2002-05-04 / Front Page

Memorial or Graffiti? Ex-Resident Knows

By Howard Schwach

Memorial or Graffiti?
Ex-Resident Knows
By Howard Schwach


Ginny Dixon, the housemate of ex-Rockaway resident Theresa McCann stands in front of a memorial wall that they dedicated to those who died on September 11, including many Rockaway residents. Wall became a community memorial, but three local residents complained that it was actually graffiti and had to be removed. City officials recently decided that it reflected protected speech and that it could stay. Florida Sentinel Picture by Susan StockerGinny Dixon, the housemate of ex-Rockaway resident Theresa McCann stands in front of a memorial wall that they dedicated to those who died on September 11, including many Rockaway residents. Wall became a community memorial, but three local residents complained that it was actually graffiti and had to be removed. City officials recently decided that it reflected protected speech and that it could stay. Florida Sentinel Picture by Susan Stocker

Theresa McCann may have moved to Hollywood, Florida, but she is still a Rockaway girl at heart.

McCann, who grew up in Rockaway, now lives in Florida with a housemate, Ginny Dixon.

She was devastated by the reports that she heard on September 11. She began to hear the names of those who were lost – friends who were firefighters, friends who worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald.

Along with millions of other Americans, she wanted to do something to memorialize those who were lost.

"On September 15, we went looking for an American Flag, but all of the shops were sold out, so we decided to paint a flag on the white wall around the house, McCann said. "Then, because the wall is in different sections, I decided to paint the names of some of my close friends who died on that awful day."

John Moran’s grandmother lived across the fence from McCann in Rockaway. Eric Allen was her bartender when she was young. Walter Hynes was a neighbor. She wanted their names on the wall.

Local residents, seeing the wall, wanted to add names of their own. McCann allowed them to add those names to those she had painted on the wall. It quickly became something of a community memorial to September 11. The came to her door, hat in hand, asking permission to put a name on the wall. She never refused their requests.

"We met some wonderful new friends, and I know that our wall eases their pain," McCann says.

Not everybody, apparently, shared McCann’s enthusiasm for the wall. Three unidentified community residents filed a complaint with the city’s code enforcement department, saying that the wall was graffiti and should be painted over.

"How does someone get to say when our grieving is over," McCann asked. She refused to paint over the wall.

"When I look at the wall, I see 20 kids who don’t have a father, I see a woman wishing that her husband could be there for their kid’s graduation. I see a boy who always wanted to be a fireman. I still see him when he was five years old."

McCann says that the code enforcement officer who came by to look at the fence was "sympathetic," looking for a compromise. He suggested to McCann that she paint over the names but leave the flag.

She and Dixon both refused.

There was some talk of the two going to jail for their refusal, but they never took that very seriously. They got lots of support from their neighbors and, when their story was told in local papers, from around the nation.

Just this week, Daniel Abbott, the city attorney for Hollywood, issued a memorandum of law on the case.

He ruled that the words and names written on the fence contain "speech" as protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Citing a previous court case, Abbott wrote, "A locality’s interest in aesthetics or traffic safety will rarely override a citizen’s right to free speech on his or her own property."

"In sum," he added, "I am of the opinion that a code enforcement action against the owners of the subject property for violating the city’s graffiti ordinance would be unsuccessful."

The two Florida women say that they do not know when they will take the memorial down. They will continue to open the door to strangers who come by to talk and to put a name on the wall.

"September 11 is still very much alive," McCann says. "It is probably never going away."


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