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Tribute in Light

‘Tribute in Light’ from a rooftop at 6th Ave & 12th Street. Photograph by Robert Fisch, 2010.

Since September 11, 2003, twin pillars of light have pierced the Lower Manhattan sky from dusk to dawn each year, briefly reverting our skyline to an impression of its previous self. First implemented as a months-long temporary art installation in early 2002 to commemorate the September 11th attacks, Tribute in Light was reinstalled on the second anniversary, and the tradition has continued annually ever since.

The project was conceived by artists John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Richard Nash Gould, Julian LeVardiere, and Paul Myoda, with lighting consultation by Paul Marantz. The original public art work was co-sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and Creative Time. Since 2012 it has been under the aegis of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which assumed the lease for the Battery Parking Garage, where the light fixtures are sited.

‘Tribute in Light’ as seen from atop the parking garage in Battery Park. Photograph by Rhododendrites, 2018.

Installing the equipment for the Tribute in Light is a significant undertaking. Every year, several dozen technicians and lighting experts work together to place 88 large spotlights over the course of several days, dividing them into two 48-foot squares that are positioned to replicate the shape and orientation of the towers. When projected into the night sky they appear at the approximate location of the original towers.

Tribute in Light’ and Floating Lanterns seen from the West Side Highway at Christopher Street. Photograph by Lenore Mills, September 11, 2005.

Once or twice in early September, one might catch a glimpse of the gleaming twin beams ahead of the anniversary, during the testing phase, in which several observers stationed in Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan, Staten Island, and New Jersey check to make sure the lights are in their proper position before the official tribute commences on the 11th. As noted by the Memorial & Museum, the beams reach up to four miles into the sky and can be viewed from a 60-mile radius around Lower Manhattan on a clear evening.

One World Trade Center through the Washington Square Arch. Photograph by Dena Tasse-Winter, September 2023.

Greenwich Village is one of the best vantage points from which to view this breathtaking memorial. Stand beneath the Washington Square Arch, and looking north you can see the Empire State Building; south, the World Trade Center. These days, it is One World Trade Center that greets you as you enter the park from Fifth Avenue. The skyscraper has become a familiar and comforting sight in its own right since its completion in 2014. But for a fleeting moment each year, the arch frames a view of the twin lights and the new tower together, displaying, as the Memorial & Museum puts it, “an iconic symbol that both honors those killed and celebrates the unbreakable spirit of New York.”

Lower Manhattan skyline, including World Trade Center, as seen from 6th Ave & 12th Street Greenwich Village rooftop. Photograph by Robert Fisch, 1996.
‘Tribute in Light’ memorial as seen from 6th Ave & 12th Street rooftop. Photograph by Robert Fisch, 2003.

Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive preserves an important visual record of the original twin towers, 9/11, its aftermath, and recovery and rebuilding. The most recent addition to the archive is the Robert Fisch World Trade Center and 9/11 Collection, which strikingly and hauntingly tells the story of that day through the lens of a Villager. An avid amateur photographer and longtime Greenwich Village resident, Fisch grew up in South Queens and became interested in photography when the Concorde SST began flying over the area in the mid-1970s. Some of his most arresting images are those of the original twin towers and the Tribute in Light over multiple years as seen from the same perspective, his rooftop at 6th Avenue and West 12th Street.

Panorama of Lower Manhattan featuring World Trade Center from 6th Ave & 12th Street rooftop. Photograph by Robert Fisch, 1992.

Every New Yorker carries their own experiences of that day with them. The twin lights remind us, each September, to never forget (those of us who were here in 2001 certainly never will). At the same time, the impermanent nature of the memorial also gives us permission to move forward during the other 364 days of the year. The Tribute in Light is a beautiful lesson in preservation: honoring the past enables us to be more resilient in the future.

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