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New York's Renewal

April 21, 2002

As springtime creeps its slowly warming way up and across northern North America, much has changed at the three devastating crash sites of 9/11--in New York City, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. The snows have melted. So have the shock, the despair, the shattered assumptions, the incoherent fears. A nation still cleaning up is savvier, more guarded, quicker to appreciate. Repairs have begun. The resolve is emerging, like the brave faces of yellow daffodils that shatter winter's gray. What hasn't changed are 9/11's nightmarish visions: four silver airliners eerily soaring into three huge buildings and a rolling field of grass where a little girl named Marissa once played so safely.

Today, pained pilgrims walk to one side of lower Manhattan to obtain a small, free ticket for a 10-minute viewing. Then they trek back across the island, up a worn wooden ramp covered with mementoes and memorial graffiti to an impromptu open-air cathedral dedicated to curiosity, closure, compassion--something different for each visiting congregant.

Nearly a million people have walked, shuffled, hobbled, wheeled, prayed and cried their way to this public precipice. These days, even at noon, chilly April shadows still cloak the modest, elevated viewing stand that New Yorkers call simply The Site. As they move toward the railing, eagerly curious, respectfully subdued even in New York, suddenly It spreads out before them: a vast, square cement coliseum, its depths inappropriately bathed in sunshine--16 acres of cramped Manhattan weirdly wide open, over 700,000 square feet, more than four large city blocks empty, void, gone, like the nearly 3,000 lives they contained. Big is too tiny a word.

This scene of death and destruction is surprisingly noisy. Drills. Air hammers. Horns. Sirens. Immense trucks beep-beeping backward. Whistles. Diesels struggling into motion. Subway trains rumble the ground once again. And then, incongruously, a squadron of vacuum cleaners screams to life as workers spring-clean the tombstones and grounds of adjacent St. Mark's Chapel, where President-elect Washington also visited and prayed so many years ago. A few blades of grass survive there, and the sparrows are back, chittering and chasing each other through the still-barren branches.

For long, silent minutes the visitors stare into and around the gaping cavity, its depths and ragged margins. Then they look not at each other--not yet--but up at the signs, flags and protective drapings adorning surviving structures and the torn papers still dangling from trees. Slowly, almost surreptitiously, they begin to take pictures--to prove the hole is there and they were too. They scan the graffiti: I miss you Angel. May your souls stand as tall as the towers in Heaven. Joey Never Forgotten.

There's no distinct smell at ground zero anymore. But there is a distinct presence. Or a memory of one. "Ladies and Gentlemen," the policewoman suddenly says in surprisingly loud tones for a wake, "please begin to leave so the next group can enter." Slowly, some still looking back, visitors move one after another toward the exit ramp away from It, down through another long, tall canyon of mementoes and prayers. They're quite quiet and quite composed, these people from so many places--until they're asked, one after another, why they came and what they're thinking.

And then the tears flow. One after another.


Monday: The Pentagon rebuilds.

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