9/11/01: The Day, and the Days After
From: David R. White [mailto:email@example.com]
Executive Director and Producer
Dance Theater Workshop (DTW)
New York City
To all our friends:
One crisp fall morning in the year 2001, New York City exploded.
Betsy Gardella, who is my wife and the Chief Operating Officer of WNYC Radio -- our citys public radio station -- was on the 26th floor of the Municipal Building in lower Manhattan looking out at the North Tower disaster a few blocks away. She was calling on the phone to tell me not to drive in to work (I was getting ready to come from our Brooklyn home to DTW) because I normally drive through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel -- which was shortly compromised by the collapses and then under the World Trade Center towers
Everyone at DTW and around our community seems physically fine so far, although Liz Thompson of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council was the lobby of the World Trade Center going to the 103rd floor when the first blast occurred. She escaped, as did her staff but one LMCC visual artist who evidently slept over in a workspace studio on the 102nd floor is missing. It is a surreal science-fiction revision of the landscape: the reality far outstrips the apocalyptic story line that has contributed to countless B-movies.
As we spoke on the phone about getting our nine year-old daughter out of school in downtown Brooklyn, Betsy watched and reported as the second plane slammed into the South Tower right in front of her. Her building was evacuated, and she, like thousands of others, worked her way across the Brooklyn Bridge: she was in the middle of the span just as the first tower collapsed. The implosion was so profound that she and the crowd around her initially thought the bridge itself was being blown up.
Craig Peterson, DTWs Co-Artistic Director, and his partner were on the roof of their Brooklyn home near the docks, watching the immediate aftermath of the first tower impact, as suddenly the second jetliner roared directly over their heads, diving straight towards the tip of Manhattan. Choreographer Patricia Hoffbauer was out with her baby daughter on the Brooklyn Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, when the same jet shot into view. The Parsons Dance Company was preparing to rehearse on the WTC plaza stage for LMCCs Under the Stars September dance series. Ellis Wood and Jennifer Phillips were rehearsing in a studio on Chambers Street, just around the corner from the Twin Towers; and writer Mindy Levines husband was just dropping off their 5-year-old daughter, Michaela, at a nearby Tribeca school. Everyone fled to safety. Ironically, DTW had recently co-presented Compagnie Kafig and two Family Matters programs at the plaza stage: on September 11th, the stage was buried under 220-some stories of rubble and mayhem, and instantly memorialized as Ground Zero.
Wired and cell phone service, and Internet access, was obviously and significantly disrupted. Local television stations (and some radio) went black as transmitters and the giant WTC tower were destroyed. No bridges, no tunnels, no rail, no subways a preventative measure to make sure there were no more potential incidents. Until Saturday, you couldnt take most subways from Brooklyn to Manhattan or back: there were well-founded fears that the rail vibrations could move through the tunnels and endanger some of the weakened buildings around the vanished WTC. The World Financial Center and some Battery Park housing are also severely damaged -- if you ever strolled beneath the palm trees and soaring glass sky of the Winter Garden atrium, it is utterly blown out, a raw skeletal image of the European train stations bombed out in WW II.
I drove to downtown Brooklyn, towards the bridge, on mid-morning of the 11th, working my way through the back streets to find my wife and daughter, moving slowly through a stream of people, stunned and dust-covered, moving on foot away from lower Manhattan. In Park Slope, I ran into the first cloud of debris that had crossed the harbor. The only apt analogy is a winter storm white-out, a dense, cutting blizzard of pulverized concrete, insulation and souls that left in its wake a sepia nightmare. On the streets people pressed handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses; in some cases, men and women had removed shirts or blouses for the same reason. Everybody was hitchhiking, and many were clutching one another for comfort. Every refugee exodus ever televised came to mind.
On Thursday, a bomb threat against the Whitestone Bridge was phoned in. They subsequently evacuated a number of new city areas, including Grand Central Station and the General Post Office, also because of bombs threats (in all, there were 90 that day, and 100 the next). And a number of people were detained at JFK and LaGuardia, several as they were getting on another LA-bound flight, carrying false IDs and (in at least one case) a false pilots license, closing down all the area airports just after they had been formally re-opened.
As you know, the losses are massive: they are only shielded from public view because of the impossible completeness of the implosion. 30,000 body-bags have been provided by FEMA, at Mayor Giulianis request (although they are being used for body parts as well, not just bodies). 2% of the NYC Fire Department are dead -- an inconceivable proportion. They were in the first response teams to arrive at the North Tower; it is widely assumed that the terrorist planners anticipated that response as well as full TV coverage in designing the second plane to hit when it did. Hundreds of businesses -- over 10% of the businesses in Lower Manhattan, employing some 50,000 people on site -- were taken out. A total of 5,000 people have been reported missing so far, and that number is expected to rise.
Beyond the eventual body count, think for a moment that the number of children who will have lost a parent will equal the population of a small city.
One can only imagine what would have happened if biological weapons had been aboard the planes (clearly a decision that could have been made by the terrorists), and had then explosively infused the endless cloud that has drifted across the city and its suburbs.
All of this said, New York has been resilient, defiant and communal, from The Mayor on down to everybody in the streets. No panic, no looting, so many volunteers that they are now being turned away, acts of grace and heroism in the face of horror that are stunning in their numbers.
Here are some pictures at an exhibition:
*Nearly 400 firemen, police and emergency medical technicians lost and feared dead.
* Chelsea Piers and the Javits Convention Center turned into medical triage and rescue supply centers; the Lexington Avenue Armory at 25th Street transformed into the Compassion Center, with around-the-clock grief counseling for thousands.
* Vans and trucks sitting outside city hospitals papered over with the Xeroxed images of the missing.
* Rescue workers inking their names and Social Security numbers on their own arms and legs, in case they are lost.
* Cell phone calls from doomed passengers plotting to attack the hijackers of one jetliner; cell phone calls to loved ones abruptly terminated by a building in mortal collapse.
* Personal photos and drivers licenses, falling charred to earth all over Brooklyn.
*At an armory converted into the Compassion Center, cheek swabs taken from relatives in order to identify disaster victims by their DNA.
* A young Web designer, returning to her workplace to pick up the bagpipe shell play at a memorial service.
* Food delivered to pets left behind in evacuated buildings.
* A U.S. Navy destroyer gliding past the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
Streets; F-16 fighters rocketing up the Hudson and East Rivers.
And glass, so much glass, on a luminous autumn day, so much glass, a snowfall out of season, glinting and darting like tickertape through sunlight already dissolving into the looming shadows.
There is also fear. There are predators. There is a potential for ethnic and religious persecution so far held, at least in the city, in remarkable check. And there is, of course, blunt talk of war. On Thursday afternoon, I got a call from performance artist and longtime construction worker Marty Pottenger. She and other artists had created a massive banner for an imminent peace vigil in Union Square Park. She was trying to find the owner of the Daryl Roth Theater on the edge of the square (home to the aerial performance group De La Guarda), to see if they would allow the banner to be hung from the theaters façade:
In 30 languages including Arabic, it called for true justice - not retribution.
I live in the Central Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, halfway to Coney Island, on the spine of the D train line where Caribbean, Orthodox Jewish, Pakistani, Russian, Chinese, Mexican and so-called white populations overlap one another as peaceably as one could expect. From now on, I will stand on my porch each day, grateful for my familys place in that passing parade. And then, holding onto that thought for dear life, I will go to work.
There is so much more that could be said, and so much beyond that, for now, simply defies expression. The faces of the missing are the faces of the world. On the morning of September 11, 2001, it was a cross-section of the world itself that was blown away.
CREATE, as if your life depends on it.
ACT, as if the lives of others depend on it.
Make no mistake, DTWs New York Dance and Performance Awards (aka the Bessies) will go on as planned on September 21st at the Joyce Theater.
Rennie Harris and David Gordon will perform; Susan Marshall, Carmen de Lavallade and Bebe Miller (among others) will be presenters. Art is our life-blood and our citizenship. The only thing that changes, now and for always, is the scarred and shaken landscape that now shapes it.
On behalf of the DTW community, my wife and our daughter, I send our love and unending sympathies.
The NY Dance and Performance Awards
(aka the BESSIES)
DRW Bessies Program Letter (rev. post-9/11/01)
BESSIE AT THE BARRICADES
This is the second introduction written for the 2001 New York Dance and Performance Awards, otherwise known as the BESSIES. The first, proofed and formatted, replete with ironic references to the retirement of Jesse Helms and a reflection upon the culture wars of the 1990s, was blown away on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. Of course, it was not blown away like the souls at the World Trade Center, in five rings of the Pentagon, or in a field outside Pittsburgh. The BESSIES are about a certain kind of survival: there was in the original text an allusion to the independent artist as a "survivor" of a true-life cultural reality show. No more. On Tuesday, the notion of "reality show" took on a whole new meaning, in New York and around the world. When two people grasp hands and jump from the shattered windows of a molten tower, lit up by a hijacked jetliner, live and in color, all realities, not just cultural reality, are forever changed.
NIMBY this political acronym has long stood in the politics of social services, low-income housing, functionally integrated education and across amber waves of immigration, for Not In MY Backyard. It is also a luminously useful term for the glaring absence of experience and the immaturity of general consciousness of war and mass destruction visited at home in the United States, a void of empathy that has existed for well over a century. Over the same period, most of the worlds people have suffered excruciating moments of sudden death, occupation, forcible displacement, and economic dismemberment, not to mention horrendous killing fields and mass graves. On Tuesday, not only did unimaginable catastrophe and havoc explode in Americas backyard, it detonated in the middle of what we have quaintly thought of as Americas artistic downtown.
Critic Lucy Lippard once wrote that American artists dont understand what it means for art to be dangerous. She didnt mean edgy and post-modern and inscrutable and unpopular or even endlessly monotonous; she meant politically and perhaps physically and claustrophobically dangerous to those who make it and to those who need it. Suddenly a visual artist, sleeping over in his studio workspace (provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) on a World Trade Center towers 102nd floor is missing. Suddenly, the wide-open plaza stage, which had recently been home to LMCCs Evening Stars dance series, has been memorialized as a burial mound at Ground Zero. As numbingly tragic as all the losses continue to be, the fact is that art-making and its public engagement only now will become truly treacherous, a rubble beneath the feet of our community as we pick and choose, format and proof our private beliefs and our public expressions in the wake what is becoming an emotional state of emergency. What happens next in all of our downtowns, only God or time knows.
Over the 17-year history of the Bessies and this ceremony, the artists, writers, curators and producers on the BESSIES Committee have sought to revisit and underscore certain indelible traces of work, whether as an event or over time, inventively conceived and persuasively executed. This is not science, to be sure, but instead a provocation of memory, convictions, even ideologies that precipitate and sustain debate within our community. The BESSIES process ultimately embraces argument to remind us of all of the real achievements in our midst and perhaps of the shared challenges ahead.
For all the above reasons, and because of the impossibly painful circumstances of the past 10 days, we have decided to let the Bessies ceremony go forward, celebrating the award recipients and their accomplishments from the past year, of course but most urgently, using the occasion as a reaffirmation of our identity as a committed, interdependent community. We are rescue workers like everyone else, but our jobs lie in the reconstruction of the means and relevance of coherent public expression, and the primacy of free and creative spirit in that task.
The faces of the September 11th victims, are, in fact, the faces of the world. As much as the individuals those images capture, the world itself is a grievously harmed victim of Tuesdays extreme violence. The smell of war is in our air, and there are frightening micro-spasms of ethnic and religious persecution. And thats the old-wine-in-new-bottles that we go home to tonight, after the celebration and communion is over.
If she were here tonight, Bessie Schönberg would have added to her resonant admonition to the artist audience of earlier Bessies evenings Be wild! to, now, Be Brave! And we would go further:
CREATE, as if your life depends on it;
ACT, as if the lives of others depend on it.
Thank you for joining us here tonight.
David R. White
On behalf of, and with profound gratitude to, Laurie Uprichard; the BESSIES Committee; TimeOut New York and all of our other sponsors; Naomi Vladeck; Lili Mollet-Vieville; Craig Peterson; Philip Sandstrom; Marion Dienstag, Cathy Edwards, Nolini Barretto, Tom Pearson and DTWs entire staff and Board; Claude-Andrée Louissant and the staff of Danspace Project; Linda Shelton, Martin Wechsler, the Techs in Black and the Joyce; and tonights artists, presenters, and volunteers from around our community all of whom who have made this evening possible.