Saturday, October 17, 2015

A walk in the city: Trinity Church & the 9/11 neighborhood

The winglike World Trade Tower Transportation Hub and the Freedom Tower 
Our 28th floor apartment window faces south. In the distance we see a shimmering presence in the night, alight but often ghostly, the Freedom Tower. It stands on the site of the World Trade Center and bears the address of one of the original towers, now fallen, World Trade Center 1.

Eliza Hamilton's vault, Alexander's obelisk
Last Sunday we took the train downtown to visit the graveyard of Trinity Church, which is in the same neighborhood. I’ve been reading and occasionally blogging from the diaries of George Templeton Strong, who saw the Episcopal cathedral being built (its third incarnation) between 1839 and 1846. He recorded its rise in the diary.

Strong is apparently in a vault with someone else’s name on it, but where? We couldn’t find it. Nor could we find the grave of John Peter Zenger, champion of a free press in the 18th century, learning only through a deeper Google search that his grave is unmarked.

We did find the graves of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza. These have become a minor tourist attraction since the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a brilliant Broadway musical based on an innovative but relatively faithful historical interpretation. Fortunately Hamilton’s grave has not been overrun like Jim Morrison’s in Pere Lachaise in Paris, but flowers, stones and notes had been left there.

The cemetery is worth visiting even without the celebrity factor. It is well kept, and some of the stones have withstood the elements for centuries. The words on them hint at such human stories. 

The graves of Hannah Welsh and her 9-year-old daughter Elisabeth Rose
The oldest grave belongs to Richard Churcher, son of William, who died at 5 years old in 1681. Side-by-side stones mark the graves of Hannah Welsh, died at 40 years, 10 months, 12 days, on Oct. 15, 1795, and Elisabeth Rose Welsh, her 9-year-old daughter, gone 23 days later. How did James Welsh, the husband and father, cope with such a loss?

Steve Tobin's Sycamore sculpture
Beside the cathedral near the entrance to the south side of the cemetery stands a symbol of another kind. During the 9/11 attacks, the blast from the collapsing towers felled a sycamore tree in the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel, several blocks from Trinity. The tree helped protect the chapel from damage.

Steve Tobin, of Bucks County, Pa., created a bronze sculpture of the sycamore’s stump and roots. In 2005, while making it, he told The New York Times that he intended it not as a memorial but as a work of art “to show the power of the unseen.” People now walk between the roots and have their pictures taken before the sculpture.

It is in some ways a jarring experience to walk around the neighborhood of the church. This is the site of the great catastrophe of 9/11. It is still being transformed into a grand cityscape of memorial, resilience and resolve. It has also become a tourist attraction.

On this bright sunny Sunday, hawkers sold booklets to help visitors orient themselves to what used to be and to see how the damaged buildings in the neighborhood looked right after the attack Excited people in open-topped double-deck buses gazed and pointed upward.

This is the beginning of the inevitable transition from memory to history. Some people walking the streets were not even born when the towers fell, and many were young children. They are the first wave of visitors with no memory of 9/11. Many decades hence, every tourist will see the World Trade Center neighborhood as they now look upon a Civil War battlefield. It will be a place where terrible slaughter occurred, but the tragedy will be folded into history.

And yet after having spent the last two anniversaries of the attacks in the city, I found it disorienting to be in that neighborhood on a bright, pleasant fall Sunday. From close by, the Freedom Tower looks majestic. So does the great white birdlike World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The streets are alive. But the place also seemed removed from the way 9/11 touched – and still touches – so many people who live in and around the city.

New York City Hall
Freedom Tower rises above neighboring buildings.
From Robert Fulton grave, Trinity cemetery

Gravestones, Trinity cemetery

Alexander Hamilton's epitaph, Trinity Church Cemetery
The Woolworth Building, built in 1913, now a luxury condominium building.

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