disaster tourism - Wednesday September 12 2001

Photographs taken by a neighbor from our brownstone's roof during the World Trade Center attack.

One tower hit and smoking.

Holy Shit! They hit the other one!

(Click for a larger picture.)


Wouldn't it suck if your name was something like Muhammad Asif Niaz and you were enrolled in flight training school?


Minoru Yamasaki, the man who designed the twin towers of the World Trade Center, was also responsible for two buildings on the campus of Oberlin College: the King academic building and the Conservatory of Music. Neither building was especially well-regarded by students and professors when I was a student there. The Conservatory of Music was particularly infamous for its shoddy construction and maintenance problems. Measurements made during its construction were embarrassingly inaccurate and the roof had a tendency to leak, a common trait among award-winning architectural designs. These problems could all be blamed on engineering and construction, of course, but not the appearance. Many in Oberlin thought Yamasaki's designs resembled large radiators crossbred with wedding cakes, and not in a good way. It was kind of hard to see from a distance, but the facade of the late World Trade Center looked almost exactly like the Oberlin Conservatory building.
Yesterday as I watched the second tower collapse, I immediately assumed that a second explosion must have been fired off in its basement. How could a plane hitting near the top of a skyscraper make the rest of it collapse? Well, it's not simple, and while teevee news people were endlessly repeating themselves with the same cliché expressions of awed dismay, they never bothered to explain how this collapse could have happened. Luckily, though, there were smart people creating web pages to pick up the slack.

This afternoon I took the Q subway over to Manhattan to see how close I could get to ground zero. I'd heard that Manhattan was closed south of 14th Street, so I was surprised when the subway (after skipping the Canal Street stop) stopped at 8th Street. Pleased with my good fortune, that's where I disembarked. As I came up out of the subway station in the vicinity of Washington Square Park, I was immediately aware of the amount of dust and smoke in the air. It wasn't especially acrid, but it wasn't pleasant either.
As I headed southward towards the gap in the skyline, I saw lots of people were wearing cheap paper face masks or bandannas over their faces. There was definitely a surreal quality to the scene. Dust was visible and menacing in the air, and yet here was this conventional urban scene, with people hanging out on park benches, chatting, and laughing. Some were students whose classes had been canceled, others were employees such as myself who were enjoying their unscheduled day off. Then there were the bums and gutterpunks, happy at least to be living in interesting times. Though you'd never hear this reported in the news, there was a clearly festive quality to the scene. This was particularly apparent to me as I passed the upscale cafés. People were crowded into them, spilling out through open doorways onto the sidewalks. No one seemed to care about the dust and smoke in the air as they sipped their wine and picked over their lean entrees. It wasn't that these people weren't sympathetic for those who had lost people in the attack. But nothing could be done about it now, so they might as well enjoy themselves on this dusty, sunny warm September day. There's a peculiar trans-personal empathetic feeling that comes over people at times like this, one of having shared a dramatic experience. I always feel this way at good rock concerts or movies. But with something like this, an event which suddenly closes down a massive nation and leaves a persistent trace in the very air itself, there's nothing to compare it to whatsoever.
I made it all the way down to Houston Street, where the rectangular numbered street grid is replaced by a dendritic medieval street pattern. Here my southward progression came to an abrupt end. The police had set up blue wooden barricades and were not letting anyone through who couldn't prove they lived in Soho. Sizable crowds of people milled around in front of each barricaded street. Many had brought their cameras to document this unprecedented aftermath. You wouldn't believe the fancy photographic hardware people were carrying. Some had as many as three cameras on straps around their shoulders and necks. A few of these would-be Pulitzer winners were trying to bullshit their way through the cordon but they weren't having much success. To the south the streets were empty and over the course of a few blocks vanished into a haze of smoke and dust.
I walked all the way west to Washington Street, where a north-south cordon had been set up. After heading back east a little beyond Broadway, I then turned north, eventually walking into the heart of the East Village. As I walked down St. Mark's Place, a big burly man passed me on the sidewalk loudly singing a song he'd evidently come up with all by himself, "'Sterminate the Mooslams! 'Sterminate the Mooslams!" He seemed very proud of himself for his boisterously jingoistic patriotism.
At 14th Street I saw I was south of yet another east-west cordon, with police carefully inspecting the credentials of everyone coming from the north. If I hadn't arrived via the subway, I would never have made it down to Houston.
The New York subway system allows people to go on arbitrary Star Trek-style voyages to places throughout the city. "Set a course for Coney Island" you can say, and soon enough you're there, sampling the hotdogs and taking note of Russian language street signs. So on a whim I took the L-line subway into Williamsburg in Brooklyn. As you may recall, I'd attempted to go there before and had only succeeded in finding an extensive community of Orthodox Jews. This time, though, I made it to the right place, Bedford Avenue. The Bedford Avenue station featured an unusually high police presence, with several officers on the platform and several on the steps, and several at the gates.
Once I was out of the subway, I made a quick foray up and down the street and was immediately struck by how hip everyone was. It was like Silverlake, Los Angeles, except there was virtually no Hispanic component. All the guys looked like indie rockers, complete with mops of uncombed hair, bushy sideburns, and thick-rimmed glasses. They were everywhere: out on the street, filling the coffee shops, you name it. I couldn't tell if they hadn't gone to work because their jobs were in a destroyed part of Manhattan or because they'd been laid off from dotcoms.
Because of a peculiarity of the Brooklyn subway system, I headed back to Manhattan as a way to get home to my part of Brooklyn. Taking the Q line to Park Slope, I saw a middle aged woman spontaneously burst into tears and receive consolation from a friend. Perhaps she'd lost someone in the attack on the World Trade Center.

New skyline as viewed from the Q crossing the Manhattan Bridge.
The white cloud is steam from the fire suppression
effort at the site of the former
World Trade Center.

Looking south from Houston into the desolate streets of Soho.

People trying to get a look past the Houston cordon.

Police telling people to stop mingling in the north-south cross streets of Houston.

New York, 2001: Police, cell phones, and dust masks.

In crazy times such as these, one receives constant reminders of how the mainstream press fail in the mission of educating the American people about current events. I don't know how long CNN spent this evening talking about the impending collapse of 1 Liberty Plaza, but it must have been at least an hour, and the building never actually did collapse. Meanwhile, they've been fanning the flames of suspicion and anger towards the one face they can put on the people who pulled off this "cowardly act" : Osama bin Laden. But who is Osama bin Laden? What does he believe, why is he so fucking pissed off? Why are there so many people out there willing to kill themselves to further his causes? CNN will spend hours showing us the facade of an imminently collapsing building, but it won't give us any background on the supposed bad guys at all. Osama bin Laden is left in our minds as horrible, unknowable force of evil and all we are told about him is that he must be destroyed. This might be an effective way to whip up war fervor, but it does our nation a serious disservice. If and when Osama bin Laden is killed, we will have pissed off so many additional people along the way that we'll be facing dozens more Osama bin Ladens. That's how it is with terrorists. Terrorism operates under the Sorcerer's Apprentice Effect. A war against terrorism will have about as much success as the war on drugs or the one supposedly waged against poverty.
Whoever attacked this country yesterday, did they ever throw a monkey wrench into the gears of the American economy! For two days straight there have been no advertisements except on the web. (Popup ads are like cockroaches; they will persist long after the rest of our society lies in ruins.) People are glued to their televisions, but they haven't been receiving their usual diet of consumerist propaganda. The carefully constructed neural circuits that tell us we really need a new SUV, teeth whitening, and a Carnival Cruise are starting to atrophy. Hmm, maybe we're slowly becoming content with the many things we already have. Already economists are predicting that the World Trade Center attack will push the economy conclusively into recession.

In the evening, Gretchen and I watched a rather clever cheerleader movie entitled Bring it On. One of the good things about not constantly watching the news is that when you return to it after a two hour absence, enough actual news items might have accumulated for the experience to be, you know, interesting.
While walking Sally in Prospect Park tonight, we looked up to see a lone fighter jet slowly trawling the sky. Here in this peaceful park, the only aircraft allowed in the skies were fighter jets. What, are we seriously worried that Afghans will order an airstrike from one of their many aircraft carriers in the North Atlantic? The number of purely symbolic acts connected to the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack far exceeds those that accomplish tangible things.
Gretchen and I talked about how completely unprecedented recent events have been. Who would have ever thought that one day two American jet planes would slam into the two tallest buildings in New York City? It's like something out of black Y2K humor. But when you think about it, in the grand scheme of things, the World Trade Center attack was just another in a list of impossible things that have happened of late. How about that November election?
For all the good press given cruise missiles and other "smart weapons" during the Gulf War, they seem puny and ineffective compared to the firepower of a single fully-fueled commercial jetliner piloted by a team of suicidal religious kooks. It would be safe to say that a strike to kill ratio of three out of four is something any military would envy. The interesting thing about the World Trade Center attack was that it didn't make use of any actual weapons at all. It involved turning the awesome power of our transportation technology against the vulnerable concentrations of our urban civilian workforce. To achieve this they used only bravado and blades, military tools and techniques that would not have been considered exotic four thousand years ago.

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