Subway art about 9/11 a big draw
Poster, rider writings pay tribute to victims of World Trade Center attacks
By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 5/7/2002
NEW YORK - The least-defaced poster in the New York subway system may be a 50-foot-long, 4-foot-high display that snakes across three walls of the Union Square station and lists, in alphabetical order, the names of the 2,830 people killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.
The memorial is the work of Keith Piaseczny (the artist), who heads an organization called Art Aid. And in this still-scarred city, the list serves something of the same purpose as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington.
Since it went up on March 11 - the widely marked six-month anniversary of the catastrophe - thousands of otherwise hurried subway riders each day have slowed down and stopped to read the names.
The poster is also covered with tributes, handwritten messages scrawled next to hundreds of the names by surviving friends and family members.
''I miss you so much - Anita, 4/9/02,'' reads one. ''Bill, Your friends at the Fed will never forget you.'' ''Danny, Your sons will live in your memory.'' ''Rest in peace, gentle man.'' ''Such a bad boy, you brought life to every moment - Michelle.'' ''To Dad, Your son, I love you.'' ''Dude, you are sorely, sorely missed.''
One recent evening rush hour, Susan Egan, who works just a few blocks from where the twin towers once stood, stopped to read names for five minutes or more.
''I stop here almost every night,'' Egan said. ''I think people have started to forget. I don't know anybody who died there, but the memory of what happened will never die with me.''
Karen Samet, a Brooklyn educator, was on her way to a meeting in Manhattan when she stopped by. ''I've never noticed this before,'' she said. ''It makes me very sad. You kind of settle back into life because you have to. Then when you see things like this, it begins to hurt again.''
Benny Tookes, who works at a bank, was another first-timer. ''I'm very happy to see this,'' he said softly. He scrolled his finger down one column of names, looking for a friend of his who died, then found it - Tyrone May.
Tookes pulled a pen out of his pocket and wrote next to May's name, ''To the best friend I grew up with - Benny.''
He looked at his inscription for a few seconds, then walked away.
Remarkably, the underground ''graffiti artists,'' who routinely plaster their signatures on other subway posters, have left this temptingly massive banner pretty much alone. This is the case even though Union Square is the city's seventh-busiest subway station, with 83,000 people passing through on an average workday.
''You'd think at least one moron would have come along with a spray-paint can by now,'' marvelled Gene Russianoff, head of Straphangers, a subway-riders' association. ''This just tells you how solemnly the entire city regards this disaster.''
The organization that created the banner was founded a couple of years ago, when Keith Piaseczny, 41, had the idea of organizing fellow artists to hold auctions of their works and donate a portion of the receipts to charity. It never got off the ground. After Sept. 11, he devised another way to be socially responsible.
Piaseczny lives in Greenwich Village, next to Squad 18, the firehouse that lost all but one of its firefighters in the terrorist attacks. Shortly after the attacks, he designed a memorial poster, a simple image of an angel - ''for consoling and healing'' - and brought copies to several firehouses.
Word of the angel poster got around. Police precinct chiefs and emergency medical workers asked whether he would make a poster for their losses as well. As he made more versions, the image evolved to that of an angel surrounded by the names of police, firefighters, and rescue workers who died.
When the city erected a viewing platform at ground zero in December, some of the police approached Piaseczny and asked him to do a memorial for the platform.
''They thought it was important to remind the people why they were there,'' Keith said. ''It wasn't just to look at a pit; it was to remember that people were buried here.''
When he raised the money to print the poster for the platform, he made a duplicate and tried to persuade some other public site - Grand Central Terminal or the Port Authority bus station - to display it. The bureaucracy was so dense, it would have taken months for him to get a decision.
So Keith went to the police station inside the Union Square subway station and asked whether he could put the poster up on the wall just across the way.
At first, an accompanying sign asked people not to disturb the banner. But dozens of friends and relatives felt compelled to jot testimonials. So Piaseczny changed the sign, asking that only friends and families write notes.
This being New York, there have been some violators. In recent days, two graffiti artists have inscribed their signatures, though in very small print and well away from any of the memorialized names.
Others have engaged in debate. Above the list of names, Piaseczny printed a quotation from Abraham Lincoln that begins, ''I pray that our heavenly father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement ...''
One subway rider scrawled below that, ''I don't believe in a heavenly father, and I still think 9/11 was a tragedy. Is that OK with you?'' Another rider wrote under that: ''Fine with me.'' But another jotted, in smaller print still: ''This is a memorial. Do you have to get into a religious debate now? Have some respect.''
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/7/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.