Hidden cities / WHEN BEAUTY MEETS TRAUMA : 9/11 or one day in the life of the City

There are many versions of what “the good old New York” used to be – it depends on whom you’re talking to. For some it’s the NYC of the Seventies, the rough but also lively and creative times, when the City hit the economical crisis and criminality rose critically. For some, it is the New York before 1995, which means before mayor Giuliani, who literally cleaned it up and inevitably ripped it off of many stories, its communities, atmosphere and authenticity. There are as well other parallel histories of old NYC, each of them individual and bound to the fresh experience of a newcomer; intense and impossible to rewrite.

This is what this interview with a friend and newyorker Ramana is about. In the summer of 2018 we sat down to talk about his most significant experience of the city where he spent his last 20 years. We tried to capture the feeling of New York at a specific moment in time: the inevitable change of Lower East Side neighbourhood in the late 90’s, the learning of “language of gentrification” and about the individual, intimate experience of 9/11, that particular September day and its imprint in one’s memory and the memory of the city.

SoHo, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, June 2018, photo: author.

KP: So, it’s been 20 years since you moved to NYC. How did the old New York feel? I’m talking about the city before 9/11, because as you said, for you this was the ultimate point of change.

R: I tell you exactly how it felt. It was like a bubble. To me, 9/11 is really what destroyed NYC, in my mind. Those three years between 1998, when I moved into the City, and 2001, are my favorite. I loved NYC at that time. The art scene was really cool. New York had this sort of a phantasy element to me, coming from Boston and seeing all this creativity. There were stores I walked into in Lower East Side, where clearly the people lived, had heir garments in the front, there were art spaces that would open up and where people lived, too. There were squats. Every once in a while there was an opening and I thought wow, this is really cool. At this time, there was a lot of facturing going on on the Lower East Side (hereinafter referred to as “LES”). And the artists drew from that, it was a source for both materials and aesthetic. There was this scramble of industrial elements and art crowd mixing in, a real mix between Chinatown and “hipsters”, but I wasn’t really aware of gentrification at that point. I just saw all this energy – you thought you could do anything.

So you think that people back then could afford to be more adventurous in their artistic lives, not having to worry so much about paying the rent? Do you believe there was still something left from the times of young Patti Smith, when one could land in NYC with empty pockets and just make art and see what happens?

I think there were two things going on, but to me, just one side was visible at the time. When I was talking about Chinatown mixing with LES and seeing the industrial and the art scene overlap – I can only see in retrospect what was really happening. I did not have the language for this transformation, I did not have the synthetism at the time to deconstruct that and see what was going on and what inevitably followed – the invasion of young people with a little bit more money coming in and taking spaces from, what were probably “mom and pop” kind of situations. So the whole idea of gentrification was not part of my language. I did not see yet the dystopian undercurrents within that. All I saw was the utopian side, the bright side. Creative people coming in, and doing really cool stuff.

But this was clearly what one identifies as the first stage of gentrification. It was happening in SoHO back in the 80’s, Williamsburg followed, then Chelsea, now it’s been Bushwick and so on. It has this repeating pattern, which seems to be so easy to discern these days.

It was definitely that, but as I said, back then it wasn’t so easy to tell things apart. Artists have always been gravitating to areas with a low economic status. But I’m also aware that there were local people who could have discerned this danger before I could, like that guy we met at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space. People for whom the “old New York” meant the NYC of 70’s, 80’s. I came from Boston and saw people living in store fronts, I saw artists hosting their own openings, and making really interesting art too. So my perspective was a “newbie” perspective, I was feeling and seeing the energy, thinking I can penetrate the City, that I can do something here and have an effect. There was a world that was accessible to me.

After 9/11 all those artist run spaces closed, for a while it was like a ghost town. What happened just killed this economy and wiped everything out. What started to move in later were bars. Places with money.

I think I need an explanation here. So there was 9/11, and after this terrible thing happened, one of the aftermath was that the LES art scene was dying. But how exactly the September attacks affected the whole downtown?

Well, the downtown Manhattan – that means everything below 14th Street – was closed off for a while. People did not go down there, unless they had a reason. Under these circumstances, the economy got destroyed, too. Also, a lot of Wall Street ended up moving to New Jersey.

So I imagine vacant street with no people, which means no customers, no exhibition goers.

Yes, it wiped out almost every single one of these artist-run spaces. Before, there was potential, that was low enough, so I felt that I had access to it. And after 9/11, things that could generate money were moving in and not just the space, but also the raw aesthetics of what was there before was being re-appropriated by people with money.

Talking about the language of gentrification, this is what we could think of as its grammar. The “original” raw aesthetic drew from the local resources (industrial environment), or the lack of them (in terms of finances and therefore forced improvisation) and has developed naturally and over time. Later it was stolen, or appropriated and “polished” for newcomers with money, in order to provide for the upper middle class, which was hungry for some sort of authenticity, not caring (or not being able to see) that it was fake. The typical SoHO “artist’s loft” being just one example.

View of Manhattan Bridge, in the background still standing Twin Towers, (a shot from the movie  Smoke, 1995, directors Paul Auster and Wayne Wang).

I’d like to talk now about 9/11, about that day in particular. By the way – isn’t it fascinating that if somebody asks you what did you do on the following day, or the day after – one has no idea. Once you mention 9/11, everybody knows exactly where they were when the message reached them, what they did, all details. This means we would be able to reconstruct this day in the lives of many people, and where we were at this point in time, on this very day. A strange form of a collective memory, isn’t it? So tell me, what did you do on September 11th, 2001? Did you wake up and went to work?

Yes, it started just like that. So in the morning, I walked into my Deli to get my egg & cheese sandwich. And coffee. So I walk in, I order my thing and hear them talking on the radio about some planes and buildings crashing, and you know, on the back of my mind I thought it was a TV show. They were not dramatic enough to make me think “this is happening”.

So when and where were you when you realized what was going on?

I was on the Q train..or was it D at that time? So I got on the train. I’m going over the bridge. There are some people talking and discussing what’s going on, but somehow I was not hearing them, not taking any of that in.

I’m sitting on the train, on the window seat, my back facing the downtown view. The train is going over the bridge and there are all these people suddenly gathering around, looking at the window, and I’m thinking they’re tourists, looking at the Statue of Liberty. The train is going very slowly, and the entire time I’m ignoring everybody. And at some point I look at what everyone is looking at and I’m like HOLLY FUCK.

At this point, one tower is already gone down and there’s smoke billowing out. The other tower is still up and there’s smoke. And they are right there.

So I get out at Canal street, and there are people, some are just numb, walking, covered in dust. Some people freaking out, crying, stunned.

I go to my work which is on Broome street and turn on the NPR to get some perspective of what’s going on. Then my coworker walks in and says, let’s go on the roof. So we’re on the roof looking out. There’s still one tower there, and suddenly we see this one tower going down. It just implodes. What we see is unbelievable. The sky just fills with glittering glass, it’s sparkling. And it’s a beautiful September day, the sun is so brilliant, and we see the glass shimmering through the sky. Most of my feeling is I don’t know what’s going on. There is a little bit of talk of maybe terrorism, of war, of accident. My mind has a little bit of frame of a catastrophe. My feeling is that I’m not getting anything of the news. I’m on the roof and I’m thinking, I might never see my family again. I’m looking at this world, at buildings shattering and at the same time I’m also feeling like I want to hold onto this moment, I feel like this could be a life-changing moment. That my whole world might change from this point on and I wanted to feel something. But the more I was holding onto this moment the more fleeting it felt. And as I’m, in my mind, holding and feeling onto this situation, my co-worker says: whoever did this must pay. In her response was a mediate vengeance, a mediate anger, violence. We had completely different reaction.

I was absorbing it all in and there was something beautiful about it. The sky, all sparkling, the smoke that sort of overtakes everything. It was a moment of beauty, of obvious horror, trauma. And I remember she said she saw people jumping out the windows, and I did not see what she saw: a whole different picture.

Well, it was obvious we were not gonna work that day. So I decide to go to a little french bakery which was on the Spring street. And I went there and bought a bag full of croissants. Six croissants. And two coffees. Or three coffees. And I decide to sit on the street corner and watch. I love being in the sun and watching, absorbing, just being. And it was such a beautiful day. So there was this very touristy element.

I have to say that it sounds perverse, to have this moment with croissants in the midst of a catastrophe, but I have to admit that I can relate to your response.

I’m glad. You know, I usually have to do a lot of packaging of this conversation when talking to people. Because it was really weird, just sitting there and taking in.

But I also kept trying to call my sister, who was in Tribeca, really close to the Twin Towers. And I could not reach her. The cell phone system collapsed. So thought the whole world might be ending and I’m gonna enjoy my last few minutes.

What was that you were seeing?

There were people who were running towards the tragedy, probably journalists. And people walking up from the tragedy. And then somewhere half-way through the day I thought maybe I should move on. I finished my croissants and my coffee. So I moved on and got to the Manhattan bridge. I sat on the top level and my feet were hanging over the edge. And I was watching as literally millions and millions of people are crossing over the bridge, leaving the City, going to Brooklyn. Just a sea of people. And you know, for me these are always moments for reflection on life and questioning death. I also felt like I’m living through history, thinking, perhaps this is a beginning of war.

So I was both calmly enjoying the moment, the beautiful day, and feeling the drama. There was not only trauma, but also this great energy, a sense of comradery, people helping each other. Almost a feeling of community. A moment of togetherness. So you were getting a lot of contradictory emotions: the beauty versus the end. I watched the people until an early evening. And I realized it was going to get dark soon and I should get home. I decided to walk. It must took me a couple of hours. And the entire time as I was walking there were just people everywhere. And I got home and went to a friend’s house. And there I saw on TV a close-up of everything. And this is when I started crying: when I saw it all on TV. I just started crying and couldn’t stop. So it was really interesting, all those layers of emotions, the entire process of going in, ignoring, seeing, absorbing. And I remember every single one of them after 17 years.

William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops, 2001, screenshots from the video.

Do you know this composer, William Basinski? He made an amazing piece called The Disintegration Loops, a requiem to 9/11. There is the music, but it is accompanied by an equally intense video. It is a footage Basinski shot from his rooftop in Brooklyn – it shows the Manhattan skyline during the sunset on September 11, 2001. What you see is the silhouette of the City and the slow, sprawling smoke – smoke as a messenger of what happened that day. Everything is set on the background of evening sky, an orange gradient, the last light.

Ah, I remember this slow smoke now. I almost forgot about that.

So there’s this frame of sky filling up with smoke after the sun came down. But it is the music which is significant and there is also an interesting story to it. In 2001, Basinski decided to digitize some tape recordings he made in the early 80’s, in order to preserve them. He left the digital recorder running on a loop and when he returned later he noticed that the that the tapes started to deconstruct as they were being played and recorded. Their material – the magnetic layer which carried the sound – was gradually crumbling, flaking off a bit more with each spin. The music was turning into dust. He repeated the same process with each of his old tapes. What came out is very slow, deep, hypnotic and this absolutely melancholic music, its pattern based on repeating micro segments, of cracks, floating about and accumulating just like that smoke full of dust. Basinski actually made this post-recordings just a while before the September attacks.

On the evening of 9/11, he put a camera on his rooftop, filming the last hour of the light that day. He made the video and he watched it the next day, while simultaneously listening to his music, realizing the project was complete. First, the music was released in four parts, each slightly different from the other. First the visual was just a cover for CD’s, eventually it was released as a one hour video with sound on a DVD. The Disintegration Loop became a big success.

Based on decay and reflecting decay, to me it’s a beautiful monument to this day, offering space for meditation and reflection. It is no less suggestive than the actual, official monument downtown.

Your long walk through New York was your own tribute to that day. And this Basinski thing would be a perfect soundtrack for your “pilgrimage”.

Yes. And thank you for recording this. I might forget a lot from what I still remember in the following years. Because my memory could be crumbling away just like those tapes.


Author’s notes:
Lower East Side
within the context of New York, LES is the most important neighbourhood in the history of immigration. In the early 20th century, people from Eastern Europe, mostly the Jews (Greeks, Poles, Russians, Slovaks, Russians, Ukrainians) settled here, following the Germans and Italians. They brought with them handicrafts and traditions that eventually became their source of income. Until recently, there was a number of small businesses with a long tradition, of which only a few have remained, such as the legendary deli Russ & Daughters Deli at Houston Street. Interesting is the story of Moscot, one of the oldest businesses in the City. The history of the – now worldwide known glasses brand – began in 1915, when the company was founded by a Jewish immigrant from Belarus, Hyman Mushcot. Thanks to the fact that the company succeeded in rebranding and expanded beyond the neighborhood and the US, in 2003 as one of the few local companies it has not only managed to survive the growing local gentrification, but actually to turn it for its own benefit. In the Lower East Side, you can also walk into quite a few people from the cultural scene, for example Jim Jarmusch, one of the long-term residents of the neighborhood.
11 / 9 / 2019
by Katarína Poliačiková
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