With downtown Manhattan below 14th Street initially closed off to the public after the terrorist attacks of September 11, people began to gather spontaneously in Union Square Park, the largest public space on the edge of the “frozen zone.” A patch of green and concrete that’s normally an escape for lunchgoers and a resting place for homeless people, the site of a popular greenmarket in an area of trendy restaurants, was transformed into a collective memorial for victims, as well as a place for New Yorkers to express their personal and political responses to the tragedy and its still uncertain aftermath.
For the better part of two weeks, an incredibly disparate group of New Yorkers turned Union Square Park into something that was part Woodstock, part religious revival, part political rally and part funeral, and to which all were welcome. The geography of this world quickly became established. The street kids colonized the center of the park, the Christians took over the east end of the square, the street musicians hung out by the southern steps with the activists handing out literature, and the visitors, coming by the thousands, milled through it all. Union Square did feel almost like an entire world unto itself, a microcosm of the larger nation’s attempt to grapple with and understand the tragedy.
From the time when Emma Goldman regularly spoke in the park in the 1920s, Union Square (around the corner from The Nation‘s current offices) has been a rallying spot for political and cultural radicals, where men and women have gathered to organize, to celebrate and even, as after the execution of the Rosenbergs, to commemorate and grieve. The vigil this month was a continuation of older traditions but, in some ways, something new. Previous gatherings never crossed political, racial, class and gender lines in the way this vigil and the associated rallies have. The possibility that a real grassroots dialogue about war and violence could emerge, and with it a new and more inclusive sense of American identity, is at least a slim hope to cling to in the wake of the terror attack’s horrors.
At the gathering’s peak, Christian music wafting from one corner of the park mixed with the sound of a didgeridoo and guitar from the steps on the other end. Surreal statues of wax and metal stood in haunting tribute to the fallen. Survivors gave oral histories to eager archivers. A small ocean of melting wax, votive candles and written messages spilled out from the equestrian statue of George Washington, which was transformed from a symbol of war into a peace icon: His horse had been painted with (acrylic) peace signs and the pedestal was festooned with “Love, Love, Love.”
Most affecting were the pictures of the victims. Originally, the “MISSING” posters functioned as a way for people to gain information about where their loved ones could be, but as time goes on, they become a unique way for the rest of us to come face to face with an unfathomable reality. The photocopies take us out of our contemplations about fighting global terrorism and communicate to us the individuality of the lives that were lost, the uniqueness of each and every person innocently targeted.
For the first few days after the tragedy Union Square was surprisingly free of rhetoric and cant, perhaps because nobody knew how to fit this horrific event into their particular lens. Soon, however, signs began appearing in the park reflecting political, religious and personal perspectives. Although direct tension about foreign policy was subsumed by a larger sense of belonging and community, political differences began to spill out through the signs and symbols that plastered the walkways and green spaces.
The candles, however, dominated the scene, growing out from the statue and spreading in every direction, adorning the American flags, peace signs and flowers. Kerrah Flores, 24, told us she came to the park to relight the candles until 2 AM every night because it was the only place “where I can feel a sense of serenity.”
Now, almost three weeks after the attack, the Parks Department has removed all the signs and returned the park to its usual state of urban impassivity. When asked, the Parks Department would tell The Nation only that the signs were removed for safekeeping and will be displayed at an as yet unidentified museum or gallery space.
A sign posted at the site also tried to explain: “In place of burning a candle or leaving flowers, please consider making a donation to the Firefighters, Children and Widows Fund…. Thank you for your cooperation as we restore the plantings, lawns, and places of your park.” Many of the people who wandered around the park on September 27, the first morning when all was back to normal, seemed disturbed to see city employees hosing off the statue and scrubbing the wax from the steps.
Eleni Koutsakos, who came to the park almost daily for two weeks to leave flowers, was, in a word, “annoyed.” “They should have kept it for at least a month so people could come down and pay their respects.” Everyone seems to miss the larger community of grieving. Some seem not to have even noticed the political implications of the debates in Union Square. “I didn’t come here for political reasons,” Koutsakos stated, a bit surprised at the question. “We’re all here for the same reason.” Perhaps.
Adina Schecter and Sarah Yahm are Nation interns for fall 2001.