During the American Revolution, the area in lower Manhattan now known as "Ground Zero" was then known as "Holy Ground". This was a fire scarred district north and west of Broadway in the vicinity of St. Paul's Church - hence the name. However, it was also a tongue in cheek reference, for it was at that time the largest red light district and open air brothel in North America. Even before 1776, there were as many as 500 prostitutes on "Holy Ground."
When I was growing up during the later years of the Cold War and Nuclear Freeze movement, "Ground Zero" referred to the center of a hypothetical detonation of a nuclear weapon over a major city. New York was almost always the illustrative case, with predictions of casualties and fall out from a direct strike on lower Manhattan extending four miles beyond a "Ground Zero". Today, of course, Ground Zero has a different association in New York, but its linguistic roots come from the era of mutually assured destruction.
New York, more than any other United States city, builds on the ruins of its past. All that remains of the notorious Sugar House prison where thousands of American P.O.W.s died during the Revolution is a small number of Holland bricks and two barred windows, one of which is not even at the original site. The real estate that was once part of Holy Ground and now a hole in the ground is far too valuable to remain undeveloped, and far too imbued with modern meaning to be redeveloped insensitively. For some, it is indeed sacred ground, and for many nearly a decade later it remains an open wound.
Abraham Lincoln understood the difference between where important events took place and the significance of what people did there;
"we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
Walt Whitman knew that the grass itself is not one thing but many, and sometimes "the beautiful uncut hair of graves."
Although it is my profession to preserve land, and I understand the value of maintaining some places as they once were so that we who follow can connect with what transpired in that earlier time, even war graves lie beneath the city streets, and new buildings replace what might have been kept as shrines. A symbol must stand for the whole, like the barred window of a colonial prison that people pass in their thousands every day without reflection.
I once had the good fortune to sing with an American choir in Coventry, an industrial city in the English Midlands that was pulverized in an air raid that the British knew was coming but which they could not prevent without alerting the enemy that codes had been compromised. More than 1,800 people were killed and wounded during the raid, and along with much of the city its cathedral became a bombed out shell. A modern church was subsequently built, connected to the truncated columns and roofless walls and spire of the original medieval building, and the entire cathedral complex today is dedicated to reconciliation and remembrance. There is a small museum in the lower level of the church that reconstructs the period of the Blitz, along with an interior of a bomb damaged house and its everyday contents covered in rubble, but nothing about the site is bitter. There is a cross of charred beams in the ruined cathedral, and another of nails made from the roof lead that melted during the bombing, but no raised fist.
Coventry is not New York. This conflict is not over. But for all its dead the city is not a tomb, though the remains of the fallen will never be entirely recovered. It is as alive as Whitman's grass and Lincoln's words, and it will take on many forms in the years to come. We all have a stake in that future, but none an exclusive claim on what is carried forward.