“I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway
I saw the ruins at my feet
You know we almost didn’t notice it
We’d seen it all before on Forty second Street”
The idea that a set of spotlights should be part of a memorial to the dead and injured of September 11 had been floated even before the dust settled. In a city where production values rank high on a list of civic virtues, the idea of twin towers of light extending to the heavens felt distinctly a propos. When the Towers were first attacked in 1993, the city made sure that the lights in the buildings came back on as soon as possible; that the building at least looked alive made everyone feel a little better in the immediate aftermath.
There were problems with the concept, including the minor matter that a spotlight powerful enough to be seen would be powerful enough to blind pilots. (That pilots were still allowed to fly over the World Trade Center site was not a little discomfiting, but that’s another matter.) Nonetheless, on the six-month anniversary of the attack — and by the way, is there a better or more elegant term than “six-month anniversary”? Semi-anniversary? — the spots came on. Eighty-eight of them, arrayed in two squares with the same footprint as the towers, though about a block west of the original site. The lights came in from as far away as Salt Lake City, where they’d last been used in the Olympics. Even in New York, it seems, there is sometimes a need to import lighting.
Seen close up, the lights look more like a beaded curtain than a beacon, the individual strands not merging until the atmosphere spreads the beams. From a distance of a mile or two, the towers of light look different depending on the day: crisp and close on cool dry nights, ethereal and more distant on nights with high humidity. On overcast nights, the beacons paint the bottoms of low-hanging clouds. From many angles, they looked more like a single tower than two.
It was clear from the start that the lights were a temporary thing. It’s expensive to rent spotlights and operators, not to mention the electrical power required. And the lights themselves are probably booked for a supermarket opening somewhere. But many in the city hope that whatever replaces the World Trade Center has some sort of memorial not unlike the towers of light — something that New Yorkers can look toward the skies to navigate by, a constant reminder of the monstrosity inflicted on the city and the nation.