A Grain Of Saul: The Heart Of The New World Trade Center Is Not The Building But The People Inside It

America's greatest building is more impressive once you're inside.

I lived in New York City for three years before I finally brought myself to visit the World Trade Center.

I'm not sure why it took me so long. Part of it was the hectic nature of day-to-day work life in the city and part of me wasn't entirely sure how I felt about the One World Observatory being a pay-to-enter tourist extravaganza, or being a tourist in my own city at all.



But the first time I went, as part of a gift for my girlfriend's birthday, I was positively struck by the experience. Not just by the incredible sight of New York City from the 360-degree viewing deck, but by the pride I felt in being there. The reality of what I experienced as a fifth grader hit me: terrorists had taken this complex down, a symbol of New York City and American prosperity. And we had responded by building it back up, bigger, taller, safer, and perhaps better than it was before.

The view from the top of the One World Observatory. 
The view from the top of the One World Observatory.  Isaac Saul

One World Trade Center isn't just an architectural wonder, though its specs are remarkable: it's the tallest building in the western hemisphere, standing at 1,776 feet — a reference to the year the United States declared its independence. The steel of One World Trade alone weighs more than 40,000 metric tons, in addition to 150,000 cubic meters of concrete used to construct the building. Its modern design is considered one of the safest, most economically efficient in the world. 

But what really makes it special is the people inside it.

When you first enter into the lobby of the One World Observatory, you're greeted by a giant world map. On it, the numbers of visitors from different countries and continents across the world are displayed. Standing there, I watched them blink by: thousands from China had visited that month. Fifty-four from France that day. Hundreds from South Africa in the last week. The first message from the One World Observatory was clear: our doors are open to the world.

Then, as you walked through a hallway made of the rock that lies underground in Manhattan, images of men, women, and children are displayed from various projectors. Quickly, you realize they are the architects who designed the building, the construction workers who put hammer to nail, the first responders who now keep the building safe, and their families.

Each of them, a kaleidoscope of race, religion, gender, and mannerism, explain why the building is important to them, why they chose to be a part of this project. 

9/11 Memorial Lights, September 2017
9/11 Memorial Lights, September 2017 Cory Seamer / Shutterstock

Throughout the tour, this theme persists. Your first look at the skyline comes after watching a short video mash-up of different neighborhoods in New York City. At the viewing deck, a different language in every corner can be heard. Special iPads that map out which buildings are which are available for rent in a half dozen languages. And all throughout the tour, you see and hear Americans from every corner of the country, with every accent in America, marveling at one of our great cities.

Looking off the south end of the tower, I stood next to a middle-aged dad who was explaining Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to his son: "Boats used to come in from all the way out in the ocean, and then they would pull into the harbor and see that, and know they had arrived in America." It even occurred to me that many of the kids running around in the One World Observatory deck were born years after the attack — a child born in September of 2001 would be turning 16 this month. 

Yet here they were, standing in the very building a group of people had tried to take from us, marveling at the very symbols of freedom and immigration and prosperity that those people surely loathed.

On the 16th anniversary of September 11 this year, I won't be remembering the horrific images of the twin towers falling. Instead, it'll be my trip to the One World Trade that I'll be thinking of.

And when I do, what will come to mind won't be the spectacle of this big and grandiose American landmark, it will be the miracle of the people inside. 

Cover photo: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

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