September 1, 2011
The Other Memorials: The Poignant, Ephemeral Posters of 9/11
While the official memorializaton of 9/11 lurched forward in an often messy public process, DIY and ad hoc monuments sprung up across the city. Many remain today as raw, unfiltered expressions of a grieving community.
Soon after the attacks, the posters began appearing all over the city. They were the first memorials to September 11, but they weren’t memorials—they were anguished cries for help. “Last seen on the 72nd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center,” the handwritten flyer would read, accompanied by the name of the missing person, a photograph (usually a family photo taken at a celebratory moment: a wedding, a child’s first birthday, a Little League game), and then a contact number. There were tens of thousands of these posters.
And all of them eventually disappeared. But that fall, the wounds were still fresh and the need to memorialize was urgent. It was clear, already, that nothing would get sorted out at the World Trade Center site for years. So virtually every firehouse—regardless of its proximity to Ground Zero—became a neighborhood shrine, an early and unofficial memorial. Elsewhere in the city, a kind of 9/11 iconography evolved: flags; fire trucks festooned with visual references to the event; patriotic wall murals featuring soaring eagles, with the Twin Towers (always slightly out of scale) looming in the background; simple plaques tucked away on quiet streets, honoring neighbors. At St. Vincent’s Hospital, thousands of handmade tiles sent from all over the country were affixed to a chain-link fence across the street from the emergency room that waited to treat the survivors who never arrived. The tiles—ragged from ten years’ exposure to the elements—remain there today, even though the hospital has since closed. Much of this outpouring was produced before Ground Zero was cleared, before the political process began lurching forward.
Ten years later, these unofficial memorials remain with us as a kind of scar tissue: a series of wounds, fading but permanent. Why do they still move us? We embrace their immediacy and innocence. For the most part, they were not particularly well designed (or even “designed” at all). Largely produced before the professionals were called in, they employ symbols that in a different context would be dismissed as ham-fisted or jingoistic. But they were, unlike almost anything else connected to September 11, untainted. They were not subject to “public process,” political compromise, design-competition juries, ballooning budgets, or any of the impossible (and often contradictory) burdens placed on the official memorial. They look exactly like what they were: authentic expressions of pain and loss. And if we choose to notice them—as they slowly, perhaps inevitably, recede into the background of urban life—they provide a simple, daily reminder: never forget.