RETURNING TO GROUND ZERO
Living at Ground Zero - The View from West Street
I witnessed the whole thing from my skyscraping home at ground-zero-plus-five-blocks,
simultaneously safe and very much in danger. Through my huge north-facing
windows, I beheld the threat and the horror and the helplessness, as
monumental accident became deliberate destruction and then took its
sickening slide into debris-blanketed aftermath. My whole neighborhood
descended into chalky chaos and life as I had been living it was erased
from the small daily joys of the riverfront setting and the convenience
of the WTC mall, to a general feeling of security, the freedom to be
apolitical, and the comfort of life during peacetime.
When I finally ventured outside that afternoon - my bag filled
with valuables like eye drops, saline nose spray, a flashlight, our
passports, credit cards, and a bottle of water - there were chains on
the lobby doors and a sign announcing that the building had been evacuated
by the NYPD. I had ignored the insistent firebell, judging the building
safer than the Saharan scene that awaited me outside, but this was news
to me. I headed to seek refuge with an uptown friend three hours walk
north who assured me she had wine at the ready.However, when handwritten
signs directed me to Jersey-bound ferries and tugboats at the touristy
South Street Seaport, I decided instead to get out of the city and try
to rendezvous with my newly-wedded husband.
People were being hosed down at the train station in Hoboken and offered
donuts by very enthusiastic volunteers. Along a New Jersey train track,
modest houses were festooned with star-spangled banners and my first
thought was the displays were left over from Labor Day, but soon I realized
that they were speedy patriotic responses to the disaster. The smoke
could be seen from their porches.
Ten days later the building management invited us back. The amount of
work done in that time was palpable, but the streets were alien in a
different way, filled with equipment, soldiers, vehicles and barricades.
Fences had sprung up, asphalt had been laid, tents had been pitched.
Even the advertisements on the telephone booths along Battery Place
seemed loaded: a Continental Airlines ad proclaimed From the Center
of it All to Central America, and an obscure life insurance provider
insisted You Can Achieve Your Dream.
When I moved into my art deco building at the tip of Manhattan earlier
this year, the view was fantastic, a metropolitan backdrop of sheer
gorgeousness. On clear days I could make out the hills of New Jersey
and relished the rose sunsets over the Hudson river, plowed by sailboats,
ferryboats and partyboats, and on foggy nights the urban lights of history-book
structures like the World Trade Towers and the Woolworth building were
pure film noir. Now the same 26th floor apartment offers a dastardly
ground zero vista day and night, foggy or clear. While an obscene expanse
of sky lets in harsh new light through dusty windows by day, it seems
the sun doesnt set any more, instead growing dim and then high-powered
lamps of the recovery effort replace the WTCs motherboard maze
that once illuminated the night sky and majestically dominated my view.
Lesser views that formerly gave pleasure too have a sinister slant.
The roof of the Battery Parking Garage, once a favorite tableau of mine
with its reflection of the rhythms of the day and the foibles of local
drivers, is a forlorn sight. Twenty cars slightly covered in dust
a sporty black import, a battered maroon American sedan, a silver Mercedes
- still sit where they were parked at the beginning of a beautiful day.
While most people can turn off the dismal information overload with
a remote control, in my home the reminding din of jackhammers, reversing
big rigs and news helicopters continues 24-7. Yet in a neighborhood
over-run with emergency vehicles and heavy machinery, troops and press
corps, the air still choking from cached dust dislodged, there has been
a marked increase in butterfly sightings.
© Anastasia Ashman October 2001
Ms. Ashman is a freelance writer from Berkeley, CA and was most recently
deputy business editor at Internet trade publication INTERNET WORLD, in
New York City. (Her work can be seen at www.internetworld.com by entering
her name in the search engine.) Before that, she contributed arts and
society journalism to THE ASIAN WALL STREET JOURNAL and its sister publication,
Asia's premier English-language newsweekly FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW
in Hong Kong. She holds a degree from Bryn Mawr College - and works from
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