2003-01-04 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

Lower Manhattan has a relatively easy task. It has only to figure out how to do one memorial.

Rockaway has to figure out how to do two – one for those 71 locals who were lost on September 11 and another for those five locals and 260 others who died when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor only two months and a day later.

The process to build a memorial to the Rockaway residents who died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is well under way, under the guidance of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce and Community Board 14.

Several committees were set up – one to choose the site, another for fundraising and a third for the design of the memorial itself.

The committee chose the perfect site. The memorial will be on the triangle of land right on the bay at Beach 116 Street, a site with a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline and the missing twin towers.

The fundraising committee did a great job, putting together some donations, some grant money and by selling "bricks" to those who want to pay tribute to some person who was lost.

What I personally have a problem with is the design of the memorial.

First, let me say that I understand that philosophies of memorial design differ widely. I also understand that I should not be the final arbiter of what the memorial looks like. I also want to say that Geoff Rawling, the head of that committee as well as the president of the Rockaway Artists Alliance has done a great job of getting dozens proposals, cutting those dozens down to about ten, and in bringing the project to fruition.

Geoff, however, is an artist and like all artists, he believes that art is the answer.

There is a school of thought that the artists embrace that says that the memorial should be calming, a peaceful place where people can come and reflect on their loss. What this group wants, and I have to say that many residents agree, is a place for mourners to sit and look at the city skyline and remember, finding peace in the remembrance.

I don’t want that, and although I am probably in the minority, I think that those with an opposite philosophy on memorial should be heard.

I want a memorial that will forever demonstrate that happened that day.

I want to take my grandsons to the site five years from now and tell them of that day and I want the memorial to graphically show them what I am telling them.

I want twisted metal.

I don’t want people to be peaceful. I want them to be angry.

The artists want, and will probably choose, a memorial like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. That memorial is quiet and dignified. If you don’t know who Lincoln is, however, you would not find that out from the memorial.

I want the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. From the moment you walk in an are given the "identity" of a person who died in the Holocaust, to the time you stand on an actual cattle car that took the doomed Jews to be gassed at the camps (my defining moment) to the time you leave, you know what happened. You know what the Holocaust was all about. No comfort zone. No quiet place to reflect. Pure history. Pure horror. In Hanger Fourteen at JFK Airport are symbols of the day – destroyed fire rigs, twisted girders, flattened ambulances. Metal girders studded with paper and pieces of clothing. That is what the day was all about. That is what our memorial should reflect.

It is my understanding that the Broad Channel Volunteer’s ambulance, the one that was crushed when the South Tower came down, may still be available in that hanger. If so, it should become a part of our monument, just as the organization is a part of our life.

The sheer enormity of the Vietnamese Memorial, with all of its names, conveys the horror of the war.

We need to see that same horror in our memorial.

I know that will never happen. We will get a quiet, calming place to sit and think, and I guess that is all right in its own way. What will it tell future generation about the deadly day? That is the question.

The memorial to those who died on November 12, 2001 is entirely another story.

Rather than uniting the community, the question of where the memorial will one day stand may well tear the community apart.

Five local residents died in the crash. Several homes were completely demolished, other severely damaged.

Most of those who lost their homes plan to rebuild. At least one has left the area entirely.

There are several groups who claim to speak for the families of the victims, most of who were Hispanics from Washington Heights and Brooklyn on their way to the Dominican Republic for a holiday visit.

At least one of those groups, Alianza Dominica, has told the New York Times that it will officially ask New York City to purchase a piece of property at the crash site for a memorial.

Therein lies the tale.

The crash site, Newport Avenue and Beach 131 Street is a residential area, mostly one-family homes. The majority of those who live there have done so for many years. They don’t want to live with a memorial across the street from their homes, many of which are worth well more than a half-million dollars in this inflated market.

Those who live there say that there are other places where the memorial could be places without disturbing their lives, their neighborhood and their property values.

Gerri Pompanio, who lost her husband and her home in the crash, spoke for the community when she told the New York Times, "This is not where death is, this is where life is. How can you go on with your life when you live in a cemetery?"

There are those, particularly in the Dominican community, who look on those residents who resist a memorial at the crash site as racist. They believe that if the victims were Irish or Jewish, there would be no question of a memorial on site.

I do not believe that for a moment. I do not believe the desire to place the memorial elsewhere in Rockaway would be the same no matter what the race or religion of those who died.

There is a fiction that the two communities – Washington Heights and Belle Harbor were bonded through the mourning process. When the families first came to Rockaway, they were greeted with Dominican Flags and refreshments. It was a nice scene.

When a beautiful grove of trees, a well-advertised memorial to those who died on flight 587, was dedicated recently in Astoria, however, not one Rockaway person showed up (with the exception of two locals who work for weekly newspapers), not even the relatives of those Rockaway people who died. The memorial, sponsored by Hector Algrobba, the head of another victim’s advocacy group, included the reading of all of the names of those who died in the crash, including those in Rockaway and the flight crew.

At the time, I asked some people in Rockaway why nobody had shown up and I got answers such as "it was too far away," "we are going to have one of our own," and "that was for the Hispanic community."

The Chamber of Commerce is working with both the Hispanic community and the local community to come up with a plan. Congressman Anthony Weiner reportedly is working with Hispanic Congressman on a compromise.

I would recommend to them a site on a piece of land right on the bayfront at Beach 128 or 129 Street (the grassy piece along the bay ends at Beach 130 Street). That would be a perfect site for a tasteful, quiet memorial where people can reflect and remember.

Why the dichotomy between what I want for the September 11 Memorial and the memorial for flight 587.

You don’t have to understand what happens when a plane crashes into a community. That is far different from explaining September 11.


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