"Spontaneous Memorial in Union Square"
At 8:48 A.M. on September 11th, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into One World Trade Center, the north tower. At 9:03 A.M., United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into Two World Trade Center, the south tower. By 10:30, both towers had collapsed in a cloud of smoke and debris, witnessed by a global television audience.
American embassies around the world immediately became the sites for spontaneous memorials in a massive outpouring of emotion.
Why were people around the world so deeply and immediately engaged in America’s tragedy?
On Saturday the 15th, the official number of missing in New York City was raised to 4,972. It was days before the number of people unaccounted for finally dropped below 3,000.
In those first days of terrible uncertainty, the family and friends of missing people papered sections of New York with posters of their loved ones, a new development in spontaneous memorials that was investigated by Marshall Sella in one of our resource materials. The article, “Missing: How a Grief Ritual is Born,” appeared in the New York Times Magazine on October 7, 2001.
Sella traced the evolution of the posters through several transformations. Initially they were a frantic effort to gain any possible information from hospitals, co-workers, or rescue workers. Then the posters began to include increasingly detailed physical descriptions, apparently to make identification of bodies possible. In a final evolution, some posters began to address the missing people directly in the way that Magdalia Rivera's school friends and neighbor wrote to her on the tree near where she was killed in Cambridge, Massachusetts (See the Introduction to Spontaneous Memorials).
The capacity of spontaneous memorials to render public space sacred seemed to make them an appropriate place for this intimate and direct expression of love and loss, as the posters in New York moved beyond hope to grief.
What common characteristics did the posters share with other spontaneous memorials, and in what ways were they a new development?
In our resources, read the Sella article, then take a look at our gallery of photographs of the New York posters, which may help convey a sense of what it was like to walk through the city shortly after September 11th and to experience its spontaneous memorials.
A second response in New York that we will investigate and that reflected a national phenomenon was the displaying of the American flag. We investigate the ways that such complex symbols as the flag and the Statue of Liberty can be transformed to convey strikingly different messages. These issues are addressed in our gallery of flag photographs in the resources.
We wrestle here with the challenging issue of how symbols like the flag that can become battlegrounds where memory seeks to mold history and affix specific interpretations and perspectives onto the past.
Are memorials often symbols that work in the same way – intense battlegrounds and lenses for viewing the past?
We also have a gallery of 9/11 arts, as well as other articles and web links, all of which can be accessed by opening "resources" in the menu above the box on the right