more than the tiny bit of time we were able to give it. We boarded a horse-drawn carriage and took a short 20-min ride through the southern tip of the park.
Central Park is lined by the silhouette of the city but allows the world to stretch out, allowing you a moment of grounding. Couples cuddle at the base of trees, children run on the paths, there are bicyclists, and there is music from street performers all as background to the clomping feet of the carriage horse.
We made our way from Central Park and said our goodbyes as Pat headed back to New Jersey and we made our way via New York Subway to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
I remember not understanding the underground in Paris as a high school student on a choir trip. I sat and cried in confusion. Thankfully, New York subways are fairly clear. Technology has made it easier, plugging your destination in through your map, your phone will walk you to the nearest entrance and tell you your approximate wait time. Not only that, your phone will pay the entrance fee. You no longer need to buy tickets unless you prefer the way the paper feels between your fingers.
We exited the Subway and turned to see the enormous fountain memorials dedicated to those lost on 9/11, a memorial to the world that changed on that day.
I think we all remember where we were when the Twin Towers fell. It has been said that 9/11 was our generation’s Pearl Harbor.
I woke up that morning; my alarm was a morning comedy talk show. The first tower had been hit 14 minutes earlier. Coming from sleep, I was trying to understand if this was a story they were telling. I couldn’t make clear sense of what they were doing. And then, 3 minutes after I awoke, the second airplane hit. Suddenly, everything within me sunk.
I had been staying at my parent’s at the time and I ran in to turn on their TV. They could see that something terrible had happened by the look on my face.
We stood, watching the screen, paralyzed, as Flight 77 hit the pentagon.
And then, an hour later, the South Tower fell.
My heart felt like it shattered as I understood all the lives that were lost at that moment. All the families torn apart at that moment. The weight of our world changed in a few short hours on the morning of September 11th.
Three minutes later, Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
How many more planes were in the air? How many more people had to die on this day? How many more families would be ravaged in these moments?
26 minutes later, the North Tower collapsed.
I was a second-grade teacher. Our school district did not shut down. How do you continue to act like this is just another day when you are so overcome with grief for what has just happened? How do you continue to teach when your students are afraid to be away from their parents?
We kept the television off in the classroom, but internally, all I wanted to do was watch and understand and be updated. I wanted to cry and scream and grieve for the people killed on that day.
And so, if we did anything in New York, the 9/11 Memorial was a place I needed to visit.
In the footprints of both buildings are fountains lined with the names of those who died. The water tumbles and sparkles like the lives that were lost. The water comes together and then falls again into a dark shadow that we can’t see.
As you move into the museum, you move down, deeper and deeper, below the heavy fortress of the water memorials. Underneath these huge fountain footprints are the stories of the people who lived and died on 9/11.
Something we often don’t hear about at the site of the World Trade Center is “The Bathtub”. The Bathtub is a 7-story dam that covers 9 blocks and was built down to bedrock to allow the Twin Towers to be built, protecting them from the Hudson River. The earth removed from this space was used to build Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhatten.
When the Twin Towers were hit and then collapsed, there was a chance that these slurry walls would break and flood Lower Manhatten, filling the Path Tunnels which carry trains under the Hudson river between New York and New Jersey. Thousands more would have died.
Engineers and firefighters worked tirelessly, pumping water and securing these walls after the Twin Towers fell and during rescue operations. The original walls stood.
The Survivor’s Staircase was the last visual structure above ground after the Twin Towers fell. It served as an evacuation point for hundreds of evacuees from 5 World Trade Center.
Ladder Company 3 was in the middle of a shift change when the first tower was struck. Both tours of men went together to the North Tower and made their way up, helping as many as possible. They were on the 35th floor when the North Tower Collapsed, leaving Ladder Company 3 with some of the most losses of any New York Fire department. Their firetruck was crushed as the tower fell.
On May 30th, 2002, the last column was removed from the site of the World Trade Centers. It was anchored in bedrock and supported the South Tower’s inner core. It was located near the south tower lobby, where first responders had been last reported. It was physically marked through recovery efforts as a landmark in searching for survivors and became a landmark of loss after the remains of FDNY Squad 41 were found there.
The Twin Towers and the Bathtub were built deep into the bedrock. The museum allows you to see these structures as you make your way into the far corners of the memorial.
Two twisted beams of steel hang in the 9/11 Memorial Museum and they are identified in the photo after the plane hit the North Tower. The destruction becomes tangible when you see and understand the power that can dissolve steel into dust.
Standing to the south of the 9/11 memorial is the One World Trade Center, the main building within the rebuilt complexes around the 9/11 museum. It stands as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the seventh tallest building in the world. It stands at 1,776 feet tall, which was deliberate in connecting to when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
What captivated me about the One World Trade Center is how it was created to reflect the sky around it. While ever present in its height, it also disappears into the blue, allowing the clouds to echo on its surface.
I leave you here today, dear readers. Thank you for coming on this journey with me. We stayed in the museum until it closed and then continued our walk south. That will be a story for next week.