Posted by on Oct 25, 2012 in Art for Community Engagement | 1 comment



I have to write about this, but I want to forget it. But if I do, I’m afraid I wont ever be allowed to. I’m talking about a Lambertville Memorial to 9/11. The City is considering co-sponsoring a memorial to the event: a large metal I-beam from the World Trade Center placed at the corner of Bridge and Union Street in front of a “living wall” of plants.
And as much as I’d like to move on from 9/11, ignoring this proposed project, and allowing it to be built means that 9/11 will be literally in view, every day, in the center of town.  View Map

Is this where, and how we want to remember 9/11?

Steel Artifacts from the World Trade Center, published in the New York Times


The frightening results of forgetting have been written about by Milan Kundera, reinforced by countless holocaust studies curricula, which in some schools, teachers are required to teach. Recently, we have been reminded of the awesome, libratory power of remembering, as courageous adults have shared their experiences of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clergy around the world, and even close to home, at Penn State, by football coach, Jerry Sanduski.

But, certain physical aspects of traumatic experiences are worth leaving behind.


When I was fifteen years old I held my mothers purse in my hands. It was the one thing that was returned to us after she was killed when the plane she was flying crashed into the earth. Her body was not. The diamond studs she always wore were not. Her blood stained clothes, shattered eyeglasses and sandals – one cannot imagine where they were flung to – were not. But the purse was.

I sat alone on her unmade bed that my two sisters and I had been sleeping in together, since she died. I ran my hands through its contents, touching everything I could, opening her wallet, reading scraps of paper, receipts, even digging to reach pens buried in the bottom. As I did, dirt started covering my hands. It seemed to manifest from every fold and corner, little bits of crusty earth strewn into this bag when her plane crashed deep into the ground. I ran that dirt between my fingertips, rolled it around on my palm, trying to get as close as I could in my mind to her final moments.

When I lived through 9/11 in New York City, I wrote the following words for our grief, surrounded by others digging in the dirt, as I had many years before:

“There are de facto memorial sites all over the city, with candles, and ‘Missing’ posters put up by bereaved family and friends… It is actually unfitting to call these walls of photos “Memorials.” They are more like life sized newspaper classified ads, posted by people starving for one last memory-making glimpse of the disappeared. ‘Did this man help you? He knows CPR and was running toward the building when it fell.’ ‘He was wearing khaki pants and a gold chain… any information you can give…’ ‘She was five months pregnant.’ ‘He had four children and answers to the nickname ‘Kid’,’ All are seeking last moments of the real story that will relieve the imagination’s horrific recreations. However inaccurate those imaginings, it is impossible to release one’s love-locked eyes from thoughts of the suffering.

To turn away from the thought of what may have happened, of burning to death, of screaming, of crying for help or left alone, or trapped and bleeding, crushed but breathing, would mean being just one more person in addition to a merciless God, who, in those final moments, left your mother, brother, sister, or friend alone. Staying with those horrific thoughts is sharing the pain when we are powerless to protect our sister, our mother, our brother, our beloved from the ultimate abandonment of a violent death. This is not wallowing in misery, or refusing to move on. It is the last loving gesture of the Egyptian laying coins on the eyes of the dead to aid in her passage over the river Styx. It is going as far as one can with the deceased without dying as well and losing sanity in the face of so much trauma. It is seeking a mirror for one’s own grief in the loss itself, ‘Oh what she must have felt, trapped in there!’ The horror of the imagined sight is enough to momentarily eclipse one’s own pain. But this empathy only quickly turns to grief again when the brain recognizes the heart’s limit. Its too much.”

In my own search, fifteen years earlier, for a glimpse into my mother’s final moments, anything that would tell me something, digging through the dirt-laced purse, I found a gold, metal lipstick case with a dent pushed into its side. I pulled hard to open it, ran my thumb into its groove, and thought about what may have contorted its top at the moment of the crash. What kept this little thing from flinging far away at the moment of impact? What happened?

I kept that lipstick in my purse for many years, holding on.

Somehow going through an airplane accident again on 9/11, but this time it crashing into my home, and hurting ones I loved, coupled with the shared grief of being surrounded by so many people searching for answers at the same time, literally searching through rubble and holding out hope for more information, helped me to understand what I was also trying to do all those years ago. Biking each day past the smoldering remains, seeing the smoke from my apartment window, I deeply, non-verbally understood: try as you may, out of love, but you cannot protect the dead.  It is finished.  There is nothing to see here.  And facing that null set, that total loss is the hardest part.  But its where healing starts.

This is how I feel about these 9/11 memorials that permanently showcase the burnt and torked remains of the World Trade Center building. I get wanting to hold onto these broken parts. Hell, I carried one around in my purse for years! But places that uplift and fetishize these parts, will never alchemize grief into healing, nor will they fully celebrate the heroism of those who helped us survive.

We can call the proposed 9/11 Memorial a “living wall” to remember 9/11, but this is not a totem to the living, it’s a totem to a horrific event, one that we, as a community should leave behind. Instead we should focus on building physical places in our city that celebrate its community of heroic, loving, living people, that reinforce its future as a place we love.

A citizen of Lambertville, Annelies van Dommelen suggested our sponsoring public art instead of this memorial, positive places in the present, created by the living, that show the beauty this life can bring, despite any circumstances! Public art can do this.

Beauty and love heal. A broken piece of airplane or scorched Ibeam does not, particularly in the chosen spot. As Brad Campbell eloquently put it, in a letter to the City on this issue,

“The victims, survivors, and first responders… are not well-served by on-the-cheap memorials in every community that happens to secure a piece of debris from Ground Zero. And they would be especially ill-served by a memorial overlooking a parking lot (or a liquor store, depending on where you stand) at a busy and noisy intersection where meaningful reflection and remembrance is unlikely, at best.”

If the broken piece of the World Trade Center building must live amongst us, which I fear it will, based on the passion of the Lambertville-New Hope rescue squad who procured the debris, and are working for its installation here in town, then I close with considerations pointed out by Brad Campbell, a warning about going down the worm hole of where and what it shall be:

“Please consider that it would be better to have no memorial than one that fails in its intent — no matter how laudable the intentions of those proposing it. And both politically and morally, nothing would be worse than a memorial that divides the community or shortchanges the views of those most deeply affected by the event. On this point, I note that nearly all of the other memorials have had a lengthy (and time consuming and expensive) design process — at Liberty State Park it took years and even so spawned litigation — to incorporate the views of survivors and other stakeholders, something that this City does not have the resources to do well.”

Are you ready for this process Lambertville? We are all in this together.

Whatever your answer, please come share your views at the next City Council meeting, November 19, 2012, at 7 pm, where the Memorial designs will be considered. The meeting will be held at the Justice Center, a.k.a. ACME Screening Room, 25 S. Union St., Lambertville, NJ 08530.

One Comment

  1. Well said Ila. No one in America will ever forget the horrendous loss of life on that historic day and they will always be remembered. But to memorialize an event that was never throughly investigated, to turn a blind eye to things that didn’t make sense, to justify the changes to our American way of life and justice by making innocent world citizens pay the price, is a change that needs to be remembered as well. 9/11 saddens me in so many ways, not the least of which are the memorials I see around New Jersey that cover up our duty to find the truth no matter where it leads.