The talk right now is endlessly about Islam, whether one tunes in to news of Pastor Terry Jones and the will-he won’t-he question of whether he’ll burn the Koran, or news of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam now leeching publicity from Ground Zero with his plans to build a mosque and Islamic hub just up the road — and his issuing of the ungentle warning in a CNN interview Wednesday that unless he goes forward with his “Cordoba House” near Ground Zero, the “Muslim world” might explode with anger, leading to something “very, very, very dangerous” and threatening “national security.” That’s an intriguing justification for building a mosque and Islamic “community center” on a site hit by wreckage from one of the hijacked planes during the Sept. 11 attacks.
I keep thinking that on Sept. 10, 2001, lower Manhattan had a community center. A spectacular center. It was called the World Trade Center, though I always found the name Twin Towers more alluring. One of my favorite views used to be the scene that opened up when you drove east across the Tappan Zee Bridge — from which, on clear days, looking miles down the Hudson to the southern tip of Manhattan, you could see those two white towers.
The World Trade Center was, as some of its chroniclers have said, a vertical city. It was a place of shops, cafes, restaurants, news stands, many offices and a huge plaza where in summer there were concerts, and people lunched outdoors around the fountain. Its basement concourse was the place where in 1982, as an aspiring journalist, I engaged in the oxymoronic business of calming my nerves with a cup of coffee, at one of the multitude of coffee shops, before going across the street for a job interview. It was the place where over many years I came and went from subway stops that let out into the World Trade Center complex, where you could buy everything from t-shirts to airplane tickets. I bought my favorite briefcase there, won a raffle for a bread-basket, picked up shampoo, toothpaste and dishracks; I met friends and business contacts for lunch there, walked through it on the way to more distant shops and restaurants, and interviewed people in the offices above. When I moved back to New York in 1997, after almost a dozen years working abroad, my editor took me to lunch in the North Tower, more than 100 stories up, at Windows on the World.
In one of the lower buildings of the complex, there was a huge and marvelous Borders bookstore, with a big poetry section, a cafe, and benches outside. It was a great place to play hooky from the office. It’s gone. It’s all gone.
The amenities once on offer there have been dwarfed by the enormity of the Islamist attacks nine years ago, on Sept. 11, and the thousands who died in that place that was so full of life. It is the most trivial of memories to say that shortly before the attacks, a cosmetics shop in the basement mall had put a lineup of colored bath gels in the window, and the backlit display looked like stained glass. It was beautiful. I admired it as I came out of the IRT subway stop inside the lower concourse, bought a paper at a news stand across the wide corridor, and walked out of the World Trade Center — as it turned out, forever.
Any new community hub in that part of Manhattan deserves to be a place free of raw feelings, implied threats and the pronouncements and projects of self-styled “bridge-builders” now garnering publicity by telling Americans that the edge of Ground Zero must be transformed into a testing ground for religious tolerance — or else. That may all be legal. But it’s wrong. It is simply wrong.