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October 2001
Two Weeks of Community

By Samantha Knowlden



In the immediate aftermath of the events on September 11, I witnessed an amazing and beautiful occurrence of community and communication in New York City. Starting on September 11, and lasting a few days, cars were banned from lower Manhattan. As a result, in the wake of such a tumultuous and explosive tragedy involving the crashing of buildings and planes, came the most peaceful and inspiring quiet. As I rode my bike around the Lower East Side at night, it was so quiet and still I could hear crickets chirping. I could hear myself think. Without the screeching, whizzing and honking of cars there was more space to spread out and breathe. People seemed less confined to their own little bubbles of personal space and they came out onto the sidewalks and streets and talked to each other.

At Union Square Park thousands of people spontaneously converged to express their feelings of grief, outrage, and shock. The relatively sterile park was transformed through peoples’ expression and interaction. The barriers between people came down along with the fences as people broke through to the grassy areas and poured out their emotions through drumming, dancing, singing and praying. Religions and cultures came together as people stopped to fold origami cranes to add to the flock of thoughts and prayers tied to the light poles, or sat with the Tibetan Buddhist monks as they chanted on the grass. Flags from South and Central America were flown alongside U.S. flags as people sang prayers and songs in Spanish. Along the perimeter of the park, people left pictures of missing loved ones and left candles and flowers and prayers in their memory, bringing into stark reality the depth of their tragedy. People paid tribute to the rescue workers and created beautiful candle and flower displays that others stepped up to maintain and re-light as they passed by.

People from all walks of life communicated with each other by writing their thoughts on huge pieces of paper hung on the fences and left on the ground. They chalked messages onto the sidewalks and statues, and left artwork and photography and political messages on the fences. Signs went up to announce other vigils, marches, meetings and services, and spaces were made to collect donations for relief efforts. Groups of people congregated on the south steps debating facts and rumors and opinions while others stepped up to listen and observe. An air of peace and cooperation pervaded as people distributed food, water and blankets, nurturing those who had come to this public space to mourn, react and express.

I met many new people while my friends and I spent hours, often staying late into the night, circulating among the many groups and spaces created in the park. Normally, the park closes at midnight and you are not allowed to post signs or dance or gather in organized groups of 21 or more without a permit, so we marveled at this display of community and use of public space and wondered how long it would last. The answer came exactly two weeks after the event. At lunchtime, Parks Department trucks pulled up in front of the George Washington statue at the south end of the park. Workers got out, and after putting some things aside to be preserved and displayed in a different location, they began shoveling and scraping the candles, flowers and signs into black garbage bags. The fences were replaced and signs were put up admonishing people to show their New York spirit and keep off the grass.


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