As “wow” moments go, this one is engineered for maximum impact.
You step into an elevator at the base of One World Trade Center. The ride to the top takes 47 seconds — it is billed as the fastest elevator in the world. As you ascend, a time-lapse video, illustrating the topography of Manhattan as it has evolved from the 1500s to the present day, plays out on the elevator’s interior walls.
The doors open onto the 102nd floor, and you step into a long, dark corridor. No view yet. But then a two-minute video begins to play against the long wall — an ode to people and neighborhoods of New York City. At its conclusion, the screens begin to rise, like the ultimate high-tech stage curtain.
In the next instant, the room is flooded with light, and you can see virtually all of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs, bridges and rivers sprawled out in front of you and down below.
And no matter how many times you’ve visited the top floors of other famed structures — the former Sears Tower in Chicago, say, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris — chances are you and everyone surrounding you will respond with a “wow,” a “whoa,” or just a sudden, sharp intake of breath.
This, you think, is what it must look like watching down upon the world from heaven.
Fourteen years after al Qaeda terrorists brought down the twin towers and changed forever the way we think about lower Manhattan, the World Trade Center has been reborn.
This hasn’t been an especially easy process.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, many argued that to erect any new building would be a slight to the memory of those who perished in the attacks. Even after it was determined that a memorial would be created at the site of the fallen towers and that a new building would rise nearby, there were highly charged debates among politicians, civic leaders and families of 9-11 victims over who would design the spaces and what they ultimately would look like.
Until recently, the security and police presence in the area has been so intense that it seemed to cast everything in shadow, painfully reminding visitors of that tragic day and the liberties it stole from a nation.
These days, things are much different.
In 2013, the 9/11 Memorial was revealed, followed in May 2014 by the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Tenants of One World Trade Center — counting its spire, now the tallest building in the United States, at 1,776 feet — officially began moving in earlier this year. (The most notable of them is Conde Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, among other magazines.)
The final piece of all this was One World Observatory, which started welcoming visitors in late May.
Taken together, these sites represent more than just a transformed lower Manhattan; they also allow visitors to at once commemorate the horrors of Sept. 11 and look toward a bright future, to grieve and to achieve a measure of closure. It’s the most essential corner of New York City to visit right now.
Revisiting the 9/11 Memorial
If you describe it, the 9/11 Memorial — designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, and formally titled “Reflecting Absence” — sounds unbearably grim.
Two large, square pools, containing the world’s largest man-made waterfalls, are located at the exact sites of the former twin towers. Water rushes down the sides of the pools, and then into large square holes at the bottom.
Surrounding the perimeter of the pools are parapets, with bronze plates bearing the inscribed names of 2,983 people — the victims of 9-11 (including those who died at the Pentagon and on board the four hijacked planes), as well as the six people who were killed in the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center.
When I first visited the 9/11 Memorial, in October 2013, the skies were overcast and there was a stark chill in the air. With much of the surrounding area cordoned off because of construction of One World Trade Center, the memorial felt disorientingly cut off from the rest of the city.
With its water cascading into what seemed a kind of black-holelike abyss, the memorial seemed to evoke feelings of collapse and disappearance, of life inexorably vanishing before one’s eyes.
A recent visit, on a warm spring day in May, proved a different experience.
For one thing, you no longer need to make reservations or pass through multiple security checks; instead, you can approach the memorial pools from any of the surrounding streets, at any time of day or night. For another, the construction barriers have been removed. The memorial remains a heart-piercing and deeply humbling evocation of loss.
But instead of feeling disconnected from downtown Manhattan, it now feels simply like an oasis of peacefulness and reflection (the rushing of the waterfalls drowns out much of the ambient street noise).
Not far from the southern pool, you’ll find the entrance to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It perhaps goes without saying that you should be prepared for an emotionally harrowing experience, one that might not be suitable for younger visitors.
You should also plan to block out a significant chunk of time — I spent two-and-a-half hours there, but wished I had another hour.
The museum is rendered in concrete and dark wood, recalling the utilitarian coldness of the twin towers, but tempering it with a measure of warmth and serenity.
Among the extraordinary sights you’ll see as you wander the wide, high-ceilinged corridors: a portion of the original slurry wall of the North Tower that kept the Hudson River from flooding the original building site; the preserved “Survivor’s Staircase,” a flight of granite steps down which many survivors escaped on Sept. 11; and a stunningly beautiful art installation, consisting of 2,977 individual watercolor squares, all painted an individual shade of blue, an attempt — according to artist Spencer Finch— to re-create the color of the sky the morning of Sept. 11.
You’ll likely spend the most time, though, in one of two places: the victims’ memorial and the 9-11 exhibit.
The former is overwhelmingly poignant in its simplicity. Color portraits of each of the victims line the museum walls. Facing the walls are touch-screen consoles that allow you to search an index of the victims and learn more about them.
In a separate room, museumgoers can sit on wood benches lining the perimeter as a voice reads off the names of those who died on Sept. 11 and in the 1993 attack, and as a short biography and photos are projected onto the wall.
As for the main exhibition, it’s an exhaustive re-creation of the day of the attack, filled with chilling images, unforgettable video and heartbreaking audio; as you walk from display to display, you’ll almost certainly see museumgoers wiping tears from their eyes.
The curators have wisely steered clear of politics and the contentious aftermath of the attacks. Instead they focus on conveying the sheer scale of the attack (one of the first-response firetrucks is on display, its chassis mangled, burned and twisted) and recounting moments of staggering heroism (a priest who arrived at ground zero to deliver last rites, only to perish there himself).
Lingering controversy over the museum’s gift shop notwithstanding (many victims’ families have protested that souvenirs like refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs cheapen the memory of their loved ones), the museum renders the story of 9-11 in brutally physical, painfully human terms.
‘A spirit-soaring experience’
The museum is sobering and challenging, which is why I would recommend saving your visit to One World Observatory for last. By contrast, it’s a spirit-soaring experience that speaks of renewal and boundless possibility.
The observatory deck is actually three levels, occupying the 100th, 101st and 102nd floors of the building. The initial “wow” moment happens on the 102nd floor, but you’ll likely spend most of your time two floors below, where you are free to wander around for as long as you like, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows. (The 101st floor contains a cafe, bar and formal restaurant; reservations for the restaurant are accepted 30 days in advance and require a ticket to the observatory deck.)
How to describe one of the world’s greatest views? In every direction is another famous landmark: the Statue of Liberty; the Empire State Building; Central Park; the Staten Island Ferry.
As you make your way around the 100th floor, you can see the entirety of the New York City-New Jersey region, and how all of its disparate pieces connect: the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge stretching from Staten Island to Brooklyn; the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges linking the east side of Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO; the cars invariably backed up in circular traffic, trying to enter the Holland Tunnel and make their way to New Jersey.
If you’ve never before visited the region, the experience is wondrous — and, I would argue, a bigger, broader view than the one you’d enjoy from the tops of the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center.
But for those who are familiar with the city — or who, like me, grew up here — it’s arguably an even greater treat; a means of bringing a sense of cohesiveness and elegance to a place that, when you’re on the ground, can be so overwhelming and confusing.
Above all, this view from One World Observatory reminds us — New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike — of the indomitable spirit of this city; how despite the vilest efforts of terrorists, it can’t and won’t be contained.
If you go
One World Observatory
▪ One World Trade Center, New York
▪ Tickets are $26-$32.
▪ Timed entry tickets are on sale through Jan. 3, 2016.
9/11 Memorial and Museum
▪ 200 Liberty St., New York
▪ Museum tickets are $15-$24. (Viewing the memorial is free.)
▪ Timed entry tickets can be purchased up to three months in advance.