Ground zero then and now

| 07 Dec 2016 | 02:41

At the age of seven, I stood at Ground Zero holding my sister's hand. The craters in the ground were all that remained of the two buildings I vaguely remembered seeing all over TV just two years earlier. Only two intersecting beams resembling a cross stood erect in the site otherwise surrounded by leftover jagged metal and rubble.

Not many pedestrians stopped to glance at the work underway. Men and women in suits briskly walked by clutching their Blackberrys, eyes glued to the ground. Though I was young, I sensed the eeriness in the area during the moments when my family observed the remains.

As I walked to the 9/11 Memorial thirteen years later, I was shocked by how much the area had changed. The site has become a hub for selfie sticks and families posing for the camera, saying “cheese.” Every day, at least three layers of tourists fight to take videos of themselves next to the flowing water of the reflecting pool. Despite signs reminding visitors that this is a space for quiet remembrance, children zig-zag through the crowds playing tag while people of all ages carry on conversations. Yet once in a while, a family or couple embrace each other in utter despair, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the fateful day.

Having traveled to memorials all around the country, I've seen that none possess the commercialization of the 9/11 area. When I first viewed the Oculus, I appreciated the artistic design until I discovered the building is actually a multi-million dollar shopping mall. Kate Spade and Apple are trying to further their business just steps away from a massive tragedy. Dumbfounded, I asked native New Yorkers how they handle what has happened to the area. Most hadn't even brought themselves to see the memorial.

As my time reporting for the West Side Spirit concludes, plenty of significant events have unfolded in the past three months. Most recently, I watched thousands of stoic New Yorkers walk by in the rain on the day after the election. On September 18, I heard pedestrians buzz about the Chelsea bombings while scurrying to their destinations. Yet perhaps the most striking experience was the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Metal grates and NYPD officers blocked off the area, allowing only the victims' families into the vicinity that morning. The downtown area was quiet, with the sound of one or two helicopters above breaking the silence.

As the time of the first crash arrived at 8:46 a.m., officers and firefighters removed their hats while attempting to bring families in through the barriers and the crowds of gawking tourists. Those 60 seconds that morning started multiple moments of silence throughout the day, despite the few pedestrians who continued to play their music on speaker phone. I vowed to avoid the area for the remainder of the week and continue to find it hard to appreciate the memorial.

The burden of these heavy subjects was lessened the more I reported on the Upper West and Upper East Side. I enjoyed seeing the distinct differences in each neighborhood and how communities love their streets. Neighbors care about their local green spaces, the corner bus stops and small businesses. There may be no solution to the problems I saw at the 9/11 memorial, but writing and listening to stories from people in their neighborhoods proved to be a good antidote to the cynicism and anger I felt visiting the space where the Twin Towers once stood.