Moving ceremonies to tourist crowds, each Sept. 11
By David Stanke
For many people who live Downtown, there is a time while planning for the end of summer that our breath fails and our thoughts abruptly change direction. The words that end this involuntary pause are, Oh, Saturday is Sept. 11th. With that simple phrase, plans change, important objectives get pushed aside, and indecision asserts itself. Sept. 11th is emotionally significant to many Downtowners. But why does this day cause such dread, when it could simply be a day of sorrow, remembrance and reflection? Ground zero generates questions more easily than answers, but on Sept. 11th it does answer this question.
The official 9/11 ceremony effectively captures and expresses the sorrow. The gathering of family members in a secluded place to read the names of those who died is both simple and moving. Hearing those names is a beautiful and sad reminder of those we lost that day. While the world may watch the families on TV, the mourners are protected from view by their location on the W.T.C. floor. We know they are there, but they are not exposed to curiosity seekers.
For neighbors, this allows us to privately experience and participate in the memorial. My wife, for instance, strolled away from a soccer game in Battery Park City in time to hear the name of her dear friend. I listened while running errands in the neighborhood. Even when I dont recognize the names, I find them touching and even comforting.
On Sept. 10th, satellite trucks begin to pull into the neighborhood. The sides of streets get lined with No Parking signs. But even during the ceremony, no more than a couple streets are blocked off. Parking is readily available at a lot just four blocks south of the W.T.C. The numbers attending the ceremony appears to be shrinking with each year. The impact of the ceremony barely ranks as an inconvenience, unlike the first year anniversary when the neighborhoods were twisted to conform to the needs of the ceremony.
The ceremony this year reminded me of my first encounter with mass grief. While searching for temporary living quarters, I walked into the North Cove marina, near the smashed skeleton of the Winter Garden. From the scarcity of other people in the area, I inadvertently penetrated the security of the red zone around the W.T.C. As an officer approached me, I was certain he was going to I.D. me and escort me from the area. Instead, he asked me to step to the side to allow a large group of family members to pass. I sat off to the side on a park bench, facing out to the water. As they passed behind me I could hear the muffled sounds of mourning. I cried as freely as I have ever cried, and I would have gladly sat for hours to give them their privacy. The family ceremony on 9/11 at the W.T.C. recalls that depth of those feelings.
After the official ceremony, Church and Liberty Sts. fill with people coming to be part of the 9/11 experience. Liberty St. traffic is blocked off to support the movement of pedestrians. Interspersed with the tourists are people with colorful costumes, virtually begging to be noticed. Some people come with causes to communicate, like Falun Gong repression by the Chinese. People walk their search and rescue dogs or wear rescue worker helmets, anxious to stop and talk to tourists about their connections to 9/11. In front of the fire station, a young woman in tight shorts attends a large SUV covered in vibrant 9/11 themed murals.
Amidst this 9/11 renaissance festival there are pieces of normalcy. The firemen from the 10/10 house have their trucks parked on Liberty St., ready to respond to an emergency. People from the local small businesses mull about, watching the spectacle and hoping for customers. North of the W.T.C., we recognize a vendor we last saw selling watches outside our door three years ago. Gov. Pataki takes a quick stroll up the street to visit the fire station, discreetly returns to his car and drives away. These routines are drowned out by a one-hour procession of motorcycles roaring loudly and slowly up Church St. Thousands of these look at me machines crawl along bringing all traffic to a complete halt.
Toward the end of the day on Church St., I approach a man on a fire truck speaking over a P.A. system. In a day when words regularly fall short, I brace for another assault on common sense. I look around, appreciative of the freedoms of our country, but wonder what could be done to stop this carnival. I hear the man on the P.A. say: Dont look over there at those 16 acres for your answers. The answers arent there. I set aside my resentment as Im reminded that amongst the throngs are many looking for answers. They may be looking in the wrong place, but they deserve the right to look, as much as we may resent it.
David Stanke is a member of two advisory panels to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and frequently writes on Lower Manhattan issues.