The Ephemera of Commemoration

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

by Judith Weisenfeld

The first substantive session of my undergraduate seminar at Vassar College on the topic “Gods of the City: Religion in New York” was to take place on the afternoon of September 11, 2001. I had selected a number of readings for that week to explore whether and how religious life in cities might be unique. Is it useful to speak of such a thing as “urban religion” and, if so, what are its characteristics?

The first piece the students were to read for the course was the chapter on “Walking in the City” from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, which begins with a meditation about looking down at Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. For de Certeau, this perspective on the city produced the false sense that one was a “voyeur-god,” able to scopically contain the diversity and complexity of the ever-changing city below. Our goal was to dive into that diversity.

Obviously, the religious landscape my students encountered during the course of their fieldwork and site visits that semester was powerfully different from what they would have experienced prior to September 11, and we spent a good deal of time thinking together about whether the differences were simply of intensity of expression or differences of kind. Or, perhaps, both.

The activity around the shrines and memorials that people created in the immediate aftermath of the attacks struck us all as both particularly powerful and decidedly different from official religious expressions, both in their spontaneous production and the ephemeral nature of the material culture involved. These were not memorials like the portrayals of individual victims in the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” series or as found in the official memorial produced through long negotiations aimed at satisfying the needs of diverse parties and, ultimately, unlikely to do so. Rather, these were handmade memorials, expressions of bewilderment, grief, faith and need for connection.

Union Square in Manhattan became a central site where people gathered for comfort and began to write or draw and to deposit candles, flowers, flags and posters to honor missing loved ones. At the time, the New York press gave useful attention to Union Square and to other spontaneous memorials in the city, examining the social and religious functions of home-made shrines in an electronic age.

The press also attended to the emotion and politics surrounding the dismantling of spontaneous memorial sites, the removal of posters of the missing tacked on a wall at Grand Central Station, on the side of the now closed St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, at Trinity Church downtown and on lampposts and phone booths across lower Manhattan. Various museums began collecting the ephemera, which resulted in exhibits like the New-York Historical Society’s “Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning” in the winter of 2002. The “Tiles for America” project at the corner of 7th Avenue and 11th Street in Greenwich Village is probably the last remaining communal spontaneous memorial in Manhattan, and it is unlikely to survive in its current form because of the MTA’s plan to construct a subway ventilation plant on the site.

The upcoming opening of the official 9/11 Memorial and Museum certainly merits the media attention it will undoubtedly receive. Reporters, however, should not forget the importance of the production of spontaneous shrines and memorials to the grieving experiences of many New Yorkers. Although the memorials and shrines themselves proved to be ephemeral expressions of urban religion, the tenth anniversary of the attacks presents an opportunity to revisit unofficial, communal and grassroots modes of mourning.