Where’s Johnny Got his Gun? Where’s All Quiet on the Western Front? Where’s Catch 22? A Farewell to Arms and For whom the Bell Tolls? From Here to Eternity? The Naked and the Dead?
Where’s Alice’s Restaurant? Where’s All Along The Watchtower? Where’s Give Peace a Chance? Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy? We Gotta Get Out of This Place? Born in the USA? Rocking the Casbah?
Where’s The Star Spangled Banner?
It’s been three years since 9/11 and yet, (except for a couple of forgettable efforts from Springsteen and Bowie, a few made-for-TV movies, and Michael Moore’s upcoming Fahrenheit 911) artists don’t seem to have responded in a significant way that has caught on with the public. Where’s the first great anti-war hip hop song? The Whitney Biennial was great but if any of it referenced 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I missed it.
Granted, it may have taken a few years for great art to emerge from other wars, and so far no one’s been drafted for this one, but we live in accelerated times and all feel threatened and yet there doesn’t seem to even be a movement afoot. These events are changing our lives and our world, and people all over the planet seem to have strong feelings about it and yet, the music, film, fiction and art world seem way, way too peaceful.
I was riding my bike down the West Side yesterday afternoon and passed Ground Zero. It’s a big construction site these days and, like a typical New Yorker, I just breezed past.
For some reason, this time I noticed the West Street Building on the south west corner and I stopped. I looked at it and I saw it for the first time. It’s a landmark building, built in 1905 by Cass Gilbert who also designed my all-time downtown favorite, the Woolworth Building.
While all of the modern buildings round the site are either gone, rebuilt or heavily shrouded, the West Street building was openly wounded. Its Parisian mansard roof is completely draped in black steel mesh. Large pieces of its limestone facade are smashed or cracked off. Its terra cotta tiles, installed for fireproofing, helped to protect it from the burning columns that fell off 2 WTC but took a beating. Ornamental busts around the front door were decapitated. Through the empty windows I could see rubble in what once an elegant interior.
This building was so stately and built to endure. Now, it stands with gaping holes. My instinctive reaction was an angry sadness that the people who did this knew nothing about our city, didn’t understand the significance of the history they erased. Not that it would have influenced them. The Taliban well understood the history of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas they dynamited in Afghanistan, when they kicked off the culture wars by destroying some lovely art.But of course who of us understand the history of the buildings our government has destroyed in Afghanistan and Iraq? Not to mention the stories of all those lives erased forever. It’s all so shitty.
While our friends in Washington pass the buck, I realized how I have been dulled to the enormity of what has happened to my city and this world. I follow the news closely and yet I have formed a thick carapace to protect me from the effects of all this horror. Noticing that injured building all of a sudden made me disappointed in myself that I had not seen what was right there in front of me, had missed the lesson and the beauty that was lost. So I stayed for a while by its bedside and studied the extent of the damage.
I know I’m not saying anything that isn’t trite or been said so often before. But the skies were the same aching blue I remember from that September day and it all came flooding back. I need to see better no matter how it stings.
(If you’re enjoying this, and would like to depress yourself even further, check out the tiny movie I made eleven days after 9/11. P.S. The West Street building is under going gradual renovation and will eventually become expensive apartments, overlooking the banks of the World Trade Center.