Sunday, July 03, 2005
An Image From The Past
The Future of Freedom
(An architectural rendering, Skidmore,Owings & Merrill LLP)
A new tower, replacing the felled, twin World Trade Centre towers will soon rise from downtown Manhattan. Freedom Tower will be 70 stories, 1,776 feet tall and will culminate in a spire which in turn will shoot a beam of light into the sky. The decision to freeze on the Tower marks the end of much debate on what and whether anything should substitute the WTC twin towers.
This writer, for one, has strongly felt that America should have rebuilt the two towers or created something that was close to the original. Symbolism apart, there is nothing on earth that can possibly replace the sheer majesty that the 110-storey towers represented, the raw power and might that New York radiated thanks to these monuments. Perhaps its the force of the first impression which makes one feel this way.
It was a biting cold, windy day. And pouring sheets of rain. For a first time visitor to New York, one couldn't have felt less welcome. The flight into John F Kennedy Airport, New York earlier in the evening was on time and my first encounter with US immigration was, well, uneventful. The heavyset officer with a balding pate and thick moustache barely looked up though as he rattled off the mandatory questions. “What brings you here sir ?”. “How long will you be staying ?,” was next. A resounding thunk followed and the passport was handed back.
Old & Musty
JFK airport felt and smelt old and musty. There was an almost dreary 70s feel to the place. Most of the airport officials I passed by looked like they had been at their posts for ever, the men sported paunches and appeared healthy, perhaps fit as well. The customs officers stood imposingly in groups of three and four alongside the exits, but appeared engrossed in themselves, perhaps the usual evening banter before adjourning to the pub nearby, if there was one. The time felt right, it was 8 pm.
JFK has been in the throes of renovation (The $9.4 billion JFK Redevelopment Programme) for what must be a decade now and this was clearly the middle of it all, given the work-in-progress detours as one walked towards the exit. A young doctor couple, my hosts for the evening were waiting and waved excitedly as I emerged into the arrival lounge. Of course, in all arrival lounges and halls in most airports of the world, only a handful of people seem to be waiting for anyone. Contrast that to the merry bedlam at our airports.
My luggage, a single cabin bag, was yanked from my hand, quick pleasantries were exchanged and we were through the main exit and out of the building. The next moment, we were being whipped by the rain. Coming from London, the cold and rain were bearable but the howling wind was not; a hastily donned wind cheater failed miserably in its designated purpose. We darted across a few covered parking lots and then headed out into an open one, getting drenched all the way.
Battle On The Expressway
The car was soon located and after some customary fumbling with keys we were in, me at the back and the couple in the front. The engine mercifully caught at first turn, the heater was switched to full blast and we began rolling out. My destination was the Port Authority bus terminal in mid-town Manhattan on 40th street where I would board a Greyhound for Buffalo to meet up with other friends. That was 10 hours from New York. If I reached the terminal.
The couple had moved to New York only recently from elsewhere in the US and their locating JFK airport in this weather, I was reminded somewhat jocularly, involved considerable struggle. I thanked them profusely for making it, once again - I felt genuinely grateful. Outside, the rain continued to beat down as the windshield wipers now began swinging in rapid arcs. The usual expressway signs were appearing and then falling behind. I knew Manhattan was 17 miles or so from JFK but little else.
A crucial intersection was coming up and the lady-friend began focussing on the maps with great intensity. “Should I turn or go straight ?” my friend on the wheel barked. “Hang on.” “Tell me quickly, we are reaching the exit ?”. “I can’t concentrate if you keep shouting,” was the retort. “Is this it ?” The answer never came because we seemed to have reached the exit in question and my friend swung right. A battle royale erupted on the front seats. I took to identifying the models of the cars flashing past on the other side of the road.
My silence obviously caused some embarrassment or that’s how long intra-couple highway routing fights usually lasted on American expressways because the argument soon died down. After a brief silence and some introspection, the couple announced we would take a slightly longer route but would still make it to the Port Authority bus terminal by 9.30 or so, in time for my Greyhound connection.
New York At Night
Looking back, it must have been the Brooklyn Bridge that we were approaching, on the Brooklyn-Queens expressway. Maybe we had missed the Williamsburg bridge, a shorter road to mid-town Manhattan and hence the skirmish upfront. Whatever the reason, we were now clearly approaching the bridge, standing still in all its charm and glory, since the time it was built in 1883.
“We are on the bridge,” announced my friend. I leaned forward to grab my first glimpse of the New York City skyline. We had clearly moved faster than I thought, the tall buildings of downtown Manhattan, so far seen in movies, night shots over the bridge and innumerable posters was suddenly in front of us. And rising majestically from the huge clump of massive towers were the even bigger twin World Trade Centre towers.
The blinding rain made clear sight difficult and I jerked from windshield to side window view back to windshield. There seemed nothing on earth that could be as perfectly still, straight and striking as the two towers, with their sheer, imposing size and perfect symmetry. For a moment, the two giant sentinels seemed to fill the entire night sky, with the office lights twinkling away like distant stars, all the way up.
If America represented might, size, the domination of man over nature, the architectural genius, the dreams and desires that could convert mere office blocks into massive twin, concrete creations that shot upwards into the sky, the towers seemed the convergence of it all. It was a symbol of America, a symbol modern immigrants must be endeared to. And then, almost as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone, like an astral projection that had been switched off. The next moment, we were gliding into a traffic jam, in Manhattan.
9/11, Before & After
In a later trip, while visiting the New York Stock Exchange in particular and the Wall Street area in general, I once again chanced upon the twin towers, this time in broad daylight. They appeared no less imposing than before and one was tempted to go to the top, though one look at the long, snaking line of tourists and I gave up. The next time I really had a good look at the towers was on TV, back in Bombay on a balmy evening, minutes after the first plane had crashed into one of the towers.
Two years later, I was back on Ground Zero, walking around, watching the ceremonies in progress, of the second anniversary of 9/11 being observed. Children of many who lost their lives, particularly brave men and women working for the Fire Department of New York and the Police were reciting messages and prayers. A lady police officer stood next to me. She was solemn but did not seem unduly affected. I asked if she was here when it happened. “No, I worked upstate earlier,” she said somewhat matter of factly.
I wanted to engage someone in a debate on what should replace the twin towers though this clearly seemed an inopportune moment. Groups of young men and women were distributing CDs of religious songs. A block away, outside St. Paul's Church, which remained unscathed and housed most of the rescue operations after the blast, a smartly dressed man in a suit was imploring everyone to join some church. And then around noon, the low-key ceremonies were over and everyone started dispersing.
New Yorkers and others did debate the matter of the replacement though, accompanied with regular bouts of architectural controversy. The people of New York, collectively or otherwise, have chosen the single Freedom Tower. The image of the twin towers on that cold night will remain seared in my memory. The new Tower will perhaps make up in spirit, what it lacks in grandeur.