What sets New Your City apart from every other city in the world? Blaring horns, bright lights, assaulting sounds and smells from who-knows-where. Re-branded as “The Big Apple” by John Fitzgerald writing in 1970 about the prizes in the city as "the big apples" of competitive horse racing, this imagery covers all manner of opportunities that somehow seem bigger and better in and around this seven-mile-long city.
Ask any foreign citizen who says they want to visit America where they want to go…you’ll likely hear, NYC.
And as a transplant to this state that both loves and loathes our namesake, there’s just something about the juxtaposition of old/new, pretty/ugly, and altogether vibrant place, that is unlike anywhere else in the world.
And that is why, even in the August heat, I was eager to take the train down to Grand Central when out-of-town guests came to visit. My friend and I mapped out some possible routes, laced up our sneakers and set out down wide, wonderful Park Avenue to the tip of Manhattan to finally go visit the 9/11 Memorial.
We didn’t make it far, when I re-routed us past the charming Gramercy Park – not open to the public – and then we stopped at Pete’s Tavern for a Pastrami on rye. Refueled and ready for more walking, we headed back to our north/south route and crossed a city park, Union Square that was filled with lunchers, loungers and loafers. In the middle of this green oasis stood an enormous flagpole atop an intricately carved set of bronze plaques depicting democracy and tyranny, the text of the Declaration of Independence, and emblems from the original 13 colonies. Completed in 1926 by sculptor Anthony De Francisci, a quote from Thomas Jefferson circles the monument: “How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy.”
And, indeed, those who sat around this monument, myself included, probably take for granted that we live in a country with such blessings - both tangible and intangible.
We walk on, a sweet breeze keeping the heat at bay. The city seems less crowded today, more intimate. A few more blocks puts us in Washington Square and as we pass under the beautiful marble arch, we round the fountain with young people and vendors all a buzz. This park is right in the heart of NYU and it looks like it could be plucked from any European city.
After some refreshments, we finally make our way to the site of the 9/11 memorial. I am glad to see the park is free and open to the public. There is a cost for the museum and the memorial tour, but the actual grounds themselves are a welcome opening in the shadow of so many tall downtown buildings.
Still under construction in some spots, we round the fence and see the mass of people standing and gazing down. The sites – two of them, where once stood the World Trade Center twin towers – are massive enough to accommodate a place for each onlooker to come and pay their respects.
We walk up to the railing; hard, black marble forms a solemn hole in the ground.
Below us, water courses over the grooved edge, making a thousand tiny waterfalls that gather into a pool, but only for a short time, for the journey continues, down another darker square pool – an abyss of sorts – it is gone, but not forgotten for surely the maker of this memorial knows, just as the maker of heaven and earth knows, that water cycles; it falls but comes back to its origin.
We linger quite awhile.
Reluctantly, we pull ourselves from the banister with the names of the fallen die cut into the smooth, dark bronze metal. There is a white rose beside one of the names and we read on a placard that the roses are put beside the names on each person’s birthday.
Beside the memorial is a sister site, The Glade – long strips of cool, green grass framed by ivy that pay tribute to the rescue workers and fellow citizens who became heroes that day and the days to follow. Citizens who forewent their own safety for their fellow man.
For each of us who were alive that day, we can well remember where we were when we first heard of the attack. Like those defining moments for other generations, 9/11 will be die cut in the fabric of our lives.
It changed us.
I can’t help but think that this memorial – sober and solemn as it is – does not tell the full American story. It tells of a bleak day that fear struck our country, and the aftermath of community pride in the rubble of community devastation. But to keep looking down into that abyss and blaming someone, anyone for being so different that they would want to hurt us, has become a deeper wound.
For what seems truly lost to our country is the blessing of our differences.
It makes me sad to see our country tear itself apart over – what many would agree – are differences in form, not function.Functionally speaking, we all want the opportunity to work and worship as we see fit; buy and sell at a fair wage; love and give to those we choose; and enjoy safety and security. And we would probably agree with Jefferson that we have that available to us here in the good ol’ USofA.
Now form is a different story. Form connotates shape or configuration of a thing, the way it appears or is fashioned. Form is the reason one person plants a garden this way and another plants is that way – even if it’s the same plants.
Ironically, form is protected by our Constitution in this country. We have liberties guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights, to say and read and write what we want; to assemble peaceably (i.e. protest) for causes we believe in; to vote for who we believe best represents us. To protect ourselves. And be protected by the justice system.
We can’t keep looking down that black hole and think it will heal itself. We have to look up – to the promise of each new day, to the beauty in all the different faces around us, to hope in a government that protects our rights and, not ironically, gets its strength from our differences.
The monuments and memorials of this city are not perfect, just as we, the citizens of this country are not perfect. But what, we the people, do have in common and what these parks remind us, is that we live in one of the greatest places on earth – that together we have and will overcome evil. That the water pours down on good and evil alike, yet refreshes and returns and renews each day.
Let’s not be countrymen and women who focus on the bite and miss the big apple.