Saturday, September 11, 2010

World Trade Center 1995, Eid 2010

John Powers, untitled block  arrangement (1995)

I woke up this morning to the names of the dead being read on the local NPR station - I was shocked how deeply this annual ritual continues to move me. This year the anniversary coincides with the Muslim celebration of Eid, and is marred by a bigoted protest against a proposal to build a Mosque and cultural center two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. I found the photo posted above recently and had planned to post it without comment first thing this morning, but instead ended up spending a beautiful clear day in front of my computer writing and thinking about the attacks, the shameful war against Iraq that was made in their wake, and the recent protests that have shocked and shamed me, but mostly what it means to me to be a New Yorker.

The photograph above was taken 15 years ago, not long after I moved to New York. I had just started the project that has kept me busy for the last decade and a half: playing with blocks. This is one of the very first things I did them. The photo was taken from the Brooklyn promenade. I had just cut a few dozen blocks out of 1/2 inch plywood. The cigar box to the right is what I was carrying them around in. I had intended to move around the city and arrange that small set at various locations, modest site-specific works that would allow me to interact with people in public places. I remember going to the Met and playing with them in front of the Temple of Dendur (post and lintel construction). A German boy, eight or nine, sat with me and watched what I was up to until I split my set and offered half my blocks to him. He spoke no english, but I remember his pleasure as we sat and worked side by side. We attacked the attention of a museum guard who after watching us for a little while began to offer suggestions: "Try standing one up on that one."

The day I made the skyline on the promenade I was visiting with a beautiful young woman from Texas. We were talking and flirting and enjoying a quiet fall day in the city. As a Chicago native I loved the World Trade Center Towers on first site. They were not popular with New Yorkers - it was a brand of modernism most found overbearing and dull, but the Twin Towers reminded me of the Bauhaus architecture I had grown up with, they felt like home. But in addition to my own aesthetic preferences, they also anchored the city - they oriented me within my new, still unfamiliar, home.

Growing up in Chicago I was always able to easily situate the cardinal directions. It helped that the city was on a grid, and that there was no East Side to keep track of (one less thing), but what was most crucial was the presence of The Sears Tower as an an oversized pivot point on the skyline. The World Trade Center Towers likewise stood above New York. They were visible in every direction for miles. I would come out of the subway, look up and around, see the towers and instantly get my bearings.

The day the Towers fell was one of the saddest in my life. I watched them collapse not knowing how many people remained inside, only knowing that a 1/4 million people worked there. The next day I was turned away along with thousands of other people who showed up in downtown Brooklyn to give blood. There were no injured (only twenty people were pulled out of the wreckage). The weeks that fallowed were uncanny; strangers on the train would look you in the eyes clearly trying to gauge if you were OK, and by comparison if they were OK. We had all lost out bearings. New York is a place where you quickly learn to enjoy moving in dense crowds. For a long time the city felt empty. I remember Christmas shopping in SoHo that year, pretty much alone. When I should have been standing on long lines or ignored by sales people I was instead sharing stories with lonely salesmen. I bought what I could afford, not much, but every store I went into I was warmly greeted - everyone just seemed happy to have someone in their stores.

What I remember about living in Chicago, was that the default question strangers would ask another Chicagoan was: "Where did you go to school?" -the question was a probe to find out what part of town (or which suburb) you had grown up in. Most Chicagoans grew up in Chicago, so it was a question that answered a lot of questions about family background, class, and social standing (city kids trumped suburbanites, Northsiders trumped Southsiders, the Near-North side trumped the neighborhoods further north and west).

When I lived in Seattle - a boomtown almost entirely populated by non-natives - the default question Seattleites asked was: "Where are you from?" The question was a probe similar to the one I grew up with, what was really being asked was "How long have you been here?" and more importantly "Have I been here longer than you?" (Long time residents trumped new arrivals.) Also being asked was: "How far away are you from?" natives of the Northwest trumped Northern Californians. The Rockies trumped the Midwest; Chicago trumped New York and everything trumped LA. I liked living in both those cities, but I always disliked those questions and the social one-upsmanship they represented.

The question New Yorkers ask when they meet another New Yorker for the first time is "What do you do?" It is a question that has its own form of social probing (artist trumps all), but it also contains an understanding: no one is more of a New Yorker than anyone else. We are all equal in the eyes of this city.

Being a New Yorker is a lot like being an artist, it is self declared: You need a licence to call yourself an architect, but if a 10 year old girl declares herself to be an artist, she's right, that is exactly what she is. I don't know if its true that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere, but God knows if you can live here, no one can tell you your not a New Yorker.

September 11th is going to be a sad morning for me for the rest of my life. The tragedy of that day was global in scope, and I don't mean to make any special claim on the tragedy, but cities have wounds and citizens carry those wounds differently then those who share the hurt from a distance. Listening to the names of the dead is meaningful to me and the others who lived and worked here at that time. Even if we didn't lose someone we loved, we lost something we loved. For a time our city seemed to drift, but I am happy to report it never felt like the citizens lost themselves.

I like to remind those critical of America's response to the attacks that there were no rallies calling for vengeance in New York. There were endless vigils. Long lines of people stood along the West Side Highway for hours and days on end simply to cheer the men driving trucks in and out of lower Manhattan.  When it came time to protest the invasion of Iraq hundreds and thousands of us marched along the Upper East Side, and did so despite the fact that the authorities put every possible barrier in our way (including spreading rumors that there would be a terrorist attack).

I cannot explain the current protest against the Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan, but I will say it feels like an alien intrusion on New York. A manufactured event born within the headquarters of Fox News and funded by the Koch brothers. I am very proud of Michael Bloomberg, he was the first Republican I ever voted for, and he has been a solid mayor during some very difficult years (term limits are stupid). I hope Bloomberg's calm kind words drown out all the hate being spewed outside the Burlington Coat Factory right now.

Someday September 11th will be just another date, like December 7th, or August 24th. I hope so. When I hear someone yell "Never forget!" in anger it is generally on Fox News, never in New York. I can't help but think what constellation of of forces would have to stay in play to keep this wound to our body politic fresh in living memory for perpetuity is everlasting conflict.  I want the high-jackers to be forgotten, I want their cause to be lost to history, for the conflict they worked so hard to bring to a boil to be forgotten - an enmity more distant and confounding than the strife behind the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

As for remembering those who died, I hope the image of New Yorkers - New Yorkers from all over the world - walking down the stairs single file so firefighters could walk up, will be what the world remembers. I can't think of any greater tribute to that brand of bravery than today's New Yorkers having the self assurance and good faith to build a world class mosque in Lower Manhattan.


  1. Thanks for a giving a personal slant on this subject. The individual stories seem to be forgotten in the idealogical battles that swirl around 9/11 and it's tragic effect on our psyches.
    I've been in Seattle for 25 years now and what you've said is so true about its citizens. The funny thing is that I'm now accepted as being a native. Ha ha!

  2. Fascinating that my home town, LA, is regarded as the lowest-of-the-low when it comes to American cities from the north. Northerners really do not like LA - is it the money, the plastic bubble, or the escapist people?

    Seattle has plenty of wealth, as does Chicago and New York, so I tend to think they don't like the people. Also, keep in mind that LA too, is full of transplants, mostly from the mid-west & New York City.

  3. Of course I meant "American cities regarded by the north"

  4. this is so fantastic, and so spot-on. the way the whole city looked each other in the eyes afterward to see how we were all doing is one of the most unexpectedly moving experiences of my life.

  5. Michelle - Actually I was pointing out a bias very specific to the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s - LA had such low standing because there were a lot of LA transplants who arrived with a lot of cash-in-hand. If there had been as many wealthy New York or Chicago transplants, they would have had an equally bad rap - transplants from the Bay area seemed to have benefited from similarly crunchy civic ideals. (Seattle has always been a boom town - lumber, aeronautics, software, real-estate - it is a place people go to make money, but it also is a place where people genuinely to value the path less taken: living on a dirt road with no running water trumped living on a boat; vegan trumped vegetarian; dreadlocks trumped long hair; Bike trups electric car; walking everywhere trumps bike; the naked guy trumps all.)
    Meanwhile Purple Mark was probably considered a native of Seattle after only a 5 or 6 years, but even after 25 years of residency he would still not be considered a native of Chicago. In fact if he was born in Chicago but his parents weren't, he would still be second tier.