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Winter 2003
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Gotham Tragedy, Gotham Memory
Christopher Gray
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People are talking a lot lately about monuments. I still haven’t fully come to terms with the events of September 11, let alone figured out how we should memorialize them. I do know that tragedies in which many innocents die horribly have occurred many times before in New York. Strange to say, I find some solace in contemplating them: it is a kind of comfort (if a rather bleak one) to know that our time is not alone in awful destruction.

There are five places in New York that most make me think about memorials, even though no memorials stand at some of them. The stories attached to these places are achingly sad and often gruesome. But to return to the immediacy of those events, as they happened to the New Yorkers of the time—to puzzle out the meaning of the memorials that they left and those they didn’t—is the only way I can start to imagine what kind of monument we want to leave to mark the tragedy that happened in our midst and honor its victims.

At the corner of Wall and Broad Streets stands the old Morgan Bank building, built in 1914 with huge blocks of Tennessee marble, all three feet thick and up to 22 feet long. Although J. P. Morgan was dead when the building was finished, it was the perfect evocation of the financial power of the United States at the beginning of the American Century.

The bomb outside the bank went off in an old wagon on Thursday, September 16, 1920, on the Wall Street side, just before the bells of Trinity Church finished tolling noon. The United States was in a period of domestic terrorist attacks—in 1919, rich families across the country had been targets of a nationwide parcel-bomb campaign.

An Associated Press reporter standing nearby said: “I first felt, rather than heard the explosion . . . with a concussion of air . . . sufficient to all but throw me off my balance. A mushroom-shaped cloud of yellowish green smoke mounted to the height of more than 100 feet, the smoke being licked by darting tongues of flames. Bodies, most of them silent in death, lay nearby. As I gazed, horror-stricken at the sight, one of these forms, half naked and seared with burns, started to rise. It struggled, then toppled and fell lifeless into the gutter.”

Of course, the infernal mind that concocted the bomb wound up killing mostly simple office workers.

In the days after the blast, the police questioned hundreds of suspects and found a farrier who had recently re-shod the horse that had drawn the wagon with the bomb. By 1922, investigators had taken the remains of the harness to every harness manufacturer in the United States, without result. No one was ever charged, or even accused.

The day after the explosion, most of the damaged businesses, even the Morgan Bank, reopened. There was never any kind of marker. The directors of the bank cleaned the facade and repaired the interior, but, although the cost would have been trivial to them, they left unrepaired the fist-size holes in the soft marble on the Wall Street side. There is an elaborate, two-sided historical marker about the history of the corner—put up only a few years ago—but it makes no mention of the events of September 16, 1920.

Far uptown, near Columbia University, is the small triangle of Straus Park, where West End Avenue and Broadway intersect at 106th Street. One of the owners of Macy’s, Isidor Straus, and his wife, Ida, had long lived in an unpretentious wooden house on 105th Street and Broadway. The Strauses, both in their sixties, were returning from Europe on April 14, 1912—on the Titanic. Many passengers who survived saw Mrs. Straus, who was urged to take her place in a lifeboat, decline and rejoin Isidor. One said: “Mrs. Straus declared she would not leave her husband. . . . They were standing arm in arm as the last boat left.”

Isidor Straus’s body was found, and the family delayed the funeral in the hope that Ida Straus’s body would be recovered. But it never was, and on May 8 the 105th Street house was banked all the way around with floral pieces for a funeral with a single casket.

Three years later, Straus Park opened, its focal point a statue of “Memory,” a reclining female figure in bronze, eyes downcast into a triangular sheet of water. Inscribed on a granite bench behind her is a phrase from 2 Samuel: “In their death they were not divided.” The Straus family wept aloud during the tributes.

In 1913, two years before the Straus Park dedication, the Firemen’s Memorial rose beside Riverside Park at 100th Street. On Valentine’s Day 1908, deputy fire chief Charles Kruger had been leading the crew of Truck 8 through a basement on Canal Street to fight a fire in a picture-frame factory. In the smoky darkness, a rotten floor gave way, and Kruger, 54, fell into a stone sub-basement filled with eight feet of water. Firemen couldn’t lift the 36-year veteran. “I’m going, boys,” Kruger whispered, and slid back into the water. One of his crew said: “I knew it would happen this way. He never said, ‘Boys, go into that place.’ He always said ‘Boys, follow me.’ ”

Within a week of Kruger’s death, a monument committee formed—headed by Isidor Straus. On September 5, 1913, 10,000 people assembled for the unveiling of the 20-foot-high limestone memorial not only to Kruger but to all firemen who had died in the line of duty. Around the base runs a Vitruvian wave carved in stone; it’s a conventional classical form, seen on hundreds of buildings—but this one has smoke and flames wreathed around the waves. Four daughters of firemen killed in the line of duty—May Boyne, 12, Mary Connolly, 10, Margaret Dow, 10, and Florence Walsh, 11—pulled down the two large American flags that covered the monument.

Isidor Straus had died in the sinking of the Titanic a year and a half earlier. In his place, his son Jesse made the opening address. “We erect monuments to our war heroes,” he said, “and it is fitting that we should erect them to men who fight in the war that never ends.” Representatives of fire departments from Baltimore, Jersey City, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh attended. The parade to the monument included six of the department’s oldest horses, who had responded to a total of 18,088 alarms.

At the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, you have to look hard to find the small, spare plaques, installed long after the famous event that unfolded there. It was almost quitting time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a state-of-the-art fireproof building put up only a decade earlier. The latenineteenth-century boast of “fireproof construction” was still an article of popular faith, even though fire after fire had shown that deaths occurred long before the structure itself burned—it was the contents going up in flames that killed. And the factory was full of clothing, thread, scraps, fabric, greasy machinery. When a spark or cigarette started a small fire, there was confusion; as this was a fireproof building, there had been no fire drills, there were no sprinklers, the stairs were narrow—and some of the exit doors were locked, to cut down on pilferage.

The closely spaced rows of workbenches, along with the clothing hung from the ceiling, not only spread the fire faster but also delayed communication on the floors and blocked the exit of the workers, perhaps 500 in all, mostly young immigrant women—Jews, Germans, and Italians. It was truly a “firetrap,” and soon scores really were trapped, pushed to the edges of the floor by the raging flames. Some felt lucky enough to get to the single rear fire escape—which then collapsed, plunging them to their deaths. Others climbed out of the windows and onto the narrow ledges. As the wooden window frames started to smolder, as the glass popped out, the women and girls—most in their teens and twenties—tried to scramble farther out. Some jumped for the life nets—but the nets collapsed as three, four, five hit them from 100 feet up. Then, one by one, they made that awful calculation that the possibility of a quick death would be preferable to the certain death of an agonizing incineration. They jumped for the ladders—which could only reach the sixth story. And they just jumped—some carefully tossing their pocketbooks ahead: did they really think they would reclaim their precious earnings? They must have had a wild fantasy that they would somehow rejoin, after some injury, their parents, their children, their spouses and walk down the same sidewalks to which they sped. Over 140 were finally counted dead, gruesomely burned and mutilated.

The families of the dead collected $75 apiece in insurance money. There was no talk of a monument. But the real memorial to the dead is intangible, a legacy of better fire, factory, and building laws. The Asch Building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was erected for warehouse, not factory, use, with its much heavier load of occupants. Beginning in 1916, new buildings—and substantially altered older ones—were required to have a certificate of occupancy detailing what use was permitted on each floor, with how many workers or dwelling units. That regulation made New York City an incalculably safer place to live and work.

On Fifth Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets, on a block now completely anonymous, a fire started at the Windsor Hotel at about 3 PM on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1899; by 3:35 the brownstone building was wrapped in flames, by 3:40 the front wall fell, and by 4:30 most of the walls were down, the rubble a huge furnace. Many people escaped, including Dora Duncan, a dance instructor, along with her 20-year-old daughter—Isadora Duncan. The family of Alfred Atmore Pope also got out, along with some of their possessions, like the Claude Monet paintings The Haystacks and Boats Leaving the Harbor, visible being lowered down a ladder in one of the best-known news photos of the fire (see page 101).

But many others, cut off by the smoke and flames, did not escape. The New York Times reported: “At some windows men and women stood and wrung their hands in despair. At others they screamed wildly for aid.” At the fourth floor, Amelia Paddock, who had come in from Irvington just for a day of shopping, “held out her arms to the crowd, then raised her hands as if calling for mercy on her soul. Then she clambered to the window sill, poised for an instant, and leaped, while a smothered groan went up from the crowd.” Many, many others did likewise.

The hotel proprietor, Warren F. Leland, escaped, but his 20-year-old daughter, Helen, jumped from the sixth floor; he could not identify her body. The Times said: “The terrible scenes enacted during the early part of the fire will never leave the memories of those who witnessed them.” The last of those witnesses must have died at least a decade ago.

The New York Tribune described the wreckage: “All day long great clouds of steam rose high above the heated piles.” Because there had been looting, the 800 men sifting the ruins got brass tags bearing a number; the only live thing they found was a fox terrier, badly burned. By early April there were 45 known dead and 41 missing.

On April 5, two wagons carrying 16 bodies and a coffin filled with body parts left New York for Kensico Cemetery in Westchester for burial. The next month, a committee, including hotel proprietor Leland and Elbridge T. Gerry, who owned the land under the hotel, announced plans for a $7,500 monument over the common grave. It would consist of a bronze female figure of grief in front of three granite columns: one perfect, to represent those who survived; a second, broken in half, for the dead who had been identified; and a third, broken off at the base, for the unidentified dead.

But the monument never went up; the plot remains unmarked. The Kensico Cemetery burial card diagrams the wedge-shaped plot, 5 feet by 8 by 40. The burial inventory: “Man, woman, woman, woman, man, body, body, body, bodies, body, body, body, body, body, body, body, body.”

For a few months after the fire, owner Gerry rented the site for billboards, including one advertising “Old Valley Whiskey.” In 1901, Gerry (who headed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) built a strangely festive ornamental building of luxury shops—which he called, with macabre in-difference, the Windsor Arcade. It was torn down by halves in the 1910s; even the buildings that replaced it have been demolished. The two bland high-rises now occupying the site bear neither plaque nor marker.

People say that memorials are about remembering. I think they’re just as often about putting something awful in a dark, closed box, so you can forget it. The granite, the inscription, the bronze, become a mediating presence, a barrier, a distraction. The choice of a memorial is particularly fraught with difficulty because of this unspoken meaning: it’s time to move on, time to forget.

To me, I will never walk across Central Park’s beautiful, huge Great Lawn—where I walked often in the days after the planes hit on September 11—without thinking of that awful pall of greasy yellow smoke that spread low across the horizon for the first two weeks. Without thinking of the absence of planes in the sky—no contrails, just beautiful, unlined blue. Without thinking of the sound: no noise in the sky, but a wail of sirens constantly around the park, so steady that they sounded like air-raid alarms in the London blitz. Those things are my memorials; I don’t need marble or bronze.

I was on the Hudson River when I watched the North Tower fall. I was next to three women, strangers to me and, as far I as could tell, strangers to one another. Just as the first gush of flame came out of the collapsing building, they took one anothers’ hands and began saying, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” How I wished for that special place they seemed to have ready-made for such an awful event.

Still, we will—and should—have a memorial at the site of those awful murders of 2001. How do our earlier tragedies shed light on what we ought to build in lower Manhattan? First, we need to know that it was a singular, but not an utterly unprecedented, event—we have been attacked before, an evil blow right in the heart of our financial core. Awful to contemplate, we could be attacked again. We have had mass deaths before, mass suffering, and we have seen heroism in its face.

Second, the memorials I’ve mentioned don’t have an unimpeachable history. The Firemen’s Memorial was, for a decade or more, a graffiti-covered, trash-strewn scandal until its restoration in the early 1990s. For a long stretch, from the 1970s to the 1990s, it seemed like we had lost our capacity for reverence; scores of monuments were defaced with graffiti, chipped, broken off, and, like the rest of New York, distressed and sunk in near anarchy—which only began seriously to reverse its course in the first Giuliani administration. Whatever memorial we build, we had better resolve never to dishonor the memory of those we commemorate by allowing the monument to be littered with fast-food wrappers and empty beer bottles, and covered with subliterate scrawls.

A third consideration: later ears may become deaf to what we hear as profound poetry. The original conceit of the Straus Memorial had the nymph Memory gazing out over a placid sheet of water in a long triangular basin. To those at the dedication service in 1915, it must have perfectly captured the image of the dark, unfathomed sea closing over their loved ones. No wonder people wept. But in more recent times the plumbing failed, the sheet of water dried up, and the poetry evaporated. The Parks Department replaced the water with . . . dirt. Pretty enough, when the flowers are blooming, but, still: the post-renovation Memory seems to be contemplating the Strauses pushing up daisies.

Fourth, heroes are easy to design for—but what about victims? How do we fix the nobility of someone caught in a noonday blast on Wall Street, or caught in a factory fire on the ninth floor or an office fire on the 90th?

In late September, I noticed something startling and, at first, horrifying. You must have seen it, too: New York’s children, most of them, don’t have that awful black scar in their hearts, which will never completely heal. For them, whatever memorial we erect, no matter how profound, will be an abstraction, perhaps even a barrier to what we would really like to convey. When we ourselves are gone—and the living memory of those who died is extinguished—what will our affirmation be?

The people who died at the Trade Center and the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania died because they were representatives of an ideal—a free society, a thing that requires constant effort and sacrifice and thoughtfulness. What I want those children to know, when they are older, is what I have told my own teenagers: that you are alive because you are lucky—because the 19 hijackers steering those planes, they were aiming at you, too, because you are free Americans and cosmopolitan New Yorkers. And what I want a memorial to ask them is: What will you do with that good fortune?

 

 


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