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Profane, tacky, profound: New York grieves and gets over it

People walk past a mural in the Queens borough of New York honouring victims of the Sept.11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.


A nice fellow tries to hand me a card reading, "New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club," and then, noticing that I'm not the target demographic for a downtown peeler bar, mutters an apology. It's all right: Several "gentlemen" passing by are happy to take his wares.

Nearby, the driver of a yellow school bus (illegally parked) is in the midst of a screaming match with the driver of a courier van (also illegally parked). Their conversation is punctuated with "whaddaya think you're doin'" and words that would disappoint their mothers. Just another morning in wonderful, anarchic, up-yours New York.

Except that the ground we're standing next to is hallowed; the giant hole in the earth, slowly being planted with new skyscrapers, is the great scar on this city, on the whole country. Just a hundred metres away is the National September 11 Memorial, two sombre fountains engraved with the names of the dead, surrounded by oak trees (and the "survivor tree," a battered and singed pear tree found in the World Trade Center rubble, nursed back to life and now the subject of its own documentary). The memorial will be opened to victims' families on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, and the city can finally let out its breath. It's as if New York has been waiting 10 years to rip off a Band-Aid.

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All the guidebooks say this is a sacred space, to be quietly respected, but the memo seems to have been lost in the mail. Families stop to have their smiling photos taken under flag-draped cranes. Across the street, at the mall-cum-prison riot known as Century 21 ("Fashion worth fighting for!"), shoppers battle for the last fuchsia crop top and pair of Hello Kitty underpants. You have to admire the city's inability to behave itself.

But the mood is rigorously reverent everywhere else – in the countless books, documentaries and remembrance sites that make up what the Village Voice recently called "the memorial-industrial complex." (The Voice, with great courage, was pointing out the "winners" of 9/11, those who have mined the wreckage for wealth or prestige.)

Inside the Tribute WTC Visitor Centre, run by the families of the victims, the $15-a-head crowd fills every inch of the two floors. The atmosphere is respectful and church-like, in contrast to the mad whirl outside, and the bustling construction site across the street. It is intensely moving – a fireman's torn jacket and battered helmet, a re-creation of the famous wall of missing-person posters, one simply featuring a smiling man in a suit under the words "pray for him."

There is no mention of the context of the tragedy, of who flew the planes into the World Trade Center towers or why. It's like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with the central pieces missing.

Over at the Ground Zero Museum Workshop, another non-profit memorial ($25 for a two-hour tour), our guide says we will not be shown pictures of the planes hitting the Twin Towers, "because we don't find it to be of a healing nature." However, relics from the site, such as one of the only intact pieces of glass, are handed around in silence as if they're saints' finger bones. We are allowed to hold the crosses and Stars of David that steel workers cut from the twisted beams. Needless to say, there are no crescents.

The most catastrophic event on modern U.S. soil was bound to be memorialized with particular ferociousness; memorials are all that the living have left. Americans are amazingly good at pageantry, perhaps not so good at silence.

It seems that the United States, and New York in particular, abhors a vacuum. Holes and absences are almost an affront to its sense of marching forward, and together, and up. Not surprising, then, that so much stuff – books and pictures and movies and words – was created to fill the emptiness.

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In her terrific new novel The Submission, Amy Waldman dives right into these troubled waters: What if, unknowingly, a Muslim were chosen to design the ground zero memorial? She writes with brutal clarity about how everyone wants to put his or her own mark on the monument, and thus shape history. The hole in the skyline is an insult to the people who built the city over centuries: "The new gap in space," she writes, "reversed time."

On the sidewalk beside ground zero, a man points up at a glass skyscraper. When it's finished in 2013, the building will rise to 1,368 feet, exactly the height of the Twin Towers. The symbolism doesn't stop there: With its antenna, it will be 1,776 feet tall. "That's the Freedom Tower," the guy says.

Only later do I find out that officials are trying to discourage this nickname; the David Childs-designed building is officially One World Trade Center. I consider going back and passing this bit of authorized trivia to the man, but what would be the point? You can't tell New Yorkers what to do. And that, of course, is a very good thing.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

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