My first ever trip outside of Europe was to New York. Before then I’d been to France and Germany and done one European flight, but at aged 18 this was my first long-haul trip, my first flight on my own and my first taste of real travel, and I absolutely loved it. The buzz of the city, the towering skyscrapers, the yellow cabs and steaming subway outlets that I’d seen in so many movies. New York completely won me over. Since then I’ve been back three times – en route to a working holiday in Cape Cod while I was at university, back in 2006 with my sister, and then again this autumn. With about five years between each trip, it’s been interesting to see how the city has evolved over time. Areas transition from don’t-go-there to can’t-afford-to-go-there, shops and restaurants open and close, and new buildings rise, and in some cases fall.
On my first two visits to New York, the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers were an iconic part of the city’s skyline. Built in the late 1960s, the 420-metre-high towers were the tallest in the world when they were built, overshadowing lower Manhattan. They were part of a complex of seven World Trade Center buildings, and although most of the space was used for offices, you could climb the South Tower to the Top of the World observation deck on the 107th floor. It was one of the ‘must do’ New York sights and I went up twice – speeding up in the lift for a panoramic view across Manhattan and far beyond. I still have photos from the top, and the towers appear in so many of my other pictures, rising up above us on a helicopter flight, dominating the skyline from the Staten Island Ferry.
9/11 is one of those events where you’ll never forget what you were doing when it happened. I’d been travelling around Malaysia for a couple of weeks and had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur. That day I’d been indulging my fondness for climbing to the top of tall buildings again and was looking out over another city – from the top of the KL Tower this time. Back at ground level my friend Nicki and I stopped for a drink and found a newspaper someone had left on the table. There were the shocking pictures of the planes hitting the towers and people jumping out in desperation. Back then you weren’t as connected as you are now. We had to hunt for an internet cafe to check the news to find out what had happened and pick up emails saying friends in New York were ok. We suddenly felt a long way from home and a bit more vulnerable.
I didn’t make it back to New York for another five years after that, in 2006. By then the wreckage had all been cleared away, but we were still drawn to the site. Back then there was still controversy about what would happen to it. All you could see was the hole in the ground where the towers and the buildings around them had stood. The place had an eerie quietness as people waked around in silence, taking in the significance of the site and the photos showing just a fraction of the bravery of the rescue crews.
Then my most recent trip was ten years after the 9/11 attacks and two months after the opening of the new memorial. The final design chosen was by architect Micheal Arad and is called ‘Reflecting Absence’ – two pools with water cascading down the sides and down into a deep well in the centre. Engraved in the stone around the edges of the pools are the names of the 2997 people killed in the attacks. At the moment the trees have just been planted but eventually the fountains will be surrounded a forest, cutting out the noise of the city. There’s one tree that managed to somehow survive the attacks, a pear tree called the ‘Survivors Tree’ which has been replanted in the memorial garden.
The memorial is free to visit and there’s an adjoining National September 11 Memorial and Museum. A new museum building has opened since I visited, but back then a temporary exhibition displayed objects recovered from the site – cutlery from the Windows of the World restaurant, a child’s doll, a fireman’s helmet, ID badges from people who worked there, part of the plane’s fuselage. Each item revealed the story of who they belonged to and what happened to them. And just outside the new glass World Trade Center towers was growing steadily taller. Tower One, or the Freedom Tower, is now the tallest building in America and is topped with a new observation deck. So on my next New York trip I might well be looking out over Manhattan from the top of the World Trade Center yet again, but the city won’t ever quite be the same.