Nearly everywhere you go in Manhattan, the tower at One World Trade Center – the ‘Freedom Tower’ – stands tall above the rest. It dwarfs the streets and structures that surround it. During the day it reflects the sky, shades of blue or grey or gold, depending on the hour. At night it twinkles, a beacon at the edge of Manhattan, a bright light in the darkness.
As a Scottish islander who (relatively) recently relocated to New York City, it’s a literal beacon to me as I navigate the avenues and the cross streets that make up Manhattan. There are times, still, when I emerge from the hot, thick air of the subway, blinking in the light, wondering which way to turn. On those occasions I always search for One World Trade Center: like a marker on the map, it helps orientate me. If One World Trade is there, I think, I need to take this street here.
I have never known a New York without the construction or presence of the new One World Trade Center. My first visit to Manhattan was in 2008, when the damage of September 11th was still physical, still visible, a crater of rubble with engineering work slowly starting. Over the years, as I travelled back and forth across the Atlantic, I watched One World Trade Center rise, those bright lights at night reaching higher and higher into the sky on each visit.
As One World Trade Center grew, so did my relationship with New York. I moved to America at the end of 2014, and got married in the West Village at the start of last year, on a day that was cold and icy and beautiful, as New York always seems to be on those crisp afternoons when the light is fading. I marvelled with the rest of the city as spring arrived, and workers started eating lunch outside by the lawn in Bryant Park. I still thrill at this city at night, at the very real buzz you feel when surrounded by neon lights and crowds of people moving en masse.
I’m building a new life in New York City, a city which in very real ways is still rebuilding itself in the wake of that September morning 15 years ago. I wasn’t here that day, but I remember it well. Don’t we all? A professor in my university course on U.S. War and Diplomacy once told us that September 11th would be our generation’s JFK moment. It was an event that would define our collective history, and none of us would forget where we were when we heard the news.
When I heard the news I was 13 years old, in the early stages of secondary school in the Outer Hebrides. It was on the bus home that afternoon – the local bus that would swing by the school on its usual route through the village – where I overheard a neighbour ask my mother if she’d heard what was happening in New York. Had she seen the news?
We hadn’t, but ten minutes later we were watching it all unfold live on television. I remember exactly where I was sitting in the living room, my angle in relation to the TV screen. I remember my grandmother coming in to tell us, in Gaelic, that our American family were all okay – the one with the office in one of the towers had decided not to go into work that morning. I remember writing in my little flower-patterned journal that night, wondering what was going to happen next.
I remembered it all over again when I visited the observation deck on the 101st floor of One World Trade Center. Standing high above the city, you can’t fail to remember why the building you’re in was constructed in the first place. When you first enter, there are first-hand video accounts of those who helped build the tower, explaining what it means to them as New Yorkers, and they’re incredibly moving; I found myself fighting back tears. This is more than the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
Back on ground level, I stopped at the twin reflecting pools that mark the former footprints of the Twin Towers. Away from the glamour of glass and steel, the memorial feels noticeably quieter, distinctly different from that famous New York buzz that visitors and locals alike can’t get enough of. There are quiet queues of people waiting to get tickets for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Others, like me, stand silent by the pools, contemplating the mass of names etched into the fountain walls.
But New York is nothing if not resilient. It’s why that tower now stands tall above the rest. It’s why business is beginning to flourish once again in the neighbourhood. Publishing giants Conde Nast have opened offices on multiple floors. Across the street, the glossy Brookfield Place offers high end shopping and dining options. The latest outpost of the global Westfield shopping mall chain only recently opened its doors, just steps from the reflecting pools.
There are many locals who refuse to come here, who for 15 years have never set foot on this plaza at the narrow tip of Manhattan. It’s understandable: if this city had been my home then, I don’t know how I would have coped either. Every time I see that tower, standing tall above the rest, blue, grey, and gold in the changing light, I remember, if only for a moment. My newly adopted home may be the city that never sleeps, but it’s one that never forgets, either.