Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11

Tribute in Light - produced by Municipal Art Society - http://www.mas.org/programs/tributeinlight/
I have never actually written about 9/11 in any of my blog posts, and can't say why exactly I feel compelled to do so this year. The obligatory Facebook post or tweet just seemed inadequate. Perhaps it is the timing of President Obama's speech about ISIS that emphasizes how much the terrorist threat remains real, how much this date 13 years ago marked a dramatic change in our world view.

In 2001 I was the President and CEO of the Arts & Business Council, based in New York City. In the early morning of 9/11/01, I was meeting with my board chair, Warren Bodow, and my board member Karen Brosius, then a senior executive in corporate philanthropy and marketing with Altria. We were meeting in Karen's office, on a high floor in the Altria headquarters on 41st and Park. As is often the case in corporate offices, Karen had a news channel - probably CNN - running on a TV in her office but muted. All of a sudden we saw the first report of a plane hitting one of the towers and turned the sound on to see what was happening. Even though initial reporting, as I recall, had not grasped the magnitude of what had happened, thinking it was a small plane that perhaps was out of control, this incident clearly halted the meeting and we all began watching the TV. Of course when the second plane hit, and the jet fuel-fed fires began to rage out of control, the true horror of what was going on became clear.

We walked over to Karen's colleague's office that was facing South with a totally clear unobstructed view of the towers. There we joined perhaps a dozen or so other Altria employees as we gazed out this huge picture window and watched the towers ablaze. Then, of course, we watched, and gasped,and cried, as the unthinkable happened; one by one, the towers fell, followed by the clouds of ash and smoke and debris that billowed and spread out across Lower Manhattan. I still remember glancing over and noticing that someone in the office was actually at their desk working through all of this. That is as indelible an image as the collapsing towers themselves. How could this be? How could any human being continue to do their work when this horror was going on right outside the window?

Once the enormity of what had happened sunk in, I decided I needed to check in with my staff at the office to find out how they were doing; I felt like I needed to be with my team. I had no way to be with - or even reach - my family because transit and phones were not working. The office was down on 27th and 6th, so I began walking south.As I walked downtown I was like a salmon swimming upstream, because I was beginning to pass the first wave of ghostly, white-powder-coated, shell-shocked survivors, making their way uptown. I passed an electronics store and realized we had a TV in the office but no cable or antenna, so I stopped in  to buy an old fashioned "rabbit ears" antenna. Hundreds of people were huddled around the TVs, watching the news unfold. I continued on to the office, where I found my frightened staff, desperate for news of what was going on. We connected the TV and got grainy reception of what I believe was the only station that had not had its broadcast antenna on the top of one of the towers (CBS?).  I was living in Westchester County at the time and it was sometime in the evening before Grand Central Station and Metro-North started running again. We stayed together at the office watching the numbing and often repetitive news coverage. But what was the choice? You could not stop watching and go do work. That seemed inhuman, like the woman in the Altria office. But it also was draining and deeply disturbing to sit in front of the TV and sink deeper into the realization of the extent of the loss. I suppose in the end, the actual loss of life was quite a bit less than it seemed it might be at the time. It initially seemed like tens of thousands of people might have perished given the scale of the destruction. Watching it happen - two 100+ story masses of concrete and steel - come crashing down it seemed like all of lower Manhattan must be flattened. My mother was actually working at St. Vincent's Hospital at the time in the Village, one of the closest hospitals to the site. They mobilized for the expected waves of injured, but ultimately it was a trickle - people either escaped mostly physically unharmed, or they were vaporized. there was very little in-between.

I suppose this had special resonance for me, as it did for so many. There was definitely "there but for the grace of God" aspect to the tragedy for me. I spent a great deal of time in the Towers, in the World Financial Center buildings that survived, and in the concourse underground. We regularly presented workshops in either American Express or Deloitte & Touche offices, usually in the same early morning time as the attack. If we had a workshop that morning I likely would have been in the concourse, and there is a good chance I would have been among the lost.

And the buildings themselves had been a part of my New York life since they were erected. From periodically visiting the observation deck for the unmatched views, to remembering Philippe Petit's famous tightrope walk between the towers. We had a big family birthday celebration for my grandmother in one of the Windows on the World private rooms, and I still remember our disappointment that the building was socked in by fog that day - it was as if the windows were painted white. Then suddenly, as if by magic, the fog swirled and dissipated in front of the window, and that glorious vista looking south and west opened up, and it literally felt like we were dining in the clouds. Soon after the fog swallowed us up again, but it made those few minutes of heaven all the sweeter for how fleeting the moment was.

Some years later, when I was working at the Alliance of Resident Theatres/NY, we had a staff outing to the bar at Windows on the World, the Hors D'Oeuverie - they had famously killer martinis. It was a surrealistically prescient evening. While we sat drinking our martinis and taking in the view (and people watching the largely tourist crowd) we began to notice a commotion by the window. Turns out someone on the observation deck on the other tower had climbed over the protective fence and was now sitting on a small ledge at the top of a sheer 1,368 foot drop. The crowd was mesmerized. . We watched the drama continue to unfold: security arriving and locking down the roof. SWAT team arriving and clearly strategizing what to do. Meanwhile this man calmly smoked a cigarette. And what could we do? We sneered at the callousness of the tourists videotaping it and snapping pictures, yet we were also transfixed. There was nothing one could do to help. Was it more inhuman to keep watching, or to simply get up and go home? So we watched - and drank - pretty much in stony silence, until we spotted a tethered SWAT officer creep out some sort of hatch above the ledge in the facade, just around the corner from the "jumper," who had apparently run out of cigarettes. Another officer was distracting him with an offer of a pack, and as he passed it over the fence, the other officer ran gingerly along the narrow ledge and grabbed the man from behind. And just like that he was whisked away: drama over, tragedy averted, tourists dissipated. And we quietly settled our bill and went our separate ways home.

So as day began to turn into evening on 9/11 and mass transit came back on line, we all began to filter out and head home, haunted by the specter of what had happened, and not really knowing what the future would bring.

In the coming days there was, of course, a "new AB-normal" - impromptu memorials of photographs and notes on fences all over town as people sought to locate missing friends or relatives, prompting spontaneous tears several times a day. News of people close to home who had been lost or lost someone close. And of course, while every life is precious, it does bring it home more powerfully when there is a personal connection. Our event planner's father - a prominent retired arts leader, served on the board of the City's cultural institutions pension fund. That board had been meeting on a high floor that morning and he was lost. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council had a program that made vacant space available to artists in the towers, and one of those artists was in his studio working that morning - gone. And of course, more and more connections surfaced in the coming days - neighbors in Westchester and friends/acquaintances from all walks of life who were lost, or lost someone dear to them - investment bankers, administrative assistants, and of course all the uniformed service members and first members. Despite the vast size of New York City and the fact that the dead represented just a tiny fraction of the population, it seemed like EVERYONE in NY had some sort of connection.

My organization created a program - Arts For Hope, designed by the agency LaPlaca Cohen, and sponsored primarily by JP Morgan Chase, that I remain very proud of. It worked to help the community heal through the arts. It was disappointing to me that many in the arts community devoted their energies to raising funds to help arts groups recover. As much as I felt their financial pain, I believed strongly in the long run the arts would fare better if they in effect functioned as selfless "second responders" - being there for families, all of those grappling with grief, needing community, even distraction.

And I got deeply engaged in the contentious process that continues to this day of figuring out what the role for the arts was in the rebuilding of the site of the Towers and the entire neighborhood. American Express's River to River Festival was an important early way the arts contributed to bringing vibrancy back to Lower Manhattan. I still remember attending a Dar Williams concert right along the Hudson River just behind the World Financial Center Winter Garden. My then young daughter was with me - perhaps 12 years old at the time - and it was just one of those glorious, magical evenings. Family, great music, perfect weather, a beautiful setting. And I remember thinking for the first time that eventually things would get back to normal, that this City would heal. The Flea Theatre - based in Lower Manhattan - produced The Guys, a profoundly moving play about 9/11, that was made into a movie, and touched so many thousands of people. And I worked with a group of civic leaders to create a dedicated website service for family members of victims that gave them access to donated tickets and admission to just about every cultural and sports event in town. I believe the arts played a big role in the city's - and victim's families - emotional healing. The art project Tribute in Light - illustrated at the beginning of this piece - has also become an annual and iconic reminder - perhaps a better monument in its temporary way than the permanent monument and museum.

So here we are now, 13 years later. In the intervening years I have been divorced, remarried, had another daughter, and moved twice, first to Philadelphia for five years, and last year to Denver. So much has changed in my life. But a piece of me is still in New York, not just because I grew up there and spent the first part of my professional life there. But because of the experience of living through 9/11, the horror as well as the extraordinary bravery and humanity, of the community coming together. I also know that however profoundly this experience affected me, it still does not come close to all those families who on a beautiful September morning, in a flash,  lost husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, parents.

And, yes, for the first few months after 9/11 that great lumbering behemoth of a metropolis became a small town, a village, of neighbors taking care of one another.  And the role the arts played in that is one of the things that sustains my belief in its profound social value.


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