With the possible exception of Las Vegas, New York City could easily claim title to the country’s brightest city. Maybe it is simply the kinetic energy of the City that Never Sleeps, but there is little question that as the sun sets, the city comes most alive. From Times Square to Coney Island, from the Empire State Building to the Statue of Liberty, from candlelit bistros to strobe-lit night clubs, New York is a city of lights.
It is fitting, then, that on the darkest day of the year, New York should turn to two towering beacons of light to remember the people, and the landmarks, lost on September 11, 2001.
“You don’t need someone like me to tell you what these are,” Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, said from a lectern on the roof the Battery Parking Garage last night, where the MAS had staged the Tribute in Light for its seventh, and perhaps final, year. “Everyone sees something different, and that is the beauty of this project.”
The MAS was hosting a semi-private viewing of the memorial last night, attended by the group’s staff and members, the project’s designers, lots of photographers, and a few volunteers from the local Audubon Society—it being migrating season, the birds can become disoriented by the lights—along with some light refreshments. Despite the somber occasion, there was a certain air of awe and even joviality in the crowd owing to the sheer magnitude of the array—88 lights arranged in two 20-foot squares throwing off 7,000 watts each.
The lights had been visible at times throughout the past week while they were being tested, but only last night did they burn from dusk until dawn. At first invisible, the beams quietly materialized like solemn apparitions, standing watch until the new sun rose, and with it, another day in the city. When dust blew threw the beams, happening often on such a blustery night, many onlookers spoke of ghosts or angels.
Massimo Moratti, the lead technician for Space Cannon, the Italian search light company that fabricated the special lamps, told the crowd it was such an honor to be here on behalf of his family. “My daughters, they start school,” he said. “They say, ‘My father go to New York, strike the light for memory, for the Twin Towers.’ Everyone is so proud.” Moratti has made the journey from Italy every year to oversee the “striking” of the lights.
“This quest,” he added, “is very important to remember. Remember every time."
After the remarks, the hundred or so onlookers made their way quietly and carefully around the rooftop, their necks craned skyward. Between laughter and tears, a calm overtook the roof. “I can’t even talk about it,” Richard Gould, one of the consulting architects, said with a pause. “Words don’t suffice.”
As with anything involving 9/11, everyone had their stories. Aditya Shah had moved to America to study architecture at Penn shortly before the terrorist attack. With a month free before school began, he came to visit New York, including a stop at the World Trade Center on September 8. “I remember getting off the subway and looking up and thinking, Do these things ever end?” he recalled. “Now, standing up here next to the lights, I feel the same thing. Do these lights have an ending? It feels very much the same but also different. It has a very calming effect.”
Shah had brought his new wife, Neha, a recent arrival to the States, who said that the memorial reminded her of American perseverance. “It just gives a great idea of the spirit of the city, the way people have gone about remembering 9/11,” she said. “I think it is just brilliant the way the city has bounced back.”
For others who had grown up with the towers, it was good to have them back, if only for a night. Gustavo Bonevardi, one of four designers who conceived the memorial, grew up in Greenwich Village where “these things were the backdrop to my childhood. We’ve even got home movies full of them.” Within hours of the attacks, Bonevardi said the idea for the memorial was already forming. “There was just something about the sky being violated,” he said. “Being an architect, there was this need to repair the skyline. It was all I could think about.”
The idea for the project was initially rebuffed by Mayor Rudolph Giulliani, but even when his successor, Michael Bloomberg, approved, there was a great deal of concern it would not be well-received by the city. Frank Sanchis, the senior vice-president at MAS and man who spearheaded the memorial, said that the response has been so overwhelming, the group is committed to keep it going at least until the permanent memorial opens, which was the original mandate. With that project incomplete, Sanchis hopes to persevere.
“It really has taken a hold, in New York and beyond” he told AN. “They’re really aware of it around the world. The lights are something America can really be proud of, and in a non-political way.” Down on the street, Sanchis' dream had come true. Firefighters and Chasidim clutched beers hand-in-hand outside pubs. Mourners gathered around impromptu memorials. Tourists, speaking a babble of languages, mobbed Ground Zero. But all, from time to time, silently craned their necks skyward.