Memorials and Amnesiacs

Soon a national memorial will be built in the Pennsylvania hills. Will it reflect our place in history?

It’s the day after the blizzard of 2005 that hit the North Atlantic states in late January. We stand, snow above our ankles, looking toward a line of hemlocks. I am one of nine judges assembled in stage one of a complex jury process to find up to five contenders from the 1,011 entries in a carefully planned competition. One of the designs we choose from among the “memorial expressions” will define the spirit of the national memorial for those who died on the site.

This morning the milky gray sky protects our eyes from glare as we scan the natural bowl-like formation of the earth on the spot where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed. Headed for San Francisco and diverted somewhere above Cleveland, the plane roared above this quiet land at more than 500 miles per hour and hit the ground upside down, at the foot of a hemlock grove. The 40 people onboard disappeared, along with the Boeing 757, here in the peaceful hills of Somerset County on 9/11/01, their desperate cell-phone messages echoing in our ears.

On that balmy autumn day Flight 93 became part of the rich history of this plateau in southwestern Pennsylvania. There are signs of occupation and land use from ancient times, as well as remnants of an America that went from rural to industrial in the brief span of two centuries: stone cabins built by German settlers who worked the land; strip mines and underground mines constructed to extract bituminous coal that fueled our machinery, denuded the topsoil, and poisoned the ponds; and most recently, a remediation project. Though there were still miners underground on 9/11, a grove of pines planted on the stripped land were flourishing. This reclamation project is now in full force, reflecting our new understanding of stewardship.

The designers and members of the public who entered the competition were asked to consider this history in addition to the pain of the families of the Flight 93 victims, the shock of the nation and the world, and the heroism of those who acted so bravely on the doomed plane. So much to honor—such a somber and serious task, I think, as we pile into our vans for the trip back to the dying discount mall in Somerset, where the competition boards are exhibited and jury deliberations are taking place.

We drive through the neighboring town of Shanksville, with its charming Main Street of clapboard and redbrick homes. Commodious porches face the sidewalks, and small front yards show signs of plantings under the snow. It’s the kind of place that New Urbanists dream of but never quite achieve. As we pass through, we wonder what tour bus traffic will do to the lovely little town.

As the van heads toward Somerset, the landscape is dominated by high-rise billboards hawking Pizza Hut, Motel 6, and KFC. It seems that all the chains have settled in this tangle of highways, where no one seems to have heard of Gertrude Stein’s paean to the “there there.” In this placeless world of commerce built on cheap goods and services—where the history we just witnessed has been conveniently forgotten—I wonder if we remember how to build something dignified and memorable, something that reflects the complexity of the human spirit in a culture of instant gratification by commercial means. I wonder and worry.

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