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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Here Was New York: Memorial Images of the Twin Towers” by Kay Turner here.
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Volume 33

Here Was New York: Memorial Images of the Twin Towers by Kay Turner

West Village Halloween Parade - Twin Towers
Immediately after September 11, most scheduled street fairs, festivals, and other events were cancelled. One of the first public events held after the attacks was the annual West Village Halloween parade, where a number of New Yorkers took the opportunity to comment on the tragedy with their homemade costumes. Photo: Martha Cooper
To mark the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001, BAC Folk Arts mounted an exhibition, “Here Was New York: Memorial Images of the Twin Towers,” in eleven Brooklyn galleries from September 7–30, 2006. Consisting of 350 photographic images by 175 photographers, the exhibit was an homage and a counterpoint to “Here Is New York,” a photo exhibit (titled as a play on E. B. White’s famous essay in praise of the city and organized by Alice Rose George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan, and Charles Traub) that opened immediately after the attacks in 2001. Held in a makeshift gallery in Soho, that remarkable project made it possible for anyone to hang photographs recording the events of September 11. Hundreds did so, and thousands came to see the pictures.

Acting upon the same democratic principles as its predecessor, the “Here Was New York” project invited the public to submit photographs of the Twin Towers as they persist in symbolic form throughout the New York metropolitan area. Recording vernacular representations and acts of informal and ephemeral remembrance that continue to appear in our communities, the photos show depictions of the Towers in wall murals, shrines, custom painting on trucks, logos, graffiti, tattoos, merchandise displays, window stickers, and more.

An offering of flowers at Ground Zero
An offering of flowers placed in the fencing that surrounds Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. The photo above the flowers, part of an exhibit at the site, shows the World Trade Center area before 9/11. Photo: Elena Marrero

Detail of Olga Bruh's home altar.
Detail of Olga Bruh’s 9/11 home altar. Photo: Elena Marrero

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, makeshift shrines and memorials made from ephemeral materials and objects filled the cityscape. In those days the burden of the ephemeral was particularly acute. Those fragile assemblages of candles, photos, flowers, messages, and mementoes—many of them incorporating images of the Twin Towers—were called upon to speak for those, living and dead, who were muted by the disaster. With color and collage, they filled the void with something to see, to smell, to touch, and to say: they filled the anxious space of incomprehensibility. Ground Zero burned with the stench of annihilation; one mile north, Union Square burned with thousands of candles and reeked, but of flowers, incense, and melting wax.

Street painting on Richardson Street
Street painting on Richardson Street, created in 2006. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo: Geoff Rockwell/Deborah Field

NYC souvenir snow globes featured Twin Towers
New York City souvenir snow globes for sale at South Street Seaport in 2006 still featured the Twin Towers as icons of New York. Photo: Elena Marrero

Those ephemeral memorials are long gone, but the need to remember, to insert the past into the present, continues. And remarkably, one way that New Yorkers choose to remember is by a continuous reassertion of the past, keeping the Twin Towers symbolically visible and alive: not at Ground Zero, but painted on the side of a restaurant in Queens, tattooed on a shoulder or forearm, or worn as a costume in the annual West Village Halloween parade. Walk down Humboldt near Metropolitan Avenue, and you encounter New York Heating’s testimonial mural painted on their metal drawdown.

On your morning drive to work you pass a slow-moving truck on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; on its fender you spot “9/11 Never Forget” ornately hand-lettered over an airbrushed rendering of the Towers. These public apparitions are everywhere. Inside homes and businesses, the memorials are also found. At Anthony’s Deli in Williamsburg, all manner of delicious Italian food is served across a long counter backed by a hand-painted mural of the Towers; in Olga Bruh’s living room in the Bronx a home altar is dedicated to those lost and to the place lost with them.

Brooklyn neighborhood handball court painted with names of those lost on 9/11
Brooklyn neighborhood handball court painted with the names of those lost on 9/11. Bill Brown Memorial Playground, Avenue X and Bedford Avenue, Sheepshead Bay (2006). Photo: Sonja Shield

Memorial wall painting behind the counter at Anthony's Deli in Brooklyn
Memorial wall painting behind the counter at Anthony’s Deli in Brooklyn. Photo: Geoff Rockwell/Deborah Field

Five years after the bombing, collapse, and disappearance of the World Trade Center, ephemeral vernacular arts still play a central role in memorializing the tragic loss of life and landscape. Perhaps these images serve as a placeholder until the official memorial is finally completed in Lower Manhattan. Perhaps they imply that “never forget” refers not only to that single infamous day, but to all the days that preceded it, when the Towers loomed large and were affectionately called the Twins.

Olga Bruh of the Bronx proudly shows her flag-wrapped Towers tattoo. Photo: Elena Marrero
Olga Bruh of the Bronx proudly shows her flag-wrapped Towers tattoo. Photo: Elena Marrero

World Trade Center observatory entry ticket.
World Trade Center observatory entry ticket. Once-ephemeral items such as this achieve the status of relic in New York City home altars, display shelves, and scrapbooks. Photo: John Movius
The “Here Was New York” collection is currently housed in the BAC Folk Arts archive and will eventually find a home in an institution with a dedicated September 11 collection. A selection of images from “Here Was New York” is posted on the BAC web site for the sixth anniversary on September 11, 2007. The public is invited to submit digital images to the online archive or to send prints for the collection. E-mail images to folkarts@brooklynartscouncil.org with the subject heading “Twin Tower Photos,” or send prints care of Kay Turner, 55 Washington Street #218, Brooklyn, New York 11201. Please include contact information, as you will need to sign a release form to have your images added to the collection.

New York City Heat's cityscape mural
In Brooklyn, New York City Heating’s cityscape mural features the Brooklyn Bridge and the Twin Towers encircled with a memorial ribbon. Photo: Justine Raczkiewicz

Brooklyn Cyclones baseaball playing field - local memorial
Local memorials, some sponsored by neighborhood groups, are seen throughout the city. At the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball playing field on Coney Island, a man looks at a 9/11 memorial sponsored by the Ebbets Field Wall of Remembrance Foundation. Photo: Sonjan Shield


Kay Turner is the director of BAC Folk Arts, the folk arts program of the Brooklyn Arts Council. She curated “Here Was New York: Memorial Images of the Twin Towers” for the fifth anniversary of September 11. Turner is currently working on Brooklyn Maqam, a festival of Arab music to be presented at various venues in Brooklyn and Manhattan in March 2008.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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