If you want to feel insignificant, try standing still on the corner of Cedar Street and Trinity Place. Stand at the South West corner in front of the yellow-brick school-house and do nothing. Do nothing for hours and watch yourself doing nothing.
The motion of the city around you, the crowds and the cars pushing through one of the New York’s busiest arteries, will inspire a restlessness that is almost instinctual. You will shuffle back and forth without knowing it. You will walk up and down the block, admiring the architecture, trying to guess at the how and the when the buildings around you came about. You will gaze with jealousy at the tourists sitting comfortably on park benches across the way, as oblivious to your plight as they are to the history they are resting on, and when the sunlight finally graces the canyons of the narrow Financial District openings, you will go half mad when you see the looks of contentment on their faces as they close their eyes, tilt their heads back toward the light. By this time, you will cross the street at least once, if only to remind yourself of the freedom of movement. You will watch the people moving in and out of that yellow-brick building and begin to know them; you will associate the gravity that pulls them inside with the same gravity that keeps you rooted, and they will become your imagined comrades.
When you do finally still yourself—when the monkey brain quiets and the lizard brain activates its slow, unblinking surveillance of the world around it—the city will crush you. It will crush you with nothing but its breath and the contraction of its ribs.
For six months it was my job to stand on that corner. I did it in white-out conditions that froze your breath n your lips, and I did it in heat that cooked the asphalt. Psychologists will tell you that potentially unpleasant activities become completely unbearable—not to mention degrading—when money is involved. Those six months working at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum is a testament to that theory. Whatever possible value I might have found in spending hours of my life standing on a random street corner (people watching, day dreaming, admiring the buildings or just enjoying the stillness) was effectively leached out because it was just my job.
There isn’t any exciting origin story behind my arrival at the Memorial. I’d just been fired from my job, and a friend of mine had an in. Any attachment I had to that day had long since vanished. Some people had a very real stake in it. I respected that. Those people tended to be exceptional. I can honestly say in thirteen years I’ve never worked with a better team. Unfortunately, it made no difference. Amazing co-workers or not, the job sucked.
It wasn’t just the pay, the monotony, the management, or the visitors. It was the place. It was the mindset the place demanded of you. This was an entire place dedicated not to looking at the past, but to staring at it. Fetishizing it. Gazing down into it like a well. This was a place that required stillness, and in downtown Manhattan, stillness is a death sentence. When you stand on that street corner, you can’t help but see the gravestones.
Go on. Read the names.
- Willem Kieft, Governor of New Amsterdam and a Director of the Dutch
West India Trading Company orders the massacre of 120 indigenous men, women, and children after establishing treaties with them. Two years of hostilities follow. The Dutch erect a double-barrier along the Northern border of New Amsterdam to protect itself from the just retribution of the people. This Wall Street will remain well fortified in the centuries to come. The barriers will reach heights of stone and secrecy worthy of the West India Traders; the first great tradition of the neighborhood.
- A small church built atop a graveyard becomes one of the largest land owners in New York City history when Queen Anne grants Trinity Church 215 acres. Building on top of the dead; another tradition.
- New York City’s first slave market opens on the corner of Wall Street and Pearl. Is the location significant? A prophecy of things to come? Or is the image of confinement juxtaposed with wealth just another American coincidence? Ever the Democratic stronghold, New York institutes a tax on every slave sold.
- Washington is inaugurated as America’s first President on that same street.
- Bankers meet beneath a tree to give birth to the New York Stock Exchange.
- Alexander Hamilton is laid to rest in the Trinity Church graveyard. A
Founding Father of American economics killed in a duel.
The sectarian realities of genocide, profit, slavery, religion, democracy, gun violence, and politics do not rip open a hole in the fabric of time when piled atop one another on the same eight block stretch. They form a sedimentary marriage, calcifying and fossilizing into a granite engine. The Angel of Death weds Adam’s first wife and the baby shower never ends. Attendance is mandatory.
There really is something geological about the architecture in that area, like the canyons in Utah and Arizona. The buildings grew so fast that they managed to outrun poverty. No sign remains of the slums left to fester in the shadows of enterprise or the immigrant villages of Ottoman refugees. It takes a kind of temporal geological excavation to find these rock layers. The reminders of what came before are all hidden at the bottom. The Italian restaurant on the opposite corner; the Chinese eatery further down the block; the beggars who occupy their own secret New York. But the most compelling thing about the area’s history is the anti-history of it all. It’s the geology of motion and movement, growth and consumption. The past has been evicted. Gentrification replaced it with the never-ending now.
“Excuse me, where are the burning buildings?”
This is a common question. They don’t understand. They really don’t believe change is possible. It’s not expected. They saw a single image twelve years ago and there’s been no room in their mind for anything else. A bronze man sits with an open suitcase in Zuccotti Park. For two months, protestors occupied Wall Street, following the bronzed man’s lead, with a round the clock sit in before police forcibly evicted them. The rights of assembly, protest, and dissent were but a momentary oversight. The bronze man is still there, though. He’s keeping his head down. He knows what happens to people who cause trouble.
- A horse-drawn carriage full of dynamite explodes at one of Wall Street’s busiest intersections. 38 people die. No one takes credit. Business resumes the following day, accompanied by a Constitution Day rally. Far from quelling local industry, the attack, which was blamed on Communists and Anarchists, inspired a new wave of dedication to the Capitalism which defines American excellence. The buildings kept growing. Hegelianism wins this battle.
- Construction begins on the World Trade Center. The project displaces so much soil that the nearby beach is transformed into a development. Hundreds of residents and business owners protest their forced relocation under Eminent Domain. Little Syria, a former immigrant community, is already 30 years gone. They read the fine print on the America Dream: take what you can get and run.
- Bored with this 21st Century Babylon, god allows a brief flood, just to shake things up. As is the way of things, the worst damage is dealt to people who live miles away. Wall Street keeps ticking. It’s already survived the rain of fire and darkness that would turn a pharaoh’s knees weak. Plagues are old news. A little water isn’t going to scare anybody. It just increases property values.
Everywhere I look I see invisible mouths, as if the ground itself might open up and eat me alive. I try to imagine what it must be like to be the people in the cars, with places to be and people to take care of. I am standing still while the world turns under me. I could just walk away; I know that I should. When I don’t, they send me underground. Two, three, four stories, each circle passing with no guide. The blue tiles on the wall are the only sky they give us. Watching the world pass me by is over: down here, the world is gone. There’s nothing but that one day. Instead of seeing the cars and crowds, they give me a clip of tower one collapsing on loop, an audio track of phone calls from the dead, a conversation between air traffic controllers about the difference between “down” and “landed.” The relics are preserved in their destruction. Melted sneakers, exploded steel beams, ejected elevator motors. Time stands still, and the customers are happy. They finally have their burning buildings.
This was where I learned the city did not love me, and that if I stood still any longer, it would crush me. Three days after I quit my job, I enrolled in school again. I still love history, and I might even love my home, but I don’t trust it. I’m too scared to slow down and let it catch up with me.