December 19, 2001

I'm learning a bit about the frustrations of journalism. Without strong contacts to expedite publication, I've been unable to get out this article, which I think is an important and underrepresented facet of post-September 11 New York. It's especially frustrating in light of the time and emotional honesty that the people I interviewed (both cops and civilians) shared with me, all trusting me to tell and share their stories. For that reason, I'm publishing it here. (it's since been published by The Villager)


"Die yuppie scum" graffiti covered this neighborhood back in 1988, when the Tompkins Square riot pitted squatters and homeless rights activists against cops on a hot August night. "My horse is my penis! My stick is my dick!" taunted the crowd as mounted riot police charged protesters and bystanders alike, bottles rained down from rooftops, and helicopters beamed searchlights from above. Now, this same corner serves as our neighborhood's shrine for the missing; poems and flowers and candles for those we thought we reviled. One of our block's French bistros, long bemoaned as an example of the gentrification that supplanted any remaining real bohemia with destination fun, replaced its Prix Fixe chalkboard with an open invitation for free dinner for blood donors and volunteers. And the cops at the 9th Precinct's station house invited local street artist Chico (Antonio Garcia) to paint a new mural on their garage bay door: "To the Community: Thank You."

This is the East Village, iconoclast central. And in our grieving, we are redefining our stance against authority, shaping a leftist patriotism, and reclaiming our community. The thirteen years since the Tompkins Square riot have seen the very gentrification the demonstrators feared. Overpriced Thai food trumps funky performance gallery. Community gardens bulldozed and developed. The raw anger and rebellion, the most vocal squatters and punks, the most fabulous Mud Club faces, the edge and the squalor, have been gone some ten years now. And yet the East Village remains invested in its outsider image. We are aggressively dressed-down, overeducated, insular artists, or, at least, indie-culture mavens, with slight disdain for mainstream culture and consumerism, and selective memories about our own invasion of this Eastern European and Hispanic neighborhood. Multi-national corporations and their minions? Bad. The K-Mart at Astor Place? Yeah, but with irony. The excitement-seeking weekend crowds of poseur rich kids? 'I never go out on weekends, it's so annoying.'

Long-term residents often share the views expressed by performance artist and community archivist Penny Arcade, that the police are protecting real estate interests and "your right to walk down Avenue B in a slip." When, she asks, did the police become an overnight eviction squad? "Since when does the housing department own a tank?" Gentrification, to Penny, is police enforcement of middle class values. Safety is safety for trendoids and entrepreneurs to exploit the neighborhood without respecting it. Cabaret artist Helen Stratford concurs, "The police were seen as a threat to creativity, intelligence, originality, and all of the magical things that happen in chaos. They enforced order, conformity, the law."

But after September 11th's pyrotechnic horrorshow, viewed on tv or on our very own rooftops, our New York was literally invaded by the other New York, and then, virtually, by the world's images and ideas of New York. A strange triangulation effect took place then, between us, our city, and the media. The shocking disjunction between the here-experienced and the here- codified, reported, explained back to us on our televisions and radios called into question any sort of reporting, any set of images, any representations. We New Yorkers often have that dislocation, of having the sites of our everyday lives sold back to us in heightened, glamourized images, peopled with models, celebrities, even people playing glossy simulacra of ourselves. But now our loss was the world's loss and we were being told what our streets were like, what the towers symbolized, what to feel.

The morning of September 11th, Avenue A was its usual weekday morning self. People ran errands, there was an especially long line at the bank. But like dye threading through water, lines of refugees marched uptown, in suits and in pantyhose, clutching briefcases. I had never seen so many people on Essex, walking; I had never seen these types of people, in these numbers, outside of midtown. There must have been sirens, because I saw hundreds and hundreds of vehicles with flashing lights racing west on Houston, and there must have been conversation and radios, because I seemed to know that the subways were closed. There was perhaps a fifteen-minute window where the two worlds coexisted as if superimposed; the residents and the survivors. I remember silence and the silent stoicism, which I now realize was severe shock, of the dusty people, the inability of our neighborhood to react, to interact. Several of us got into a slight argument trying to explain the best way to get to the Manhattan Bridge to a middle-aged Caribbean woman. "I don't know this area," she said. This was not their New York, and they were not, until now, characters in ours.

Our air was foul and choking. No one could maintain any sort of dialogue, and it all was too horrible to say "isn't it horrible?" On Wednesday, a friend waved off conversation, saying, "That was before yesterday. I mean, none of that matters now." We wore air filter masks and warned one another about patriotic troublemakers roaming nearby. A large gathering outside a church looked like a Happening, but was just a local AA meeting letting out. Photocopied pleas for blood, for donations were on every pole. The missing flyers followed. Candles outside a building might mean a loss inside.

Our neighborhood was cordoned off. Here, in the zone between 14th and Canal, with only official traffic and bona fide residents allowed, an authentic grief and solidarity took shape. We were incredibly respectful to one another; the homeless, briefly, became real people rather than a cause, just as the faceless sell-out yuppies moved from symbol to individuals in the heartbreaking Times tributes. The cordons let us feel the real soul of our neighborhood, without the clutter and chatter of the party crowd. They allowed us, too, to feel how close we were to what had happened, insiders. There was, I think, a little of the velvet rope feeling, how far in can I get, how close can I be, that was less about the later wave of terro-tourism and more about respectful witnessing, validating that we were a part of this tragedy. The constant sirens, the police policy of 'omnipresence', the discarded tapes and blue wooden barricades, the detritus of emergency, all made it feel real and closer than repetitive broadcast images, heroic/patriotic montages, rhetoric, and analysis.

Acquaintances took time for real conversation in the middle of deserted streets; we talked not of what we'd witnessed, but of mundane things, but with a slow, grave cadence and real listening. A memorial far less dense and organized than that at Union Square took amorphous shape in Tompkins Square Park, the shape of a huge heart outlined with candles and full of flowers. A small shrine formed on the unbroken, block-long brick wall of the ConEd plant, source of intermittent, ominous hums. A more profuse floral display blossomed on Avenue A just south of 14th under a breathtaking new mural of the city's skyline Chico painted on September 11th. The Hell's Angels New York Chapter on 3rd Street strung the largest American flag I've ever seen from third-floor height, spanning the street. And the 9th Precinct was reclaimed from tv-land's NYPD Blue iconography for the community, decorated with hundreds of thank-you cards from local schoolchildren and from as far away as Oregon, and with the ever-fresh flowers at the sidewalk shrine (now seasonal with pumpkins).

Detective Jamie Hernandez, Community Affairs Officer for the precinct, tells me that community response was instantaneous and overwhelming. People called and stopped in, asking what they could do, what the cops needed. Local hospitals and clinics and a YMHA offered beds for those crashing after long shifts, and free care to the five precinct cops injured on the first day. People brought food. "This one woman, she's a character, she likes to stop by, she likes to dance. Always asking us for money. She brought us two packages of cookies and some juice. And she was crying because she said this is all I can afford. What are we gonna do, tell her we don't need it? It was the type of thing… you just wanted to grab and her and scoop her up in a big hug."

Irene Nolan owns Ponica, where she sells her own clothing designs, two doors down from the precinct house. For the first week after the attack, she stayed at home, watched tv, and felt isolated and afraid. One day she went down to the West Side Highway, and there was Helen, with a bunch of American flags, cheering like mad. Helen tells me that Irene grabbed a flag and held it close, and that marked the change. "Me? With an American flag? Embracing American values?" She opened up her shop because people need a place to gather, and she began to organize and coordinate donations to the precinct. Her schedule shows that for almost two months, every day, local restaurants delivered dinner for 75 cops. Once Irene began to call, people began calling her. "How can I help?"

Irene tells me that participation saved her life, saved her from isolation. "It was scary to be alone during this time." And Helen tells me that everything has changed, that the cops and the community have humanized one another. Before, she says we could romanticize anarchy, chaos, and revolution. But now, "I see they are protecting our ability to create, to rebel. The taste of true chaos made us value the order and stability within which we experiment." One night a cop decided to paint a huge flag for the station house, and it kind of didn't look that good. So Lieutenant Sam ran up to Chico's house at 11 pm. The cops know Chico because, before he got commissions, he got busted for graffiti regularly. And Lieutenant Sam said, "We need a mural, something with a flag, a thank you." And Chico grabbed his stuff and painted it in about half an hour. Irene shows me a photo of a broadly smiling group, some in uniform, "Cops and hippies, hanging out," she says.

I go to a breakfast that the police are giving for the community. There is laughter and genuine warmth, lots of cops, lots of business owners, and lots of artsy people. Detective Hernandez has made gorgeous, framed plaques for the people who'd dropped off business cards with their donations. They feature stunning, detailed pen-and ink drawings of the precinct house made by a street artist in '99. The precinct has also taken out a full-page ad in the Villager. "Being a Police Officer is a very difficult job, but in these past days, you, the community, have helped to keep us strong, to reinforce the oath we have sworn to uphold the law, and made it easier to cope with this tragedy. They say that New York City is the greatest city in the world, but this saying cannot be complete without the greatest citizens of this city - like the residents of the Lower East Side." One cop says, "I'll never forget that first night at ground zero. A citizen showed up with a shovel, wanting to help. That's what this community has been like." Irene, who's from England, gives a beautiful speech about having lived here for 30 years but never having felt American until now. Someone else talks about a new era, a transformation in how we all deal with one another. "These are our heroes and I'm glad that our society's changed so it values that." Everyone cheers. Lieutenant Sam (Airam Ortiz) notes that she asked to be transferred to this precinct, and jokes about "world-famous graffiti artist," Chico. The photographer who came by snaps picture after picture, everyone wants one of them with the cops, their plaque. Helen, resplendent in swirling Victoriana gown, plays cabaret accordion, and then, as the gathering winds down, a gentle "America the Beautiful."

Coming home I pass a building on 7th Street with an actively tended shrine. Candles burn, flowers are fresh, and on the door is posted a Times bio I had just read, and resonated with, last night. Joyce, I remembered reading, "was the epitome of cool." Of course this is where she lived. There are wonderful cards and a pumpkin: "I love you, Joyce." September 11th is everywhere, still. The missing posters have given way to fliers for peace vigils and nonviolence teach-ins. A craftswoman who makes beautiful decorative objects from twigs and dried flowers has made a flag for her boutique's window. I pass a gallery displaying images of the towers in various media and abstraction, a show called "Reaction." "Many artists felt compelled to create on, or within a few days of, 9/11. Others could not work for days or weeks."

The nation moved on, to abstraction and analysis, before New York was ready. And the smell and the rubble and the dust and the sirens and the tape and the posters; I want them to stay. Too quickly, the material races ahead of the emotional. We New Yorkers are still stuck on minutiae when the media has moved on to meaning. For the first time I understand that meaning can be the enemy. It's always imposed, and, always, particularity is plowed under, tamed. It makes sense to me that things should be disrupted, that we should be forced to confront what happened. And I can't be the only New Yorker who feels a tad proprietary, as if the world has wrested our tragedy away from us for its war and its lessons and its justifications and its catharsis. Ours. I am so proud of my city, and for the first time it feels like mine -- not just this tiny dying bohemia, one of only a few such in large cities in the world where my choices, my lifestyle, make sense -- but all of it.

The yuppies have ceased to be symbols for us, in the way that New York has ceased to be purely a symbol for America. The way cops and firemen are symbols, for protesters or in patriotic montage. The way the East Village is a symbol for those who market our lifestyle back to us. The Trade Towers were at once symbol, movie location, and place for events in our lives. Something real, undeniable happened, and shook out the complacency of easy labels and smug dismissal of the not-us. And any return takes us into the sort of thinking that allowed terrorists to abstract and generalize "Americans," to attack symbolically in a way one can never particularly. Every single person I spoke with moved from the abstract to the particular, from generalizing to moment. Over and over I learn that returning to the moment, to the real, cuts right through conceptual understanding. And we can't go back.

Someone has graffiti'd the sidewalks again. But with fat outlines of flowers, simple and schematic. The image is almost banal, yet oddly resonant & persistent; it surfaces intermittently from the fringes of my subconscious, the blossoming of new hope.


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