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Nearly a year later, 9-11 street shrines still dot the city
By Katherine Roth, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Almost a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center, makeshift shrines honoring the 2,800 victims still dot city streets.
Candles and flowers, teddy bears and poems, flags and photos of people at picnics or birthday parties -- ordinary people who happened to be at the towers on Sept. 11. They all remain in shrines, even miles from ground zero.
"This was such a huge tragedy that everyone felt they could mourn in their own neighborhood. The wide dispersion of the shrines is unique," said Steve Zeitlin, director of City Lore, a nonprofit group dedicated to recording urban folklore.
Near a Bronx subway station, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands before sympathy notes and photos of two firefighters killed Sept. 11. Under a bridge in Brooklyn, a small table is covered in bricks, candles, a cross and a flag in memory of Department of Transportation workers who were killed. In Manhattan there are shrines in places as diverse as Grand Central Terminal and Greenwich Village.
Their survival, after nearly a year, depends on public participation and cooperation.
Each tends to have a shrine keeper, who covers paper objects with plastic and replaces burned-out candles and wilted flower bouquets. Each exists with the consent of landlords or city officials, who allow them to remain on chain link fences, subway stations, parks or street corners.
"The city was unified in its mourning to the extent that ordinary people in all five boroughs devoted themselves to tending shrines, landlords and agencies allowed them to remain up, and the public continued adding to them," said Zeitlin, author of a book on how people use art in the grieving process.
Louis Rocco, a city transportation worker, said he and his colleagues were moved to start the shrine in Brooklyn soon after the attack, and have tended it ever since.
"I still put flowers there all the time, light candles. We had a flag that cost over $600 that got stolen. We replaced it with another flag and secured it better. ... We'll keep it up as long as we can, in respect for the people who died," Rocco said.
In Grand Central Terminal, some commuters pause to leave flowers or notes, or simply spend a moment at the memorial. On a recent day, Raymond Dingle stopped by at rush hour, put his hand up to one of the photos and lowered his head. The photo was of his nephew, Jeffrey Dingle, killed on Sept. 11.
"I'm glad to see him but it's difficult as well. In a way I'm glad the shrine's there, because they still haven't found any traces of him," Dingle said.
Citywide, the outpouring was so extensive that The New-York Historical Society, The Museum of the City of New York and the Smithsonian, among other institutions, have collected shrine material for posterity.
"We realized very early on that history was unfolding around us and that some of the material like the shrines would be ephemeral," said Amy Weinstein, curator in charge of The New-York Historical Society's shrines collection effort. "We couldn't wait one or two generations for family members to donate some significant object to us."
The art has already been exhibited at the museum and some of it is to go on display again for the anniversary of the attack. The works evolved spontaneously.
In Inwood, near Manhattan's northern tip, a group of friends waited on a corner for four nights for a friend to return home from the World Trade Center. When he didn't return, they left candles for him. Then their neighbors began leaving candles, too, explained Zeitlin.
One day they brought a bookcase to the site and passersby began leaving notes and mementos to accompany the candles. When the shelves were filled, another bookcase was added. Ultimately, the shrine was about 40 feet long, with plastic protecting the paper notes and the victim's friends carefully relighting the candles night after night.
The shrine, dismantled at the end of the year, is now in the historical society's collection.
Tom Eccles, director of the nonprofit Public Art Fund, which places artwork throughout the city, compares the shrines around the city to ones found in Italy. There, he said, "you see small shrines set up by roadsides and they become more permanent over time."
Weinstein said it was natural that such shrines should spring up in New York.
"New York is such a street-oriented city. Everybody walks everywhere here," she said, pointing out that although many of the victims were from New Jersey, the phenomenon had not taken root so deeply there.
"This is a city of artists, so it's not really surprising that what came out was beautiful and creative and imaginative."