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Anastasia Ashman

Living at Ground Zero - The View from West Street

View from Brooklyn

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 doesn’t set any more, instead growing dim and then high-powered lamps of the recovery effort replace the WTC’s 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 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 home.


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