With the Hudson River at my back I sit and eat two slices of acceptable "Famous Original Rays" or whatever it is pizza as I stare into the pool below the Irish Hunger Memorial. The koi swim in calm arcs with a few manic direction shifts, which seems just about right. Whenever I am here I think of this sick joke that I can make big money by opening a "Famine Fries" stand in the shadow of this monument, but I try hard not to mention that to anyone.
Long ago, when I was a kid, this whole area west of the Trade Center was just a giant beach. They'd filled all this land in, out beyond the old pier lines, when they built the towers, but then they'd argued about this place called "Battery Park City" for two decades. So it sat there, vast and empty and cool in the summer and icy in the winter and all we had to do was hop the fence and you could do anything out here, soccer, or stickball, drugs or sex, sunbathing or music – it was the most un-Manhattan place in Manhattan, and we loved it.
We loved all of downtown then. Companies were fleeing New York and Tribeca hadn't happened yet and nobody at all lived anywhere around. The old folks bitched that the Trade Center was ugly and too big and too square and the plaza was horrible and boring and the shopping mall was just a shopping mall. But fuck them. The towers were fucking brilliant, transparent and glowing and changing colors with every twitch of the sky. For the price of fairly but not absurdly expensive drinks you could go hang out and get hammered up top at Windows with the best view on the planet. You could skateboard or rollerblade or dance all night to whatever music you could bring to the plaza and the lightposts had outlets right there for power. And after all the suits left the whole lower level was for play. We'd meet guys on the cleaning crew for soccer games lots of Sunday nights in the lobby of One.
And when the suits were going home? Well, you could just hang out and watch the human Niagara of commuters pouring down the escalators at Path Square. It was our wonderland. And the world's – pulling even that French acrobat guy who walked between the towers. Couldn't do that in Midtown. Wouldn't even if you could.
I look around. The beach has long since turned into the World Financial Center and yes, the whole Battery Park City thing where no one I know could afford to even imagine living. There is no un-Manhattan Manhattan anymore. It is all Manhattan. Even a third of Brooklyn and parts of Queens are Manhattan now. The World Financial Center would look very, very big to almost anyone, I realize, if we didn't remember the Trade Center which was so much grander. Oh well. It was my city then. It is not my city now.
Still. This is a safer place. All around me are the rich slugs who rule everything now – Friends cum Seinfeld cum Sex and the City, you understand. You can hardly even make them afraid – back when I was a kid even white boys like us could generate fear and get people to cross streets to avoid us. But at least they are actual New York rich slugs and I am more comfortable with that than I am across West Street where tourists from Madrid and Tokyo and Seoul and Iowa gather and buy 9/11 trinkets and revel in some bizarre faked American heroism. Screw them. None of this really matters to any of them, they just like feeling like victims.
I climb to my feet and wander into the Hunger Memorial, entering through the shrinking dark tunnel. People came fleeing real fear back then. They were starving, their children were starving. They were watching their children starve while the British Army dragged food out of the country and back to London. Terrorism indeed. I walk through the ancient abandoned house, a remnant of a true famine village, and past the long cold hearth. Back in the sun I follow the winding path. At the top I look out at the river. Maybe back in 1978 there was a high pile of dirt right here, and maybe I stood in this spot looking this way, seeing a wholly different world.
But it is time to head back to reality. I need to meet people at the Bridge Café on the other side of the island. I think short route, but then switch and walk south into the Winter Garden. The stone of the floor shines so brightly that I am stunned by it. The river glitters beyond the palm trees. Colorful kites hang in the air.
I climb the stairs. The giant window ahead is framed in visible technology that forces a viewer to wonder about how our earth is assembled. Beyond the window lies that vacant pit. "Forget the memorial," I say out loud but to no one. "Forget rebuilding and fill it in. Make it a beach where kids can play."
copyright 2006 by Ira Socol
Fish photograph and Ground Zero photograph copyright 2006 by Jill Piers. Before Battery Park City photograph copyright 1978 Creative Time and 2006 The New York Times. Irish Hunger Memorial photograph copyright 2006 by Ira Socol