TCS Daily

'Marvelous, Mischievous Monument'

By Nick Schulz - September 11, 2002 12:00 AM

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
E.B. White, from "Here is New York", 1949
Visitors to an important new photography exhibit about 9/11 will find themselves inadvertently reenacting portions of that miserable day one year ago. If you go you will spend time looking up in shock, just as thousands of New Yorkers did last September. Only this time you are looking at pictures of burning towers and of victims plunging to their deaths, not the event itself.

Gothamites love to joke that you always know the tourists in New York because they are the ones looking up, gawking at the gilded city, marveling at its immensity, scope, and height. But one year ago New Yorkers in every borough of the city found their gaze turned upward, eyes redirected to the sky.

The exhibit now the Corcoran Gallery of art in Washington, DC is called "Here Is New York." It is a compilation of photographs from amateurs and professionals taken at the time leading up to and immediately following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The exhibit's creators have dubbed the show a "Democracy of Photographs" because "anyone and everyone who has taken pictures related to the tragedy is invited to [submit them, after which] they will be digitally scanned, archivally printed and displayed." Prints of the photos will be sold to the public and the proceeds will go to the Children's Aid Society WTC Relief Fund.

The images they have gathered are stunning. Individually they are compelling, disturbing, harrowing, chilling, enraging, maddening and saddening. A couple of the pictures are too gruesome to show on the exhibition's web site, including one of an unidentified human leg, a bloody mess severed from a victim's body. Beyond that, the volume of pictures - thousands of them - and their gravity as a collection lend the whole exhibition emotional weight.

It is surprising how few tears the photos generate among visitors. Instead, the photos elicit a more complicated tangle of emotional responses than just plain grief: tightening of the chest, dizziness, perhaps even a headache. It's true your eyes will dampen, but more than that your blood boils slowly as the display sinks in and clubs you repeatedly, image after wretched image.

Here is New York
Despite its strengths - it is one of the few 'must see' exhibitions to be found anywhere - the collection is flawed in minor ways. The title, "Here Is New York," is taken from the E.B. White essay of the same name that he penned for The New Yorker in 1949. At first this seems an inspired choice. Just a few years after a small airplane flying through rain and fog crashed into the Empire State Building, and after Japanese fighter pilots stunned Americans by suicide diving their planes into American military targets, White connected dots in a way that now seems eerily prophetic. He envisioned planes - "a wedge of geese" - that would wreak havoc on the city. "In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer," White wrote, perhaps anticipating Osama bin Laden, "New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm."

But White's prophecy also, thankfully, missed its mark. He wrote that "the city... is destructible." Were he alive today surely White would realize that he had spoken too soon. The last year has proved many things to Americans - about our character as a people and about the strength of our nation. And one thing proved conclusively is that New York is indestructible: She suffers a huge hit and has her two front teeth knocked out with a blind sucker punch. Yet she dusts herself off, gets back up, and comes back with ferocity. These pictures demonstrate more than the sorrow and loss of 9/11. They are freezeframes of the indomitability of New York City.

The show's creators write on the wall of the exhibition that "after 9/11, New York is Everywhere." But this assertion will not ring true for everyone. In fact, more than one viewer said that the notion clangs awkwardly in the ear.

Perhaps that's because New York is not some ahistorical or abstract idea. It is defined by its uniqueness: locked in time and place and space, given form by its location, geography, topography, as well as the aspirations and dreams of its millions of residents and visitors. It's this singularity that prompted White to write as he did in the conclusion of his essay on Gotham:

A block or two west of the new City of Man in Turtle Bay there is an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden. It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved by those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: "This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree." If it were to go, all would go - this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.

Battered. Long suffering. Beloved by those who know it. Life under difficulty. Growth against odds. Reaching for the sun. White is right: Surely, not to look upon New York would be like death. So go see New York through the eyes of those who lived (and some who died) that ill-fated day, who preserved it for eternity at its darkest hour. They preserved the death and destruction of that day, not knowing that in so doing they would help us to remember and better understand the life of a city - the City - and the joys and gifts of the "mischievous and marvelous monument."

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