Urban Renewal

by

10/19/2001

Montague Street & hicks st, brooklyn, ny 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

Ten days had passed since 9/11 and I found myself heading toward the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. This is where I watched events unfold on 9/11. It was a quiet Friday morning, a dozen or so people sat along the benches gazing out toward the strangely familiar yet suddenly unfamiliar skyline. To my surprise, numerous memorials had grown up along the walkway. I knew there were large memorials in Manhattan but I didn’t expect to find them here.

The railing was spotted with photos and letters and signs, the walkway interrupted by forests of half melted candles and all variety of mementos -a child’s plastic fire helmet with the words “Thank you” painted on the front, a framed quote by Martin Luther King decrying violence, a vase of fresh white roses, a toy fire engine, strings of plastic flags, and innumerable pictures, postcards, and children’s drawings of the twin towers themselves.

Many of the signs had appeared right after the tragedy, their hastily copied pictures and urgent descriptions echoing the desperation of those first, panic filled days. But others, put up later, were a kind of homage, displaying 3 or 4 large photographs, showing a loved one smiling with family and friends. Someone had left a painting in which the towers, transformed from buildings into ladders of orange and blue light, reach up towards heaven.

As I made my way down the Promenade, with the vacuum of the towers looming on the skyline, I read the messages of desperation, hope and remembrance and felt overcome. I felt connected to these faces, these families in a way I had not experienced through all the news coverage and all the discussions of justice and war and grief that consumed the airwaves.

Then I noticed a small garbage truck ahead surrounded by several sanitation workers. Beyond them, the Promenade was stripped bare – candles, flowers, photos, everything – gone. Obviously they had begun to clean. And I thought, God damn, don’t they know it’s too soon? Don’t they know we still need this, these words, these pictures, this reminder of what has happened to us – what has been taken from us? We are not finished grieving– I am not finished grieving. I decided I should say something, I should shout at them, plead with them, stop them in some way.

I knew it wasn’t the workers fault, they were just doing a job, following some heartless cleaning schedule -but it wasn’t time for this yet. We New Yorkers have become accustomed to our impersonal city – its cold bureaucracy – but this once, just this once, we needed to see our city to care.

Fuming, I walked over to the workers and as I approached I could see: they were not taking the things down, but putting them back up. One at a time, the workers pulled the photos and letters and signs out of large plastic bags, repaired the torn edges with cellophane tape and attached each to the railing. Flags and ribbons were tied up, clusters of flowers hung upside down so they would keep longer, candles and toys placed into neat clusters on the ground. The memorial grew and blossomed as they worked. It had rained heavily the night before, and apparently, the Sanitation Department had come out, collected the objects, stored them safely, and now was carefully, gently, intently reinstalling every single piece.

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