Facebook Twitter

Feelings of grief, hope find expression at tiny N.Y. park

SHARE Feelings of grief, hope find expression at tiny N.Y. park

NEW YORK — They flock here by the thousands to pour out their souls in this tiny city park just 30 blocks from the rubble.

The artists come with their creations: poems and paintings and songs.

The peddlers come with their wares: American flags and postcards of a time when the world was different and two steel towers glistened over the Hudson River.

Strangers bring candles and flowers — roses and sunflowers and carnations — huge bouquets that are strewn beneath the giant bronze statue of George Washington, pinned onto wire fences, heaped next to the subway entrance.

Families bring tears.

Gazing down from every lamppost, every tree trunk, every wall, the smiling faces of loved ones they may never see again.

Missing: Lorraine Antigua. 104th Floor. Last seen wearing a long gray dress and small, gold hoop earrings.

Missing: Craig Staub. Age 30. 89th Floor. Expecting first child this week.

Missing: Ann Marie Riccoboli. Last seen on 85th floor. Bronze nail and toe polish. Thyroid surgery scar on throat.

Missing: My sister Mayra. Brown hair and a Florida tan. She has a 12-year-old son named Elias.

For some, the park has become an altar, one that sprang up spontaneously because it was one of the closest public gathering points to Ground Zero. In the days after the attack, police barricades prevented people from traveling south of 14th Street, where the park is located.

So families came with pictures and pleas and lingering hopes. Have you seen my mother, my brother, my friend? Please help me find my sister, my husband, my cousin.

Students laid huge sheets of white cardboard paper on the ground. People began scribbling — poems, messages to their loved ones, to the rescuers, to the world. God Bless America. We love you, New York.

And even though "walls of tears" rose up elsewhere — at the Armory and St. Vincent's Hospital and the Chelsea Piers — Union Square seemed different. There has been singing and dancing, with people camped in the park all night. Chains of white origami birds dangled from trees. "Peace" and "Love" signs were daubed all over Washington's bronze horse. A guy with long blond hair strummed guitar.

"It was just a joyous feeling, even in the middle of such sadness, to feel such a massive display of unity and hope," said Marta Jablonka, an 18-year-old student from Queens. "It was a sense of communion with all those people buried a few blocks away."

Then the rains came Thursday and washed much of it away. The city tidied up the park, and removed many of the mementos and photographs for safekeeping.

With the sun, the pictures reappeared, but not hope. No one has been pulled from the wreckage in more than a week. The numbers of the dead keep rising. The smell of death drifts up from downtown.

"The park feels more like a graveyard now," Jablonka said, as she laid a wreath of purple flowers by a fence. "A graveyard for people who might never have their own proper graves."

That is why she and thousands of others continue to be drawn to this place, to light candles and burn incense, to cry as they read aloud the poems.

From Wanda Rodriguez of Brooklyn:

"The color black is how I feel, dark and smoky all around. Everything is black, is scary and hollow. I don't want to see black. I want to see the lights. I want to get out of the dark."

The piece, scrawled in handwriting and hanging on a fence, is pierced with a dead red rose.

Beside it, hangs another poem, written by Scott Ufford:

"My heart is ripped open,

gouged open.

I am shock

I am grief

No words to cry.

No one to hear me.

No way to cry."

Other messages are less poetic, but just as powerful. A card that reads "please say a prayer for Eddie, missing since Sept. 11, 2001." A child's crayon drawing of a sun, smiling through clouds of smoke and fire. A rag-doll, hands crossed over her eyes, propped up against an American flag. The doll is clutching a note that reads "To my cousin. May God let you rest now."

No one seems able to read it without tears.

At an entrance to the park a lone Buddhist nun keeps an all-day vigil before a sea of candles. She chants her mournful prayer and beats her mournful drum, over and over, like a heartbeat.

Her name is Sister Ichikawa. She belongs to a small Japanese sect that dedicates its life to praying for peace in places of horror. A few years ago, she chanted the same prayer at Auschwitz.

A short distance away, youths from the Life East Bible College in Christiansburg, Va., beat their drums and lift their voices in thunderous praise. "We want to see Jesus lifted high," they sing. They are full of vigor and promise and smiles. They talk of hope and peace. They talk of the miracle of this place, how this simple city park has become sacred.

On a tree behind them, someone has posted the serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

But there are many here who wonder: How can you find serenity in such sadness? How can you find miracles in such despair?