9 years gone, everyone’s a ground zero stakeholder

NEW YORK (AP) — It is a place of sacrifice. A place of mourning. A place people pass by on their way to grab lunch. It’s a place where tourists crane their necks to snatch a glimpse around barriers walling off an enormous construction site — which is also what it is.

Ground zero.

Depending on whom you talk to, it’s a scar on this city where horror still lingers, a bustling hive symbolizing the resilience of a nation, or simply, for those who live and work nearby, a place where life goes on.

In recent weeks, as debate has raged over the placement of a planned Islamic cultural center and mosque a couple of blocks from the construction, Americans have been reminded of just how many people lay claim to this place, the focal point for all those who have a stake in the legacy of Sept. 11.

Almost everyone has a stake.

Gesturing at the land he helped clear in the weeks after 9/11, Louis Pabon believes he knows who owns it: “This is mine.”

Today he is wearing his hard hat again, standing at the gates of St. Paul’s Chapel, hawking the photos that he took of the wreckage. Tourists stop in the sun to look at the images of smoky desolation.

Take a walk around ground zero, and you can get lost in the throngs. Among the tourist crowds at St. Paul’s, a block away, a woman sipping a strawberry smoothie walks past an altar covered with photos of the dead. Outside, beneath cranes that glint red in the sun, construction workers cluster. A woman in a business suit and white sneakers speeds down the sidewalk. Burger King is full, and at Century 21 department store, across from the construction, polo shirts are 85 percent off.

This place was once a giant plaza filled with businesspeople and tourists and shoppers and commuters rushing to the subway. Then, on one sunny September Tuesday in 2001, it became suddenly a place of history and loss. Within 24 hours, someone had dubbed it ground zero, and it was never the same.

After 9/11, there were weeks, and months, of coming to grips. Everyone had lost something. A child. An acquaintance. A skyline. A sense of safety. A center of business. A solid stock portfolio. A feeling that we knew where everything was heading.

The city’s Muslims, many of them, lost a willingness to speak out. They had enjoyed a kind of anonymity — a knowledge that they were just another ingredient in the hearty stew of New York. But since Sept. 11, they have felt an unwanted spotlight, and some have been afraid.

“Now no one can talk about Islam … because Islam became like equal to violence,” says Noureddine Elberhoumi, a cab driver who says that after Sept. 11 he stopped volunteering information about his religious affiliation. “In their mind, Islam is always going back to Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 — that’s it.”

In the days after the attacks, the nation was in a wrenching, gripping catharsis. We were mourning our dead. We were mourning the accustomed path, whatever it was, that had been ripped out from under us. We were on a new, uncertain course.

Before the week was out, the pastor at St. Paul’s began calling the site of the devastation “sacred ground.” On Sept. 20, Katie Couric told TV viewers it “should be hallowed.” For the family members of more than 1,100 of the victims whose remains were never recovered, it is the only gravesite they have.