Gary looked at me and said “you wanna go?” I just woke up and I was still groggy. “OK,” I said.
It was the summer of 1981 and I was backpacking through Europe. We were staying at a youth hostel in the outskirts of Munich. It was actually a huge circus tent. Hundreds of us were sprawled out in a sea of sleeping bags and backpacks. Germany was a relatively expensive place to visit; at two Deutschmarks a night, it was about a buck to stay there, well worth the long tram ride to the edge of town.
I had met Gary and his twin sister, Nina, in Greece a few weeks earlier. I was on this grand tour, this circuitous route of Western Europe with a Eurail pass burning a hole in my pocket. Everyone seemed to hit the same cities; we would often wind up in the same place after meeting earlier. I had been traveling with a college buddy, but at this point of my journey I was on my own.
Gary and Nina’s dad was Jewish and their mom Japanese, a war bride. Nina could pass for you-name-the-ethnic-group. Gary was taller than me, at least six feet tall, and looked Asian. He had a strong Brooklyn accent.
We got on the tram, headed into town and found the S-Bahn, the train that would take us to the suburbs. A short ride later, we found ourselves walking through a neighborhood of private homes, complete with ornamental lawns and landscaping, not much different than the place where I grew up on Long Island. A short walk on a secondary road, passing by a few restaurants, and we were at our destination.
Dachau was the first of the concentration camps opened in Germany. According to its Wikipedia entry, it’s estimated that over 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries were sent here, two-thirds were political prisoners, including many Catholic priests. Nearly one-third were Jews. 25,613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp.
We were there because we were Jewish. I was pretty much an atheist at this point in my life. But I had a strong ethnic identity and still do. I imagine the Nazis didn’t query the Jews they rounded up on whether or not they were religious, went to temple or even believed in God.
There was a museum. Outside, there was a very large and rather intense sculpture, depicting people enmeshed in barbwire. But what was striking was the immensity of the place. The barracks, long gone were indicated by concrete foundations. It was a long, hard day. Twenty years later on a trip to Israel, I made the obligatory trip to Yad Vashem. Another tough day.
Sometime in the mid-nineties, I was on a business trip to suburban Virginia. After my meeting, I made my way into Washington to visit the Vietnam Memorial
I had read The Best and the Brightest. I immersed myself in the PBS documentary, Vietnam: A Television History. Apocalypse Now was running constantly on HBO in college; I must have seen the movie dozens of times, either in bits and pieces or sometimes sucked into watching it again in its entirety. While I had no connection to the soldiers that died in Vietnam; as an American I was pissed-off at our country and its leaders for allowing us to get sucked into this unforgiving and relentless war.
It was the dead of winter. It was sunny and super cold. I was dressed for a business meeting, attire not really practical to be outdoors for any length of time. I went to the wall.
There you are. There are many names on the wall but you find yourself a nose-to-nose with a name of just one of the the soldiers that died. For what. Nothing. It was a powerful, thought-provoking experience.
Memorials should be visceral, contemplative, reflective.
On September 11, 2001 I was walking across 26th St. heading to my office. I passed Fifth Avenue just after 9 AM. I noticed smoke downtown and just assumed it was a fire.
When I got to my office, everyone was in the conference room. By then both planes had hit the towers. Our office was on the 12th floor and facing downtown, the view cleared the low rise buildings to the south so we could easily see the Twin Towers, some two miles away.
Thick black smoke was billowing out, flowing east towards Brooklyn. I stayed for a bit, then went back to my office, thinking the Fire Department will deal with it, no need for me to be gawking at it, like the aftermath of car accident on the side of a highway I made an attempt to do some work, called a few out-of-town clients. Minutes later, my assistant bursts into the office we and told me me that the South Tower has had collapsed. I went back to the conference room and saw the North Tower standing alone. Twenty minutes later, it fell down.
No one asked me what I thought about the 9/11 Memorial. Sure, there were public hearings but I was not paying attention and failed to offer contribute my opinion.
My criticism is the space does nothing for New Yorkers. Unless they had a personal connection to people that died on this horrible day, most people I talked to about this project showed little interest in going to the memorial; some even said sheepishly, “oh-I-need-to-get-down-there” as if it was some kind of civic obligation.
I was put off when some politicians referred to the tower footprints as “sacred ground,” conjuring a religious aspect to the site. People die in all sorts of places - planes crash in the ocean, a young boy was killed by a cab on the corner down the block where I live. All terrible things. Yet these physical spaces, particularly public areas, never become sacred or holy, do they? Some people said we should have rebuild the towers to some degree in the very footprint as the original towers as kind of a “fuck you” to the terrorists.
A few vocal family members of the victims demanded something massive and that’s what they got. The politicians were weasels, eager to avoid aggravating the families and quite willing to play the game. I get it.
I was invited by a group in my industry to visit the 9/11 Memorial when it first opened. It was not open to the general public yet. I thought, “why not.” Back then, the site was cordoned off; we went through airport-style security to enter the memorial site. It was in the early evening and maybe there were thirty or so people in the space, including our group. Aside from the roar of the cascading water, the space was fairly serene.
I had no plans to visit the memorial. I had no connection to the space. I had no real reason to go there. I knew just one person slightly, Patrick Brown, a firefighter that trained at the karate school I belong to.
I found Pat’s name etched into one of the panels on the west side of the South Tower. I remember seeing him in the dojo on occasion but sadly don’t recall being in class with him or even having a conversation. I felt guilty that I was essentially a stranger and wish I had known him when he was alive. I did feel respectful of his memory and thinking of him as a fellow karate-ka.
There. I did it. I visited the 9/11 Memorial. I had no intention of ever coming back. Ever.
In the summer of 2014, I was riding my bike downtown on the path along the Hudson River. As I rode past Stuyvesant High School, I noticed the memorial was now an open public space. I got off the bike, crossed West St. and entered the space. It was packed. I quickly realized that it was a crowd of tourists, mostly foreigners.
Weeks later, I returned with my camera. It became a year-long project. I tried to get down there once a month, capturing images in during the busy summertime season and on brisk winter days. I felt like a character from Star Trek boarding the Borg ship where the alien crew would ignore intruders unless they posed a threat. Most were oblivious to my actions. I was able to get very close to the people I was photographing.
Visitors stared into the the waterfall or gaped at the new One World Trade Center building. Some having contemplative moments, I imagine.
But mostly, people were taking photos, lots of them, of each other, using conventional cameras, but also with cell phones and even iPads with cameras. Portraits. Family group shots. And selfies, one-handed style and, yes, break out that contemptible selfie stick. All posted on Facebook for the gang at home to see. This is the spectacle I witnessed.
On occasion, some people would engage me, several even asked me to take their photo. I oblige. Some ask where I’m from and I tell them.
I tell them where I was that day. I tell them I watched the North Tower collapse with my own eyes, the television antenna falling straight down, like an arrow; the blown out windows catching the sunlight on that beautiful end-of-summer day in 2001. I tell them it’s an image seared into my brain for the rest of my life.
The 9/11 Memorial is now the number one tourist destination in New York City. An item you check off your list. OK, been there, done that. Oh, and hit Century 21 afterwards. It’s just around the corner on Church St.
I am not criticizing the people that visit the space. My issue is that the memorial fails. It’s not a contemplative space. It’s a three ring circle. A spectacle.
Or maybe we’re just living in the iPhone/Facebook era. A friend told me people visiting Auschwitz are doing the same thing.
The FDR Memorial or Four Freedoms Park is located on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. I was on my bike, again, and would up there almost by accident. You have to walk to the very end the park to see the the actual memorial to FDR and discover what the four freedoms actually are. The park itself, located in an out of way place was sparsely populated and quiet. Reflective.
What should be done with the 9/11 Memorial? Fence it off and limit the number of visitors? Tell tourists NOT to take group photos or selfies? Do. Not. Smile.
Or, more likely, maybe after a some years go by, as 9/11 fades further into our collective memories, like many other “attractions,” the 9/11 Memorial simply becomes passé. Tourists move on to the next thing. Fewer and fewer people visit the site and the memorial becomes more what it should and ought to be - a serene and contemplative place.