September 12th NYC: Amidst Tragedy, A Gentle, Open Feeling in the Air

Union Square Park Post 9-11

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

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, if I recall correctly. 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.