Time to pack away the 9/11 shrines

A Brooklyn writer on the fake flowers, photos of the Twin Towers and bodega ‘Jesus candles’ that still pop up on street corners.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

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Every day, running errands or picking up the children in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I pass a number of shrines to 9/11. They are taped to trees and lampposts; there are candles and flowers. Many of them have been there so long that I no longer take much notice of them. Were they for specific victims? Brooklyn is just across the water from Ground Zero and we lost a lot of local people that day. We read about them in the paper or looked at their pictures posted on the gates in front of the brownstones where they lived. Many were firefighters from the three neighborhood firehouses. Stopping at the shrine just down the road, I remembered a picture of a plump, smiling woman who loved flowers. Was this her house?

None of the shrines, it turns out, commemorate individuals – at least not now. Ragged ‘missing’ posters have given way to artificial flowers, photos of the towers and bodega ‘Jesus’ candles. In every case, someone somewhere tends these ‘invisible’ shrines but most New Yorkers have moved on, even as politicians and developers dither over rebuilding. Tourists can still find street vendors selling posters of the twin towers with the words ‘Never Forget’ along the bottom, but of course, for those of us who were here, it is not the sort of experience you forget.

But frankly, a chance would be a fine thing. While the average New Yorker has moved on, much of American society has not. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter struck a nerve when she made her comments about the 9/11 widows earlier this year. It’s not that the majority of Americans have anything against these women personally, but it’s more that we are tired of having the 9/11 families wheeled out to advance one agenda or another.

Sometimes it seems there is no escape from 9/11. No matter how well crafted are films like United 93 or World Trade Center, most New Yorkers I’ve spoken to are not anxious to relive those events as entertainment. Even a trip to Yankee Stadium, one of the great feelgood experiences for all but the most diehard Boston Red Sox fan, is forever changed. Once we stood up for the seventh inning stretch and sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’. But five years on we’re subjected to the post-9/11 innovation of listening to Kate Smith’s turgid version of the dreadful ‘God Bless America’. Today, it is ostensibly for ‘the men and women overseas’, but it is forever linked with 9/11 in the imagination of New Yorkers.

And finally there’s ‘the hole’ in lower Manhattan. In a sense, it was the memorial for the victims of the attacks. It drew thousands of people from all over the world. Nothing symbolised the sense of loss as well as that big ugly void. But it is telling that what was once a symbol of collective grief is rapidly becoming a disused building site. Fewer people visit these days, and the renewal around it makes it seem all the more out of place. It’s a clear sign that we’re done with grieving and it’s time to build.

New Yorkers do not need to be told to remember the awful things about 9/11. But there was another side, a more positive one, a million miles away from the celebration of the victims that has come to dominate the remembrances. We shouldn’t forget how, in an age when individual actions don’t seem to matter much, thousands of people found a way to help. Whether it was working at Ground Zero, donating expertise or simply giving blood, thousands were willing to experiment with finding ways to make an impact.

The other heartening thing was that the initial reaction was not fear, but anger. People from across the country and around the world, anyone who had ever fallen in love with New York City, and a good many who hadn’t, repeated the same phrase: ‘How dare they mess with my city!’

Sadly, many of the good things about the initial responses to 9/11 have been pushed to the wayside. The same people who rushed to Ground Zero without regard for their own safety are no longer thought of as heroes but as victims of the dangerous debris they inhaled. The determination to rebuild the towers better than before has been replaced by the vague notion that nothing should be built on the ‘hallowed’ ground where they stood. Fights over designs and delays in starting work on a new structure only reinforce a sense of cynicism about city politicians, the victim’s families, and the future of lower Manhattan.

Five years on, it’s time to put away the shrines. Looking back is fine, but if we’re going to draw on the past, let’s put a stop to this interminable mourning and rise to the occasion just as we did on the day.

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Topics Politics


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