Ground zero: The first few days

The beginning of America's most fought-over public space

Published August 18, 2013 2:45PM (EDT)

Rescue workers sift through debris at the scene of what was once the
plaza area of the World Trade Center twin towers, Sept. 24, 2001.     (Reuters)
Rescue workers sift through debris at the scene of what was once the plaza area of the World Trade Center twin towers, Sept. 24, 2001. (Reuters)

Excerpted from "Battle for Ground Zero"

The most crowded spot at Ground Zero was St. Paul’s Chapel, which stood next to the intersection of Fulton Street and Broadway, and its striking sightline of the destruction. St. Paul’s was one of the few buildings close to the WTC to remain undamaged after the towers’ collapse, and volunteers quickly transformed it into a resting place for firefighters and rescue workers taking breaks from their shifts. Soon, everyone else transformed its fence into the area’s largest grassroots memorial.

One sliver of fence displayed more than seventy pieces. There were six worn T-shirts filled with messages from California, Texas, and Florida, and eight baseball caps, including a red one with the French message “avec toute notre amité” (“with our affection”). It looked as if, in some instances, visitors and passersby, unexpectedly moved to contribute, had taken off the hats they were wearing or the T-shirts on their backs. Some even refashioned trash: one person left behind an empty Nesquik bottle sporting a miniature American flag in place of a straw. There were dozens of handmade posters, quilts, and cloth banners. A handwritten poem from Samantha, age ten, was titled “we will overcome.” There were three bouquets of flowers, four teddy bears (one of which featured a black question mark drawn on its belly), and ten laminated newspaper clippings and obituaries of victims. There were twelve American flags, three British flags, and one flag of Ireland. A pair of worn, white ballet toe shoes lay on the ground with the words “Now you are really dancing” handwritten on one slipper. And someone, a Sesame Street–loving child, perhaps, contributed a small Ernie figurine (without Bert).

Explicit politics, like those expressed in some of the international outpourings, were largely missing from Ground Zero, at least at first. People expressed sadness, hope, and curiosity about what it all looked like, and this was true of those coming from outside the United States too. One afternoon I met Sam, who wore a long, dark gray overcoat and steadily removed handfuls of purple and blue origami cranes from a stuffed duffel bag and hung them on a series of iron fence posts. Sam was originally from Kansas, he told me, but was in New York during a brief vacation from Japan, where he taught English in a small town of seven thousand residents outside Nagasaki. The schools’ two hundred seventh, eighth, and ninth graders had folded four thousand cranes for him to deliver. “The kids wanted them brought to New York,” he said. “They wanted to give them to city hall, but I said I would bring them here.”

Folding cranes is an ancient Japanese tradition—one thousand cranes bestow a wish or a charm upon the folder—but origami cranes took on added significance in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who developed leukemia from the bomb’s radiation, folded cranes as she lay dying in her hospital bed. A statue of Sadako stands at the original ground zero in Hiroshima, now called the Peace Memorial and Atom Bomb Dome,where Japanese children continue to fold and deliver cranes. Each of Sam’s cranes contained the message “keep your dreams” handwritten in Japanese characters.

Amidst the calls for peace and hope, however, an occasional angry, more aggressive response dotted the landscape too. Across from the bouquets and teddy bears hanging in front of St. Paul’s Chapel was an emergency railing that contained, in big, black, handwritten letters, “Bomb Afghanisthan [sic].” I wasn’t sure which was more eye-catching, the layers of multicolored paper espousing love, or the singular call for revenge. Around the corner from St. Paul’s, a couple of people had engaged in a charged, but nonetheless poetic exchange on a temporary, wooden sign. One visitor wrote the antiwar slogan: “Our grief is not a cry of war.” To which another responded, “Fuck you, you left-wing coward piece of shit.”

One winter afternoon, I met an Israeli couple, Lev and Naomi, who were visiting the WTC site with French and Croatian friends who lived in Las Vegas. I asked why they wanted to come, and Naomi said it was mostly out of curiosity. After a pause she added that being here “is a reason to hate them more.” “Who?” I asked. “Arabs,” she said matter-of-factly.

Anti-Arab commentary wasn’t difficult to find after 9/11, but no one else at Ground Zero had made such a remark to me and for a moment I didn’t know what to say. Naomi filled in the silence. She said that she thought New York had a different tone—a new quietness. “My town, [between Tel Aviv and Haifa] it’s all bombings lately,” she said. “It’s scary to see here. Tel Aviv is dangerous, and here too. There is no safe place.” Naomi paused and then continued. “I am not glad, but I am glad it happened in the States. Now Americans will understand what we go through.”

Her French friend from Las Vegas nodded and then offered a clarification. “I wish they attacked the buildings, not people,” she said.

It was difficult to imagine Americans walking around the site and saying they were glad it happened, or, for that matter, making a distinction between the buildings and the people. The destruction of the towers sometimes seemed as great an affront as the killing. But even though the comments were not typical, they captured a certain truth about the WTC site: it was becoming a place—the place, in fact— where people spoke out about post-9/11 America.

Graffiti, that infamous target of the Giuliani administration, was everywhere. Thousands of messages and signatures slowly crept up and over every structure still standing. The collection of boards sealing up the entrance of a bank on Greenwich Street was one of the area’s most popular graffiti spots. Some areas were illegible, there were so many layers of text:

“No Fear to be Happy Everywhere,” “Rio de Janeiro, Brasil,” “We will pull through America,” “United We Stand,” “All my tears + prayers 2 those lost.”

And, my favorite, repeated on numerous surfaces: “America the Re-build-iful.”

Of course, the most powerful statement was not written on any wall; it was the one people made simply by showing up and taking over more and more space. By mid-fall, much of the city had been swept clean. In Union Square, at 14th Street, cops cleared the candles and bouquets after one week. But at the WTC site, where more police officers roamed the streets than anywhere else in New York, the public increasingly filled surrounding sidewalks with stuff. On West Street, a six-foot-high mound of pastel-colored teddy bears sat under a white tent. There must have been a few hundred of them. On Broadway, by Liberty Street, a whole block was slowly consumed by flowers, flags, and banners, tripping up pedestrians as they tried to make their way.

One morning, I asked the police officer standing guard at a utility entrance on Greenwich Street if he knew who was maintaining the memorials on the opposite corner where, every couple of days, a new piece of empty chain-link fence would mysteriously appear and quickly fill with banners, flags, flowers, and notes. The officer shrugged. “Maybe Salvation Army volunteers?” he said, as if he were asking me the question. No, he had never seen anyone attend to the surprisingly neat arrangement of objects or bring new pieces of fence. They were just, always, there.

“Do you ever help with them?”

He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “I’d love to,” he said. “But, you know, I’ve got other things to do. Pruning flowers isn’t my forte.”

He was tending to more important tasks, like guarding the still fiery wreckage and making sure that those of us outside the walls did not disturb the people and work inside. Still, I was a little surprised he was so uninterested. The memorials and graffiti—what anthropologist Miles Richardson has described as “gifts of presence”—were not only innocuous expressions of grief. With each bear, banner, and handwritten signature, people were expressing sympathy but they were also making claims upon the land. Walking around the site, you would see no more than a few hundred people observing, reading, photographing, but a glance at all the stuff revealed a far larger collective. One that wasn’t going away on its own.

* * *

One group was noticeably absent from the bustling streets and sidewalks around the sixteen-acre site: New Yorkers. Almost all the city residents I spoke to disliked the crowds; the more that tourists filled the streets around Ground Zero, the more many city residents avoided the area. Some never went to the site, while others went once or twice in the first days after. Screenwriter Mark, who refused to cross 14th Street, also refused to walk the three blocks from his building to the perimeter of the wreckage. “I don’t need to go and make it more real,” Mark said. “I lived it. I went to funerals.” When Mark’s brother visited him in November and asked to go to the site, Mark walked with him for half a block before turning around. “There’s nothing to see but a hole and a lot of gawking,” he said.

Many New Yorkers had other ways of grappling with 9/11. The city’s first major exhibit after the attacks was a grass-roots production titled “Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs.” Michael Shulan, a longtime New Yorker, and two colleagues retrofitted two storefronts in SoHo to artfully display and sell hundreds of original photographs of the attacks donated by amateur and professional photographers: the towers collapsing, the engulfing cloud of dust and debris, the eerie smoking rubble, the dangerous rescue and recovery work. The exhibit was located just north of Canal Street but well south of 14th Street; it brought people close to the wreckage, but not too close. And “democracy,” not “loss” or “trauma” or “New York,” was the production’s key word. There were no labels or bylines accompanying the images, which meant that no one knew if they were paying twenty-five dollars for a picture by a world-famous photographer or the consulting firm employee who happened to take a striking shot with his handheld. The line between expert and novice was erased. There was also no explanatory text, no interpretation. The crowds of people decided what it all meant.

The exhibit opened in October, and Shulan estimated that over 100,000 people visited during its initial two-month run. Through a combination of in-house and online sales, as well as a book, he sold 78,000 prints and raised over $2 million, which he donated to charities for victims’ families. Meanwhile, the exhibit quickly became a temporary community hub, open at all hours, hosting events, readings, and meetings for victims’ families. Shulan attributed the interest to people’s desire to collectively face the violence in a space that was a bit removed and also a bit curated. He believed that people wanted to be part of something social and creative, something emotional. During a time that lacked clear explanations and understandings, art was flourishing. “New York City was an incredibly exciting place,” he said of those early months. Shulan said the time reminded him of a college professor’s descriptions of the years preceding the American Revolution, when “Everybody would go down together and they would have arguments, they’d have discussions, they would write things and that’s really what New York felt like in the aftermath of 9/11,” he said. “It was pretty terrific . . . because these ideas which are ingrained in America came to the fore and popped into daily life.”

Shulan’s exhibition was a sort of cousin, then, to the outpouring at the WTC site. In both instances, thousands of people traveled to confront the destruction and walk away with photographs of it. They came to make a piece of Ground Zero their own. But the outpouring at the WTC site was different, mostly because people were taking over streets and sidewalks instead of store fronts. Graffiti, sidewalk occupations, spontaneous memorial/street art installations: these activities were banned on all other city streets, but at the site, they proliferated, under the semi-watchful eyes of the city’s police force, no less. With little fanfare, Ground Zero had become the country’s newest public square. The people were setting the rules of the recovery.

From "Battle for Ground Zero" by Elizabeth Greenspan. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

By Elizabeth Greenspan

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