The Scene At Union Square

by

10/20/2001

27 Union Sq W # 307, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: Union Square

Sandwiched into the fourteen blocks north of Houston Street and south of 14th, Greenwich Village and the campus of New York University have formed a sort of demilitarized zone, patrolled by both civilian and military police. Below, access is restricted to officials and rescue workers. Above, New Yorkers move freely, and the city returns to some semblance of normality. Between, entry is limited to residents, and only those on foot. Businesses are half-open, papers blow, and ash covers what cars remain. A New Yorker’s lizard brain can’t help but notice the empty parking spaces, but the only cars moving are rescue vehicles. State Police, many of whom have traveled hundred of miles to be here, man the border’s blue NYPD barricades, chatting with tourists, checking resident’s bags and ID’s. The shifting winds carry a strong stench of burnt plastic.

Union Square Park was distinguished first by its history as our municipal meeting ground, later by a vast subway station and stunning view of the Twin Towers. Millions have gathered here into it to celebrate (the end of every war since 1863), demonstrate (the nation’s first Labor Day parade was held here in 1882), and grieve for the dead. Tuesday morning, hundreds here watched the Towers collapse. Tens of thousands have come since, and the smell of sage and incense fills the air.

The first vigil was organized (barely) Wednesday evening by a 19-year Sarah Lawrence student whose website listed “not getting into Wellesley” as his “greatest emotional scar.” Together with other students, Jordan Schuschler taped thirty-foot long sheets of brown wrapping paper to the ground, laid out boxes of crayons and markers, and formed a huge circle of hand-holders. Those around it were invited to speak, though few could think of anything to say. The square stayed eerily quiet, the outpourings confined to paper:

Express Yourself—Be Part of The Cure

Act II: The Miracle

God give us Strength Give us Peace Grant us Freedom Shower us In Love

NYC/USA: Please don’t attack Arabs. We all bled and cried on 9/11

By midnight, so many had gathered that the initial circle broke down into smaller groups of thirty or forty people, and heated arguments broke out. In one corner, a tall, redheaded Irishman stood nose to nose with a young African-American, shouting “I was born in Belfast.” In another, two African-Americans engaged an Israeli in a heated debate over Palestine. “We offered them Gaza,” he replied. “We offered them the West Bank.” “Exactly,” one of the black men said. “Who are you to offer?”

But most of those gathered, were students—a hundred thousand live around Union Square—many of who had left home a week earlier. These were the same teenagers you saw at WTO rallies, and they’d brought the same arguments. “Five corporations control the entire media,” one man said. “It’s important that each of us make our voices heard.” Perhaps for the first time, they’d run into people willing to argue with them, and if many seemed under prepared to debate Palestinian relations with orthodox Jews (of which quite a few had gathered), or capitalism with bike messengers who revealed themselves as strong (and surprisingly well-informed) supporters of the free-market economy, most rose to the occasion. The groups fractured and reformed, conversation ebbed and flowed well past two in the morning. “Please,” Schuschler had said past midnight, as others shushed the masses. “The police are watching us from across the street, and they’re ready to storm us. Please, please keep it peaceful.” But the police, in fact, seemed nowhere near storming. And even the screaming matches, of which there were many, never posed a threat of genuine violence. “No one inside this place hurts or touches another,” a pierced, pink-haired girl said. No one was about to.

One block away, on sixth avenue, the flyers with missing family members had started to appear.

Twenty-hours later, the crowd had grown into the thousands. Thursday evening, a group of Tibetan monks gathered in the park’s main field. “The Tibetan people have a strong commitment to non-violence,” their signs read. “We pray that New Yorkers will find the strength in their hearts to come through this difficult time with a deep spirit of compromise, tolerance, love, and patience.” Flanked by hundred of New Yorkers, they chanted, sung Tibetan hymns, and led the crowd in a few choruses of “We Shall Overcome.”

The original rolls of paper—now overflowing with pleas for peace, expressions of outrage and sympathy (many of them in foreign scripts), and drawings of the Twin Towers—had been covered in sheets of clear plastic, but hundreds more had appeared. People navigated not only the crowd, but the paper covering thousands of square feet of ground in the park. Men, women, and children, many of them sobbing, knelt down and read:

I know how you feel about your parents and I am sorry. Dear kids who lost there parents I feel bad because if I was to lose my parents I would be thinking who would take care of me? I am safe where my family loves me but you see I don’t love my father because he said something that hearted me when I was younger. So I know how you feel to lose your parents you lost so much.

Dear Stacey, It can never be the same. I pray you are safe, happy, and smiling. We can’t understand what has been done, but we can remember. You will never be forgotten. I will always love you, my future wife. I can still hear your voice. Forever, BK

A teacher at Park Slope’s school for Law, Journalism, and Research put up dozens of drawings by seventh and eighth graders, some of whom had lost aunts and uncles in the explosions. At the edges, kids on skateboards and dirtbikes performed the kind of tricks you need hours of practice, and pliable bones, to pull off. Cars draped in American flags cruised past. A young Brooklyn woman dressed in a Ghostbusters T-shirt, had been standing to the side since four, playing Irish tunes and Scottish laments on the bagpipes. At eight-thirty she packed up her instrument. “I can’t donate blood,” she said. “They don’t need more volunteers. But the bagpipes have always been an instrument to boost morale and pull people together.”

By nine-thirty, thunderstorms beckoned, and dozens began rolling up the papers. “Careful to cut only the tape,” one organizer directed. Another passed out leaflets reading “WTC MEMORIAL WILL BE PRESERVED! The words and pictures of the thousands of mourning people of our city are being preserved and will be shown in schools, museums, and community centers throughout the city, the country, and we hope, the world. Please help us by treating each panel with care and respect.” When I asked him who the organizers were, the man passing out flyers looked confused. “I don’t know,” he said. Just students.” “Who are you?” I asked. “Just a student.”

Most of the panels, including all the originals from Wednesday night, were taken to PS1, a gallery complex in Long Island City, for safekeeping. Many were lost. The thunderstorms rolled in at one, dousing thousands of candles still lit in the park, scattering the crowd, and hampering rescue efforts taking place less than a mile away.

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