Originally published – SEPTEMBER 11, 2005
A few years ago, I wrote a memoriam of my experiences on 9/11, in an attempt to meet head-on my anger and melancholy. This fourth anniversary reminds me of that history: the days of confusion; months of sorrow; and years of daily life that are so close to normalcy but never again the same. I’m no more secure in my uneasiness of that day and the little trauma that is brought to my doorstep early each September since.
New York is as home as anywhere I’ve lived in the past. At thirty-five years of age, I’ve probably moved over forty times. My New York experience has always been devoid of any suburban outlet. By that I mean that the tall, tight, urban lifestyle defines so much of the activity without any expansive miles of monotonous housing developments or middleclass glades. The different communities here are as quickly divided by intersections as they are by subway stops and rivers. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a number of different local communities. Presently, I reside in Harlem.
I wanted to bring attention to memorials and shared experiences.
“It was a reminder for everyone. Something happened here. Somebody gave a life here.” – Alina Granholm, from Deborah Sharp’s “Battles Over Roadside Shrines More Common” in the USA Today.
“It seems good to mark and remember for a little while the place where a man died.” – John Steinbeck, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”
Almost twenty years ago now, a high school friend had too much to drink and sheared his VW in half on a hairpin curve. The oak tree that met him head on was quite fine except that the street side was shed of its bark. A number of us spent the rest of our teenage reveries under the restless shade of that angry tree. Similarly in the late 90s, an auto accident nearly claimed my sister’s life and to this day there is a bent road sign in Connecticut that I get white-knuckles when passing by. So many others – a lakeside hill I can never visit; Hotels that I will never again attend; and restaurants I can no longer dine in because these locations are personal shrines. These are memories on a map.
The windup to 9/11 season began last month in earnest. A million hours of trauma-casting later and it seems that the network media has allowed enough time to pass that televised specials attesting to the “true” story are fair game. Within this season, the devastating hurricane Katrina, ruined much of the Gulf Coast particularly the city of New Orleans. Both instances illustrate the fragility of our American security. Hopefully each can learn from the other. The pit at Ground Zero is well cleared as foundation for whatever piece of architecture manages to wend its way through private interest and city / state government hurdles. Drowned Louisiana could immediately improve on our doggerel and cut a lot of the red tape which would allow for construction and rehabilitation to progress with economic incentives. Similar, say to what Pete Wilson did in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake in Southern California – a project that was predicted to take two years to complete which was largely resolved in two months.
Flickr sites of New Orleans refugees show copious images of stranded people with scrawled messages for hope; homes with makeshift billboards erected warning of a natural gas leaks; and even weblogs documenting the camp at the Superdome. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York, many areas around 14th street, particularly Union Square Park became a makeshift memorial with fliers erected to the lost, and candles and tokens left for those who would never be found. Eventually in November when much of lower Manhattan was opened, these shrines were transferred to St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Episcopal parish – very close to the World Trade Center site. Nearly all of the local fire houses were inundated with flowers and baked goods. A powerful and connective civil community found here a collective voice.
A colleague of mine here at Salander-O’Reilly, Andrew Butterfield, offered in an essay for the “New Republic” a few years back: a historical look at monuments and the pessimism around architects and urban planners,
“The view that memory is an impediment to modernity has been widely shared by architects, artists, and theorists. The obsolescence of the monument became almost an axiom of the modernist creed. The sculptor Donald Judd wrote that “there are no believable new monuments,” and the historian and critic Sam Hunter declared that “contemporary monuments can no longer plausibly celebrate national heroes, patriotic or personal virtue or great historical events.” Many more such pronouncements could be cited as evidence of the presentist temper. But sometimes aesthetic theory and artistic fashion must yield before the harshness of lived history. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial began to change the prevailing opinion that the monument is dead, not least because it availed itself of a modernist vocabulary to accomplish its commemoration. The Oklahoma City National Memorial has had a similar effect. And then came Ground Zero. The sixteen acres where the World Trade Center stood have brutally reminded us that monuments are not a moribund artistic habit imposed on us by social convention and cultural inertia. Monuments are, rather, the products of primary human needs; and they serve these needs in a way that nothing else can serve them. People build monuments not because they do not know what else to do, but because there are wounds so deep that only monuments will serve to honor them.”
Eventually something will be constructed in Lower Manhattan. Happily, the community of Shanksville, PA just last week awarded the winner for the Flight 93 National Memorial. In time, we hope that London too will commemorate its tragic summer and an emergent New Orleans will too find a symbol for its decimation and voracity.
There are within these massive calamities and acts of homicidal rage other, quieter levels of loss. The world is filled with places of everyday suffering. The loss of a loved one, taken quickly, publicly or privately and a community that in its own small way erects fragile monuments – not letting the dead be forgotten.
Recently a paralyzed grandmother was accidentally shot in The Bronx. Wheelchair bound, she was the only one in the immediate vicinity that couldn’t duck from the spray of gunfire – a tragic loss for a community that loved this old woman. The sad irony that she was trapped in a wheelchair solely because of being accidentally shot twenty years earlier. The community erected a cardboard box to shelter candles from the wind and kept a vigil in the corner of the housing community where the old woman was killed. Flowers were delivered and signs from relatives and neighbors were added daily.
Here in Harlem, I live in one of the oldest courtyard buildings in New York, a historic building, built by Rockefeller money in the twenties, and it carries with it a lineage of many jazz greats occupants. Despite the recent gentrification, there are a number of tenants that have lived in the building well over forty years. I have noticed over the time that I have lived here that when one of the tenants passes-away, a notice card is posted at all the entrances in quiet script notifying all of any memorial service and with a small detail of who the person was.
In other outings, mostly bike trips through Brooklyn and the Bronx, I’m often surprised the ornate graffiti murals posted to the dead: painted monuments to fallen gang members or loved ones struck by passing cars.
In fact, nationally, the rate of roadside memorials is staggering. As we recently noted here, Ghostcycle is a Seattle activist group that posts white bicycles around the city at dangerous intersections where cyclists have been either struck or killed by motorists.
“It is interesting to note the family nature of the memorialisation practice: the sites are special to a missed person, a place to go to, and a place to show children. They are reminders that danger and death are lurking in seemingly ordinary places, and indirectly reinforce the whole family’s caring. When the deceased and bereaved are holiday-makers there is an element of pilgrimage in the visits and they may continue for many years.“ – Robert James Smith, “Roadside Memorials”
The American highways are dotted with various memorials that are personal expressions of loss and anger. From state to state the Department of Transportation has different bylaws as to how to respond to these roadside memorials. The more stringent responses dictate that the memorials are distracting and create greater risk for hazard on the road. At times too, they site that the crosses erected are religious monuments that might offend other motorists. More lenient responses are Transportation employees that are softer on usually ambiguous rules and allow memorials to remain as long as they are not decrepit and pose no risk. Indeed Alaska has laws on the books encouraging people to erect personal memorials.
“Roadside or other impromptu memorials mark the untimeliness of the deaths. When people are sick and hospitalized and their deaths are expected, there is no similar need to mark the spot of where they died. But when death is unexpected, it disturbs people’s sense of time, of specificity. There’s something mystical, if not magic, about the site of the death,” Bryant says.
“There’s a symbolic significance of the exact spot where they died. Instant monuments provide some symbolic stability, a lighthouse to the place people can go to pay homage.” – Sally Harris, “Roadside Memorials: Paying Attention to Sudden Loss”
Grief is all around us. Some times the amount of disaster on a people is so overwhelming that it becomes a common bonding experience. Other times a community is small enough that a single life is enough to bring people together. Life is fragile and it is at times difficult to identify the joy along the precarious journey. Even amongst a sea of trash, with traffic blowing by, with neither peace or nor calm, you can find torn signs for lost pets, reports of missing children, candle light vigils, and flowers tucked between fences. There is never enough time to not be humbled and overwhelmed by the notice and legacy of others made tangible by every location of love and remorse.
Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.
In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive