On September 8, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority reopened the subway station at Cortlandt Street, which had been closed for 17 years. Three days later, Hmm Daily editor Tom Scocca and 11-year-old transit enthusiast Mack Scocca-Ho went to see the new facility.
Tom: When we set out for the new Cortlandt Street station, you didn’t realize what day it was.
Mack: I usually keep track of the days, but since there wasn’t much to do during this four-day weekend, I lost count. Also, my brain may unconsciously be in denial about school starting.
T: This wasn’t the first time you went to learn about Cortlandt Street and stumbled into 9/11.
M: At first, I was searching Wikipedia seven years ago, as I often did back then, and I noticed that the page for the Cortlandt Street stop on the 1 line said it was “temporarily closed” with a link to the September 11, 2001 attacks. I, out of curiosity, took the link and found out that planes crashed into the twin towers and set them on fire, and then the rubble fell on and destroyed the old station. I still had no idea about the hijacking part (I didn’t even know what “hijacking” meant!).
T: This was not one of my best moments as a parent. You were an early reader, and I tried to keep some track of what you were absorbing in general at age four, but I figured it was fine to let you bounce around unsupervised among the subway pages. Then all of a sudden you started asking me about airplanes crashing into buildings.
M: It must have been at four and a half, because I misread “2001” as “2011” and my brain didn’t click and tell me something was wrong. Also, I developed a fear of this happening to our building, which lasted a while.
T: I hadn’t known about the date confusion. I do remember that you didn’t or couldn’t believe me when I told you that it was securely in the past and we weren’t in any danger. It was especially tough when, in the course of riding the subway to see the ends of the various lines (as we did a lot back then), we were trying to get to South Ferry and you were terrorized by having to go through the stretch where the Cortlandt Street station had been.
M: Weirdly enough, most of this I don’t remember. I do remember much later being told that our building was too short for this to happen and that I didn’t believe it, because 42 floors sounded tall to me. I also remember not being able to see the construction zone and assuming that the subway went in a covered tunnel above ground.
In addition, I had a bad time at South Ferry and Governor’s Island back then. It was before Hurricane Sandy, so we went through the new stub-end station before it would be flooded and closed. Later, when we went on trips to the Staten Island Ferry, the new station was still undergoing repairs, so we went to the old loop station. I had a much better experience with those later trips, and to this day, is why I prefer the old South Ferry loop to the new stub-end, and why my reaction to the stub-end station finally being reopened for service in 2017 (yes, 2017!) was negative. Sometimes I come to like substitutes or new versions of old things.
T: And now there’s a substitute for the missing Cortlandt Street stop.
M: It seems like a good combination of the new style stations (Second Avenue Subway, anyone?) and the regular IRT (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) stops. The gray columns really help with that, and it has the shape of an old stop and the feel of a new stop (and it has air conditioning). Plus, it isn’t being replaced in the foreseeable future.
T: At first glance, stretches of the downtown platform looked like standard-issue subway decor. Up close, though, what seem like regular white glazed subway tiles are made of marble, and the black-and-white signs with the station name aren’t paint on metal but more marble, inset in black stone. And then there’s the whole marble mosaic wall of text, white-on-white, in relief. The sign says it’s called “Chorus,” by Ann Hamilton, fabricated by Mayer of Munich. The text comes from the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
M: Some of these mosaics were stacked up to say parts in vertical text of the Constitution, saying, one word per row forming a column, things like, “WE HOLD THESE THESE TRUTHS TO TO TO BE BE BE SELF-EVIDENT” (Doubling intentional). Also, said marble/black signs say “World Trade Center” and the columns say “WTC Cortlandt” rather than the old name “Cortlandt Street”.
T: The air conditioning was good. The day was damp and foggy—not, for once, clear and blue on 9/11—and not especially warm, but it was sweltering down inside 72nd Street.
M: I prefer warmer places and areas, so I have to disagree about it being swelteringly hot inside 72nd. The air conditioning still would make sense—there have been many hotter days—but I wonder what would happen in the winter here, and in “air-temperated” stations on the Second Avenue Subway as there don’t appear to be any methods of turning it off.
T: A few people were roaming around with big cameras and the unmistakable delight of transit fans in a brand-new station. Others, I wasn’t sure if they were taking pictures because it was a subway improvement or because it was Ground Zero on 9/11. We went down the stairs and through the underpass toward the Oculus. You said parts of the transit center “looked kind of like Indianapolis International Airport.”
M: The gates area of Indianapolis International Airport is very spacious with thin white columns—I can’t call them beams because they are not fully vertical—which reach up to the high ceiling, with panes of glass in between, but those are much farther apart and the panes of glass are much more heavily decorated. (Maybe I’m specificizing “some airports” to “Indianapolis Airport”?). Although it’s not that similar, the ribbed appearance of the Oculus gives the same feeling.
T: We’d never been to the Oculus before, so we had a look around.
M: I found the structure very impressive, especially the skylight, though the large electronic boards said they were only opening the skylight for September 11.
T: Somehow there was even some sunlight shining through into the main space, despite the overall conditions of the day. The whole thing was very science-fiction-y, if it’s the kind of science fiction future that still has shopping malls.
M: I also found it very futuristic, or fictionally futuristic, with a giant space in the middle and huge halls around it. At the time, I joked that the airport code would be “WTC,” or else it would be a spaceport (think Star Wars?…)
T: After we looped around and had a look at the PATH entrance, we went outside to take a picture of the Freedom Tower for your little brother. We’d left him back at home because he had a cough and because he gets bored before you do when you’re looking at new subway construction. But he asked us to get a photo of the tower, because he loves it.
M: …and this is how Dominic found out about 9/11. Mostly in the same way, he wanted to know, now that Cortlandt Street was reopening, why was it closed in the first place? So the entire story was explained to him, and that the Freedom Tower replaced it. He’s very into the Freedom Tower (“World Trade Center Building”) and is still grappling with the fact that the original Twin Towers did not look like the present one.
T: Yes, after having let you learn about 9/11 all sideways and without proper warning, I managed to more or less repeat the same thing for your brother. At least he’s nearly seven, instead of being in preschool. And besides super-tall buildings, he’s interested in action and violence, so when he wanted to know why the people crashed planes into the Towers, we ended up discussing Cold War proxy warfare and the role of the mujahideen against the Soviets and the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. Also the unbroken record of futility of imperial interventions in Afghanistan.
M: Which I didn’t learn and just find a depressing reminder of the country’s state of emergency right now. I don’t find mass proxy warfare in Eurasia interesting, and it’s (to me) just part of what seemed to cause this disaster.
T: Since we were above ground, it seemed like we might as well walk across the street to the 9/11 Memorial and the footprints of the Towers. I’d never been there before—not to the memorial, and not to the Towers when they were still standing. I used to admire them from the train on the approach to New York, when I passed through the city, but I didn’t move here till 2004 and had barely visited before. It’s possible I’d never set foot below 14th Street.
Our immediate experience of 9/11—your mother’s and mine—was the Washington D.C. version: smoke from the Pentagon, rumors of bombings, fears of other planes. She had to evacuate the Senate office complex and try to get home on the Metro, while I sat in our Rockville garden apartment and watched the Towers burning and falling on TV. We were in the middle of buying a house in the suburbs that week. The next day we had to do the inspection walkthrough, and I was trying to ask her what she thought of the cracks in the patio retaining wall while she was on her cell phone talking about the fires at Ground Zero.
Going to the 9/11 Memorial always seemed incomprehensible to me. I would shudder a little when tourists had their maps out at Times Square trying to figure out how to get down there from whatever attraction they’d been at before.
M: Which makes me really guilty for underestimating it. Why did you find it incomprehensible if you virtually saw it?
T: I wouldn’t say you underestimated it. You sensed, correctly, that it was a completely helpless and horrifying thing, and you were afraid of anything like it happening again. You also wanted—also correctly—to have the subway running properly again, making all its stops, with no weird unsettled dead space on the map.
What was incomprehensible to me about the memorial, as a tourist site, was that it suggested some desire to hang out in that sort of unsettled void. On the one hand, the event was so terrible for all of us—even the more distant, television-covered version of it—that people’s urge to relive that feeling seemed weird and unhealthy. On the other hand, what specifically happened to people at and around the Towers was unimaginable and unspeakable, and trying to get closer to that seemed even more unhealthy, and impossible, and presumptuous.
But now the subway goes right there. We looked at the big square holes in the ground with the waterfalls streaming down their sides, and I tried to construct the Towers in my mind. Sometimes the whole scale of it looked surprisingly small to me, and then it looked vast.
M: I also tried to reconstruct them in my mind, but not knowing what they previously looked like, I couldn’t do it. The pools also looked pretty small, for 110-story buildings. However, I think I understood that people were coming there in memoriam to those who had died, but why would they want to relive those memories?
Also, the time had probably come for the “subway void” to be filled. After all, the World Trade Center is not a personless empty space, after all, so why not try to speed up the healing?
T: Seventeen years is a long time. We have a Christmas-tree ornament shaped like the Freedom Tower, handcrafted in glass. The Gracious Home store on Broadway where I got it has been out of business for nearly two years.
The space where the North Tower had been was solidly ringed with people. The South Tower site was a little less crowded. It was late afternoon and the commemorative events were over. We figured it was time to go back inside, look at the uptown platform, and then catch a train back home.
M: At the uptown platform, the same mosaics mentioned above were there, in part, but part of the platform had not had them installed yet, and the text in this part was on temporary flat paper gray-on-white signs that did not give the same feeling across, but were easier to read. The station signs were also just part of said paper. There were empty portions of wall without the top stone layer or the mosaic, which makes me think the station had not been fully completed in time for the opening, maybe? It was still nice to see, especially the entrance to the Oculus and World Trade Center Transportation Hub.
T: The trains were running on time, mostly, although the express took so long to get from Penn Station to Times Square that I thought we were already at 72nd Street and started getting us off the train. You had to ask me what I was doing.
M: I thought we were getting out to let other people on at first, until you started going down the platform. Then I thought you got mixed up and were trying to transfer to the Q or R for Dominic’s Saturday drum lesson, which would have been a big mix-up, considering we were going uptown. Also, I admit there were several moments on the train between 34th Street and 42nd Street where I lost my balance and fell for no apparent reason. In addition, I felt that the trains were moving faster than usual, when they were moving.
Mostly, I just found the ride back very strange. Luckily for us, the train’s doors stayed open for long enough to get back on.