Elizabeth Forum III

New Jersey Assesses the World Trade Center Memorials


The afternoon of November 21, 2003 found a gathering of New Jersey residents poised to discuss the World Trade Center Memorial sites for New York City. Imagine NY is a product of the Municipal Art Society of New York City, which has an ongoing commitment to the social-cultural impact of the 9/11 attack on New York City. They want to know how people have reacted after the event and later, now two years later, to the event, how we have changed and their consequences. Their outreach has created a metropolitan cultural network to respond, first, to 9/11 and then the public’s later reactions.

During the afternoon of November 21, 2003 The New Jersey Historical Society and the Historical Society of Elizabeth, NJ, two organizations in the ImagineNY network, sponsored the only state-wide New Jersey event responding to this metropolitan exercise. They arranged a discussion of the proposed memorials and registered citizen reactions to the recently released designs for the former site of the World Center. At Elizabeth NJ’s beautiful Peterstown Community Center, fifteen New Jersey citizens, ImagineNY’s specified limit on critique sessions, assembled to register their reactions. The sponsors viewed the audio-tape of the selected designs and discussed the eight proposals in detail.

In the course of the three-hour discussion citizens made clear that the memorial was not to be cemetery-like, over-particularized in terms of the victims (esp the time-line biographical specifications of one proposal), or overly complicated in terms of the technology of some designs (busy light displays etc). In general, they favored open-space presentations adaptable to different celebrations, maintenance-free constructions, respectful conceptions of national values – no differentiation between victims or victim groupings, no differentiation of memorial access (victim families vs ordinary citizens), accessible public walkways and street enhancing promenades.

Two designs received special approbation: LOWER WATERS by Mattias Newman and Bradley Campbell and INVERSION OF LIGHT by Toshio Sasakui. In the first design, citizens applauded the access from the street, the exposure of the slurry wall which showed the engineering ingenuity of the original conception, the outside wall of names with prairie grass and sense of open space. The citizen sense was at once acceptance of the place, accessibility to the existing neighborhood, adaptability to tourist interest, accommodation to museum values and exploration of the causes of the disaster.

THE INVERSION OF LIGHT design was another favorite for its simplicity and elegance of design, adaptability to multiple publics, openness to the elements – earth, air, light and water – subtle presentation of victims names – etched on 2-inch fronted glass with water flowing behind – plaza effect in central square with accented lighting.

The citizen discussion addressed the multiple demands of the site – memorial to the victims, icon for the nation, expression of international networks. In some ways, the order was descending, with a primary concern for the victims but with a sense that the memorial implicated the entire nation. Much discussion went to the maintenance problems, the accessibility to the names and the center of the structural event where deep respect became intimate, the durability of the designs compared with other memorials less technologically sophisticated but solid like the pyramids. Citizens took particular care to dismiss cemetery designs and to privilege those that favored “living memorials” with a sense of present appreciations and use (an urban park) not to mention future adaptability.

The facilitator of the event was Sally Yerkovich, President and CEO of The New Jersey Historical Society, who prodded the discussion and noted reactions on static-sensitive wall charts. The charts will be sent to the Municipal Art Society for collation into the other metropolitan area reaction-group reactions. The Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ co-sponsored this event, the only one in New Jersey, to insure a ground-level reaction to 9/11. Once again Elizabeth’s Mayor, Chris Bollwage, personally endorsed the event, recognizing its regional importance as well as Elizabeth’s contribution to the emergency and to its memory.

New Jersey is now two years away from the 9/11 tragedy, a distinctly metropolitan experience. The state’s role in the healthy economy of metropolitan New York is too obvious for comment; what needs further emphasis is the role New Jersey constantly plays in the region’s multiple structural supports, not least of which is its emergency operations like those activated during the 9/11 crisis, where so many NJ police and firemen and other emergency workers served beyond the call of duty. ImagineNY, The Historical Society of New Jersey and The Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ, working together, underscore this metropolitan view, not only looking backwards but also in working toward our collective futures. We hope the museum constructions at New York City’s 9/11 site will make clear the full import of a metropolitan operation, in peace and in crisis.

The multiple ethnic and racial voices at this meeting not only listed to the Historical Society’s co-presidents, Orlando Edreira and Nida Thomas, they received words of welcome from Mayor Chris Bollwage (especially his earlier career which involved work in the Twin Towers), Freeholder Angel Estrada and the full participation of city dignitaries like the City’s Fire Chief, City councilmen, and other representative leaders. After these focused remarks, the entire group re-organized into multiple (and several bilingual) break-out groups for close discussion. After a period of time the entire group reassembled as a whole to listen to each break-out group’s spokesperson. The effort was to provide multiple summary viewpoints.

Among many sentiments people registered their sense of loss, not simply of lives and property but of a lost sense of conception and understanding. Some people expressed the need for decisive reaction but were not clear where or how; others felt the need for discussions with neighbors and relatives whom they now felt were more precious than ever; others felt the importance of engaging non-American cultures , especially as America’s military and economic might registers itself internationally. Still others felt the need for greater personal and national security.

NJ Historical Society Director, Sally Yerkovich, and Elizabeth Historical Society trustee Paul H Mattingly attempted some concluding remarks by noting the importance of historical societies in times of confusion and crisis. Historical knowledge provides no panacea or facile clarity but it does orchestrate facts and experiences which contextualize new phenomena and invites discussion which permits citizens to gain their bearings. Historical societies are not simply passive storage houses but are at their best educational resources and activist clearing houses; they respond to the question, how have we come to this particular place or impasse. The orchestration of historical knowledge is always the first step to new clarity, even in the face of something as disruptive and overwhelming as the September 11 disaster.