The Shrines at Union Square

Two days after the attack, I took the subway from Queens and re-entered the northern edge of downtown Manhattan around 14th Street, not far from where I work. I was overwhelmed by what I saw: impromptu shrines in every park, fronts of firehouses heaped with flowers, telephone poles stapled with missing-person fliers (just the beginning of the flurry; in a week there would be posters for each of many hundreds of victims), the scent of smoke in the air, the southward view hazy with the white cloud, the absence of that familiar landmark that loomed so large even 30 blocks away. At that point, 14th Street marked the northern edge of the restricted zone; only people who lived there, were escorted by a friend who lived there, or who were on special business were allowed through, and the south end of the street was barricaded to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, with all sorts of security officers there to enforce it.

I waited for a friend on the northeast corner of First Avenue and 14th Street, across from the barricades, for close to an hour; the wind was from the south and carried an acrid smoke that was at times overwhelming. My friend didn’t show up (it turned out he was caught in a bomb scare, the first of three to affect me, directly or indirectly, that week), so I snuck down into the restricted zone; the streets of Greenwich Village were eerily quiet. The fence around the Arch at the north end of Washington Square Park had been turned into a shrine, candles and flowers at its base, missing-person fliers, poems, inspirational quotes, drawings on the fence. There were also huge sheets of paper on which people could write their thoughts. I came across several of these in the next week, and I would always write words similar to “May we find a way through this that will truly make not just America but the entire world a safer and more peaceful place.” [Two months later, I’m not so optimistic. When I come to one of the few shrines that are left, what usually crosses my mind are words that came from an Olivia Newton-John song of all places: “Lord help us to survive.”] Most of the words people wrote, whether mournful, angry, patriotic, or inspirational, were quite solemn, but there were a few pithy quotes, such as “May the flies of a thousand camels infest Osama bin Laden’s ass.”

The memorial at Union Square, late September, 2001,
in front of the statue of George Washington. The flag-draped object
standing to the left is said to be part of a column from the WTC itself.

The whole south end of Union Square (and for a while, most of the rest of the park) became a gigantic shrine, or series of interlaced shrines. The largest shrine was centered around a large cylindrical rod of concrete and metal, said to be from the World Trade Center itself, placed upright as if it were a tower still standing. This was surrounded by flowers, candles, signs, religious items, flags, toy firetrucks, and a range of personal items. There were huge sheets of paper for people to write their thoughts on; these ultimately ran nearly the length of the park, over two city blocks. On days that it was open, the Farmer's Market at the western edge of the Square was filled with flowers; it was as if they had scythed half the fields of Pennsylvania, brought them here, and sold them at a loss (their gift to New York). There was a “wall of the missing,” where photographs were posted. At the southeast corner of the park there was a relief station where a stream of people donated food, water, medical supplies, and flashlights that were trucked down to the emergency workers. Down the street, there were other relief efforts going on, the main one spearheaded by the Salvation Army.

Paper cranes in Union Square, late September, 2001.

The shrine at Union Square was a spontaneous tribute to the victims of the attack, as well as ostensibly a peace memorial. “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War” was a saying that was commonly seen on signs or fliers there, not that there weren’t impassioned pleas for vengeance among the numerous thoughts that people scrawled there. There were representatives from numerous religious organizations: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Scientologist, to provide comfort and/or pamphlets, but there was very little prostheletizing. What does peace even mean in the post-September 11 world? As someone who had seen bin Laden’s handiwork firsthand, from a distance on September 11 and later on from close up, I haven’t felt particularly pacifistic. I don’t think we had any real choice but to go after bin Laden and al-Qaeda; their potential for menacing the world and apparent willingness to do anything to further their cause (which seems to be to ignite a wide-scale war between their brand of hard-line Islam and the West) have made that imperative, and considering the close ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda that have come to light, it’s clear that the Taliban would never have surrendered bin Laden voluntarily. But in the first weeks following September 11, it seemed that the rest of the country was a step ahead of us; our President was talking up war while we in New York were still wondering, figuratively, what the heck had hit us, we were still trying to comprehend the magnitude of what we’d lost. A lot of people came to Union Square to try to come to grips with the terrible calamity that had befallen our city, a place for outpouring, where people could go to reflect and grieve, to be with themselves and their feelings and yet not be alone.

There were numerous other shrines around the city; one in Tompkins Square Park (lots of candles); one all along the Brooklyn Heights promenade. The Heights are not far from Brooklyn's largest Arabic community, and the shrine there emphasized people of all religions uniting both against terror and against violence towards innocent Muslims. "Hatred and bigotry destroyed the World Trade Center," one sign exclaimed. "Don't let it destroy us!"

On the night of September 24-25, two weeks to the day after the attack, the Parks Department completely removed the shrine at Union Square (as well as the one at Washington Square). It may have been a political decision, as particularly in Union Square there had been several vigils and rallies for peace at a time when the nation was gearing up for war. The official rationale was that the shrines compromised the proper use of the park, but I think the decision totally disregarded the needs of the community and the reality of the situation. It was a vital place where people could go to grieve as a community. Plenty of other facilities had been converted to shelters, relief stations, and to other functions that were not in line with the uses they had been designed for. In the case of Washington Square, the memorial was on and around the fence surrounding the Arch, and did not take up any space that would have otherwise been used. At any rate, closing the shrines deprived the populace of a valuable place to help them in grieving—I could not walk through these shrines (particularly the one at Union Square) without being profoundly moved, usually to tears.

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