Bullish on the Big Apple

"Bullish on the Big Apple" Continued...

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

Like him, they're impatient with the slow pace of rebuilding, the continued gape in downtown-called "the bathtub"-where the two towers once stood. And they're weary of tourists who continue to pilgrimage there. At Gate 10 where construction workers pass in and out of the hole, a chain-link fence is lined with graphic street-level photos giving a chronological pictorial of what happened in the abyss just the other side of the fence. Even 51/2 years later, visitors stand slack-jawed, many crying, as they tour the site and realize perhaps for the first time the enormity of the devastation. New Yorkers, in contrast, hurry past, heading down steps into the newly reconstructed subway and train station or across the street.

But in reality Keyes is not done with it. "What they don't count on the rolls," he said, "are the living victims and the related deaths. Countless divorces, 16 suicides, 1,300 orphans." And those are just the ones he knows about as week in and week out he continues rounds of counseling for survivors. "For so many there is no end in sight. They are so deeply wounded," he said, including a widow who recently asked, "What day do I take my wedding ring off?"

The gaping hole remains open in part because of these gaping wounds. Family members of 1,148 victims have not received any remains identified as their relatives. Officials laid the cornerstone for the new Freedom Tower in 2004 and at that time expected the building to be completed this year, yet construction has not yet reached above grade. Discoveries of human remains and portions of the towers repeatedly halt construction. Then excavators using ground-penetrating radar and experts from the chief medical examiner's office go to work in new debris fields. Over 1,000 bone fragments have been found and many identified just in the last two years.

In front of the Engine Co. 10 firehouse on Liberty Street, Keyes pauses. There his buddy, retired fireman Lee Ielpi, helped open a museum honoring firefighters and other personnel killed on 9/11. Ielpi's own son, also a firefighter, died inside the towers. And now Ielpi has cancer. This month Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined a campaign to lobby Congress for $150 million to start a compensation fund for 9/11 responders battling respiratory and other illnesses believed related to asbestos and toxic materials used in the construction of the towers.

For so many, said Keyes, "this is still a graveyard. You might wonder why families act the way they do, but when they don't have remains at all, this is where their loved ones are buried."

Artist and longtime Tribeca resident Mako Fujimura (see "Seedlings in Stone," March 24, 2007) pushed to hold the International Arts Movement annual conference near Ground Zero this year in part to draw attention to the tension between past and future. The event drew record attendance of over 400 from around the world and included tours of the site by Keyes and others.

"We have the cultural capacity to get back to work and give back to the world," Fujimura said. For him the tension is an everyday part of life in lower Manhattan few outsiders may comprehend: "I understand the need to move on and to not get stuck. But you cannot forget the faces. Some of them I know. It is a collective wound and it is still visible. People continue to fight for community and resilience-just the fact that we are still here is a testament. You have to remember the comeback is remarkable."


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