9/11 Memorial Opens at Ground Zero

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a powerful memorial opens at Ground Zero. Nick Summers takes a tour.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum, as it is officially known, won’t be all things to all people. But it will be a lot of things to a lot of people. A place to mourn the dead. A place to look down into fountains and up into the sky, tracing where the planes struck. A place for tourists to pay their respects, and a place for suits to eat Chipotle at lunch. A nice place to attract new residents to a neighborhood that needs them; a sad place for widows and momless kids to mark the birthdays that could have been. A place to complain about the committee-made architecture replacing the boxy towers we didn’t know we loved; a place to marvel that a moving memorial was built at all. A place to curse Osama and the decade he made, and a place to transfer from the PATH train to the A/C/E subway line.

The memorial grounds will open to family members of the dead on Sept. 11, 2011; everyone else will gain entry the next day. What they’ll find are two square waterfalls, marking the footprints where the World Trade Center towers stood, each with a smaller waterfall laid into its base. You can’t see the bottom from standing height. Water flows into water, never filling a void. Ringing the falls, the names of the dead are punched clean through sheets of bronze. They are arranged by algorithm so that victims are placed next to the people who mattered to them; the non-alphabetical arrangement means that office best friends are adjacent, and firefighters in the same company remain together; there is a same-sex couple and their toddler, with a tangle of last names, the dads above the boy.

Around the waterfalls are more than 225 swamp white oaks and one callery pear, a tree that survived the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, and at whose base President Obama laid a wreath after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. The oaks can grow to 70 feet. The site architects want them to baffle the sound of traffic and dampen the Hudson River wind, which can rush into the waterfalls and spray the unsuspecting mourner. The memorial, museum, and plaza sit on eight acres. Eight more acres of the original World Trade superblock are given to new towers, the largest of which, One World Trade, is set to top out, in 2013, at 1,776 feet, making it the tallest structure in the United States.

Memorial designs are contentious to begin with, and this one played out in New York City, where real estate is both cutthroat and gridlocked. One of the fiercer battles was over the level of the memorial. The original site plan called for it to sit 30 feet below the street.

“We had to bring the site up to grid, because before, it was cut off. It would have been a memorial ground, but it would have been only a memorial ground, and it would have atrophied over time,” Michael Arad, who designed the memorial, told Newsweek. “It would have suggested that the past is something that we set aside and don’t interact with on a day-to-day basis in New York. If this is like a scar, in the fabric of the city, it’s a scar that we don’t hide, it’s a scar that we don’t flaunt, it’s a scar that’s just there and it’s part of who we are. I actually think that the experience of visiting the memorial will be enriched by the presence of the normal life of the city, the office workers—like the office workers that died that day—sitting on a park bench, taking a 10-minute break with a friend. You’ll have neighborhood residents walking through here with their kids.”

“It’s meant to be something you just cross into,” says Joe Daniels, the memorial’s president and CEO. “But when you step on the memorial surface, you’ll know it.”

If the memorial is primarily a sort of clean space representing the interests of victims’ families and those who live and work nearby, the museum will be for everyone. From the street, it is an irregular glassy jewel jammed into the plaza, miniature in relation to the 105-story One World Trade. But that is just the opening to a cavernous underground space, which extends far below the memorial, to bedrock. You descend through a hole in the ground along a ramp that recalls the one leading out of the Ground Zero pit during post-disaster excavation. The first overlook is a jolt, a 70-foot drop that exposes a section of the Hudson River slurry wall, which held fast on 9/11, preventing lower Manhattan from flooding. On the floor next to it is the “last column,” the final steel beam removed from the rubble. Behind another giant wall is a space that will hold 9,000 specimen bags containing unidentified victims’ remains, which the medical examiner continues to inspect.

After the abstraction and implied absences of the surface memorial, the museum will display real artifacts like steel tridents, totaled fire engines, the “survivors’ staircase,” and I-beams deformed by the airplanes. Violent stuff, in contrast to the placidity above. The free memorial could draw five million to seven million visitors per year, Daniels says, and the museum, which will charge admission, 2.5 million visitors. The museum space is unfinished, but is expected to open on Sept. 11, 2012.