September 12th, 2001 NYC

Another way New York City changed – for a short while – after September 11th

A gentle, open feeling in the air

In 2003, on the eve of the second anniversary, I wrote an essay about how it felt right after September 11th, 2001 — that date thousands of people died, and, in various and profound ways, the lives of virtually every one of us in the United States and throughout the world were altered. The events of that day – aircraft intentionally targeting buildings in NYC and Washington, D.C. – changed U.S. and international history. Whether you knew someone who died or not, you were personally affected. Soon after, wars were launched and policies were ushered in that would have been quite difficult to implement prior.

For those of us in New York City on September 11th and who spent time here in the weeks afterwards, there was something else we experienced. In the aftermath of tragedy, something broke open. There was a raw, vulnerable, almost gentle feeling in the air. Even riding the subway, particularly in the days afterward, there was a quiet bond between passengers. It’s harder to recall now but almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this experienced it.

It was something so intangible that if I didn’t write about it, there would be no way to know it even happened. It’s not generally reported in the media and the rush to war happened so soon afterwards that it’s pretty much unrecognized in any public reflection of that time period.

What reminded me and caused me to write about it was, when, on September 10, 2003, I walked by a sign noting a photography exhibit, “Words Fail,” by Richard Law inside a church in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I didn’t intend to walk in and yet I couldn’t avoid the pull inside. Law’s goal with his exhibit was to recapture what it felt like on September 12th, 2001, the next day, and featured photographs he took around the city at that time. His exhibit called up the feelings I’d felt and experiences I’d had, causing me to revisit and remember. Law documented many of the heartbreaking “Missing” signs that were posted everywhere you looked throughout Manhattan, as well as pictures of Union Square, filled with flowers, candles, signs, calls for “peace.”

Union Square After September 11th
Union Square After September 11th

Walking through the exhibit, viewing the “missing” signs, I was struck by how beautiful everyone looked. In the days afterwards, the signs implied that the “missing” were somewhere and would possibly be found. These photos weren’t their “promotion” head shots or what they looked like going to work in the World Trade Center. They were personal. Something about the handmade quality of those “Missing” signs reminded me that someone with a true connection to the person prepared this. Written in magic marker or typed above the photo was everything they knew about this man or woman on a piece of paper. Weight, height, age, profession, family, and interests were all recorded to identify the missing. Blocks & blocks of city streets were designated for flyers with specific locations taking precedence: St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village, the Armory on Lexington Avenue, Grand Central Station, Union Square Park.

The Armory NYC After September 11
The Armory After 9-11

9/11 caused me to get involved in activism in NYC in a different way. In 2001, I was still new to being an “activist.” My background was primarily as a music publicist, having only more recently left my full-time job after working in the music business for over 10 years representing rock stars and musicians. I’d never engaged in any activism work until I became involved with the grassroots effort to stop the City’s massive spraying of toxic pesticides the previous year and was still figuring my way around with much to learn. 9/11 caused me to look at war, not an easy topic to take on, particularly in light of what happened on that day and the events that followed.

On September 12th, I traveled by subway into downtown Manhattan from Brooklyn to meet up with hundreds of people at the Charas Community Center to discuss what was going to happen next. I’d lived in the West Village until 2000 when I moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn where I was on 9/11. In that large auditorium at Charas, a former public school on 9th Street on the Lower East Side taken over and nurtured by its neighbors, I encountered a different form of activism and activist. A core group had met on September 11th – despite closings of subways and bridges and the overall environment in the city, they called a larger meeting for the next night. With roots in the “direct action” movement, they thoughtfully sought to do outreach and engage in dialogue. To a newbie like me, they seemed edgy and arty, ready to put themselves on the line.

After that, meetings were held weekly at Charas. It became a place to think through strategic, historical, political, and emotional issues in a fluid, dynamic way. People from all walks of life came; all races, classes, ages, and backgrounds. The group was set up to be non-hierarchical; there were “points of unity.” If someone felt something was wrong, there was something called “in the moment-stop” and a person could bring their issue up to the group to be addressed. These ideas changed the way I worked with others and how I viewed my environmental work. The experience caused me to look at everything differently. I was involved in the outreach and the media committees. I was very much inspired by people coming together in what seemed an almost magical way. (Others, more seasoned, may remember these meetings as difficult, as they brought together a new, diverse group of people and hammered out common principles.)

A name was finally settled upon – War Is Not the Answer. The meetings became a space for those who were trying to navigate a media environment where if you were against war, it often felt like you were the only one. No alternative views challenging the Bush Administration were presented in the mainstream news. Just old war generals who supposedly had all the answers. Nevertheless, hundreds of people were inspired to participate in those early months. Word spread via word of mouth and the internet.

Union Square Memorial After 9/11 NYC
Union Square Memorial

Another location where people congregated was Union Square Park in downtown Manhattan at 14th Street, the entire first week after September 11th, and then particularly on Friday evenings in the following months. The George Washington-on-a-horse statue at the park’s 14th Street border offered up the word “PEACE” scrawled across it in bold chalk, amidst the candles and the flowers. We honored the people who died that day. It was a generous spirit also honoring those who died elsewhere. It was a nervous spirit as well, fearing that any day now – without intervention – people on the other side of the world would be dying in the name of “revenge” of 9-11. Chalked messages on the park’s plaza said: “Give Peace a Chance,” “Stop the Cycle of Violence.”

On September 21st, 2001, thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets for an anti-war march that had been announced just three days prior organized by War is Not the Answer. A feeling of risk and also excitement co-existed with a need to be there. (No permit, we held back the traffic ourselves.) Some passersby felt it was disrespectful to those who’d died, but many felt relief that they were not alone in protesting the coming war – you could see it on their faces in their cars or as they walked by curious what was going on. We all knew war would soon become the inevitable response.

Later that night, a scroll on CNN reported:

Hundreds of people marched peacefully from Union Square to Times Square to demonstrate against U.S. military action in the wake of terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, killing thousands.

As if people did not know.

It was further evidence that to question war – and the official government ‘line’ – was immediately followed in all the media by a reminder of the magnitude of the event. The media felt compelled to tell us over and over again what had happened and how to feel. New Yorkers were not to be trusted to figure this all out for ourselves, and respond honestly and appropriately.

Union Square George Washington Statue After 9/11 NYC
Union Square George Washington Statue

I revisited this piece again in 2011 and updated it in 2019.

As hard as it is on some level to believe 18 years have gone by; if I had not written some of these thoughts down, it would be all too easy to forget. Somewhere archived is the original War Is Not the Answer web site. I searched for my old flyers and meeting notes which exist in a folder somewhere. Alas, I cannot locate them. Our old meeting spot, Charas, the community center located in an old public school, was evicted in December 2001, after existing in that spot for 20 years long before the Lower East Side was a ‘go-to’ destination. The building was sold to a developer by the Giuliani Administration. (It sits vacant to this day.) Everything seemed to change after that time, in just a few months. By December, there was a whole different feeling in the air.

I suppose that eerie but comforting calm, the connectedness New Yorkers felt to each other immediately afterwards, when everyone was scrambling to help in some way, would have had to dissipate over time. Yet it always felt as if it happened too soon, too fast. Before we had all processed what we were thinking or had even had time to reflect, our government (and media) started pummeling us with words like “revenge,” “war,” “dead or alive.”

In the midst of extreme tragedy, there was a tangible feeling: the world could change and we would help change it. What happened next might have transpired in a much different manner, but a war response and the cycle of violence is as ingrained it seems as old war generals are on corporate media.

It’s hard to say how long the initial feeling lasted… Was it days? … Weeks? How long? It was long enough to be memorable but too short to change the course of things to come.

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Photo #1: Ray via Flickr

Photo #2: Michael Thompson

Photo #3: Shayna Marchese

Photo #4: Shayna Marchese

Photo #5: Flatbush Gardener

In memory of War is Not the Answer activist Michael Shanker.

8 thoughts on “September 12th, 2001 NYC”

  1. Dear Cathryn, Now that you mention it, the moment I saw the first Tower go down, I knew the US government would go to war, using that as the excuse. I was confirmed in that the evening of 9/11 when both houses of congress gathered in front of the Capitol building to sing God Bless America. The ground of patriotic fervor was already being fertilized!!!

    I was involved in those early organizing meetings as well, which went on for some time and I remember the meeting at that church by Washington Square Park that was the last meeting of that Coalition. It fizzled and died.

    My deep fear over the numbers of people who would die from US imperialism’s bombs and guns with the events of 9/11 as an excuse–“the war on terror”!!–from the first took precedence over mourning those who died In NYC, DC and/or PA that day. I had never thought about that until I read your account. I never really felt that way. Just never did and still don’t. I have never visited that monstrous 9/11 Memorial thing. There are a lot of factors that weigh in which lead me to my thinking. Mostly it is that US imperialism has murdered millions of people and taken few casualties in the past decades in its ongoing wars. They were mostly innocent civilians. Even if they were armed combatants, at least they were fighting in their own country or region whereas the US war machine had no business being there anyhow.. We need to mourn them as much as we mourn those who died in the 9/11 events and we never do, never even pay any attention to them, year in and year out. That’s what I think is behind my feelings.

    Reply
    • Hi Marilyn,
      Thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughts. Definitely war was on the ‘agenda’ so soon after. And, yes, too many people have died from war all over and their lives and deaths are too rarely recognized.
      (A note: There were two different ‘coalitions.’ Actually, the group I was involved with wasn’t a coalition. I forget the name of the other group now — this is why we write things down! — but I’m pretty sure it was a different one that met at Judson Church near Washington Square and formed a bit later, but still soon after.)

      Thanks!

      Cathryn

      Reply
  2. Great report, Cathryn! The days following 9/11 were not only filled with people being gentle and loving with each other, but with magnificent sunsets — due to all the particles from the World Trade Center in the air? Maybe. And perhaps the pieces of all those people who were killed saying goodbye to New York and their loved ones one last time.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Mitchel! I didn’t recall the ‘magnificent’ sunsets. That’s a nice additional remembrance of that time. It would be nice to think it had something to do with those who died on that day.

      Thanks!
      Cathryn

      Reply
  3. Beautifully remembered, Cathryn. I admire your activism then, at meetings, at marches. I did what I could from home, but stayed indoors for the most part with windows closed. Because we were across the river in Brooklyn, we were sickened by the air and couldn’t tolerate being outdoors except briefly for necessities. We were in shock, depressed, in pain. There were candles, flowers, notes, poems, pictures at the Promenade for several years following 9/11. For me, it seems like yesterday, and I still find it hard to recount what happened then and the days following–so I’m particularly grateful for your report and for all you did in your activism.

    Reply
    • Hi Marilyn,
      Thank you for your comments. Yes, especially on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade – what an intense place to live and be near, just across the water. M. and I walked to the Promenade that same night from Park Slope (it felt like so much took place within just the first 24 hours, it’s hard to even imagine that we did that now – finding burnt pieces of paper in the streets from the buildings, even that far away) and worried about the air quality doing that then. It *is* hard to imagine how much time has gone by and truly if I hadn’t encountered that photo exhibit, I might not have written the first version of this which helps me remember what I experienced.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!
      Cathryn

      Reply
  4. I felt, richly deserved. About time we got what we dished out. I felt, what a show, for three thousand people. Where is that show for the virus victims today? I felt manipulated and angry and those feelings persist.
    And I feel guilty for seeming so cold hearted and bitter, for not going along with the program. And I was in shock, like i was watching a bad movie that resulted in thick white flakes coming through my brooklyn kitchen window while I sat in front of my computer.
    My son watched the video of the tragic event over and over again for days. I guess that’s why he is so enamored with Hillary. His mind is poisoned.
    Your essay is beautiful, thorough, a treasure!
    I also I lived in the west village many many years ago. Perry street.

    Reply
    • Hi Linda, thanks for your comments and sharing. Definitely a feeling of manipulation at that time – it was so laden and intense with the media so complicit. The part about ‘watching a bad movie that resulted in thick white flakes coming through my Brooklyn kitchen window’ – so poignant, thought provoking and true.

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Perry Street, how great. I was on Hudson!

      Cathryn

      Reply

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