Henry Street, 1980 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose and Ed Fausty
In my periodic visits to the World Trade Center–ground zero as it still called–it has been evident to me that some visitors to the site appear involved in something more than casually ogling the impressive rebuilding of the area. As downtown New Yorkers rush to appointments, dodge the construction clutter, and brush by the meandering clusters of tourists, they are making a pilgrimage to a hallowed place.
Less than a year after September 11, while the debris and the remains of 2,750 people were still being sifted through, I took part in Listening to the City at the Javits Center where more than 4,000 citizens expressed their opinions on how to honor the dead and to rebuild. There were some who wanted the site to lie fallow, as a park or purely as a memorial. But the majority present that day wanted a reclaimed skyline, a memorial that preserved the footprints of the Twin Towers, and space for cultural activities. New Yorkers, while still in shock and grief, were beginning to do what this city is famous for–move forward.
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose
The selection of a site plan and its implementation has been far from an ideal process. The buildings presently rising on and around the site are less inspiring than they might have been, and the memorial and accompanying museum may or may not strike the right notes–time will tell. I am reminded of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which as vast as it is, and as serious as its intent, somehow fails to encompass the scope of what it memorializes. As tourists caper about the stone monoliths and pose for snapshots, the monument’s finely conceived architecture somehow civilizes what was the opposite–one of the darkest, most violent events in human history.
The act of remembering is ultimately a private experience, but successful memorials allow for the collective sharing of memories by providing a tangible icon or by preserving a particular place. A memorial can be as modest as a plaque or the planting of a tree, and although I believe that 9/11 deserves something on a larger scale, I am skeptical of the motives that demand memorials as massive as the one in Berlin or the one under construction at ground zero. Both are political statements–Berlin being about ritualized atonement. And the unfinished 9/11 memorial–I don’t know–the battle over its meaning is just beginning. But seeing the tourists milling about reverently, and witnessing the recent hue and cry over the proposed Islamic cultural center a few blocks away from ground zero, greatly worries me.
New York is arguably the most diverse city in the world–in any number of aspects–diversity of origin, language, and of religious faith. It is a city where the rich and poor bump up against each other daily. It has been that way since the Dutch settled on the Hudson and created a center of trade for the West India Company. Those who know New York well understand that it is a city of micro neighborhoods, of blocks, and of myriad groups that occupy limited space cheek by jowl. That an Islamic center should be located in Tribeca a few blocks from the World Trade Center is of little significance to most people who live and work here.
Union Square Park one week after 9/11 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose
The shrill voices against the “mosque,” calling it a desecration of ground zero, are coming mostly from outside New York. They have every right, of course, to yell as loud as they want. But they show no respect for those of us who live here, who witnessed the collapse of the towers, who lost family or friends, who cringe at every glimpse of videos or photos of the falling towers. They have no personal connection to this town–to that place, that block. They see ground zero only in abstract political terms, even as they claim to speak for the families of those killed, and their motives are fueled by fear, intolerance, and victimhood.
New Yorkers have moved on. We were badly damaged, but we are not victims. We are proud of this city for how it has pulled itself together since 9/11, proud of the diversity that defines us, and proud to be both Americans and citizens of the world’s greatest metropolis.
You got a problem with that?
The American Freedom Defense Initiative, which is run by Pamela Geller, a prominent right-wing blogger is planning an ad campaign for New York City buses showing the Twin Towers on fire with a plane about to hit. A rendering of the proposed mosque (which will actually be several blocks away) will be shown with the words “why here?”
From the Times:
Asked if she was concerned that the image of the flaming twin towers might upset some New Yorkers, Ms. Geller, in a brief interview on Monday, replied: “Not at all. It’s part of American history.”
As I was saying in my post above, these people do not care about New Yorkers nor do they care about the families of the victims. Their message is hatred, pure and simple.