My three-year-old son pointed up at the 104-story Freedom Tower and said, “I want to go to the top of the world.” It was a beautiful sunny day. My wife and I walked him and his eight-year-old brother towards One World Trade through a grove of swamp white oaks at the edge of the South Pool of the 9-11 Memorial Plaza. Giant black marble waterfalls cascaded water towards sunken square holes at the center of twin pools: North and South, both submerged into the original footprints of the Twin Towers.
A far more somber atmosphere might be expected in this plaza, but the pools have a surprising calming effect. A man placed a white carnation next to a name at the edge of the water and took a photograph. My eight-year-old son asked his mom about the endless list of names etched in bronze around the perimeter and our conversation about 9-11 began. We didn’t know what to say. Words came out like “planes” and “buildings” and none of it made sense. I suddenly began to feel the weight of that tragic day.
Maybe that’s why I was initially a little nervous about bringing my family up to the observatory. Still, I purchased advance tickets online to ensure our 11:30am time slot. After clearing the JFK airport-style security at One World Trade Center, we navigated a labyrinth carved into the 450-million-year old Manhattan schist, the bedrock that makes the city’s skyscrapers possible.
We waited on line to board a “sky pod,” one of the fastest elevators in the world. Inside, I felt like I was in the glass elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The digital walls projected a time-lapse panoramic view of the skyline from the early 1500s to the present. Villages and buildings sprouted up from the terrain like mushrooms. As the pod ascended, we moved forward in time. There was a big family inside the sky pod with us. I listened to the “ooohs and aaahs!” of grandparents and children. I felt my ears pop. My hands squeezed the stroller handles. 1,250 feet in 45 seconds! At floor 102, the doors glided open. I felt woozy. But my kids were super excited and ran out. I chased.
At first we were all silent: the 360-degree observatory is three-stories high and made of glass. I forgot how magnificent the city looks from up there. My boys pressed their faces up against the glass panels. Like an old friend, I waved to the Empire State Building. And the East River bridges. I spotted the Staten Island ferry. Is that you, Gowanus Canal? I watched helicopters rising and dipping over the Hudson like metal dragonflies. The fantastic eagle-eye view allows for contemplation of the city in its totality—and 50 miles beyond. For almost 14 years this unique perspective has been missing. The view is back and with it the reminder that sometimes things can both totally change and yet be the same as they ever were.