NY Art Commentary

Notes from the Sidelines of Ground Zero

by Vincent Arcilesi

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As I was starting to put finishing touches on a painting, I heard the sonic boom, looked out the window, and saw people rushing toward the corner of Church and Duane Street (my street). I immediately went downstairs and saw the huge hole towards the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The towers were five blocks from our loft and very visible. I watched from the street, then rushed back upstairs to try to find out from the TV what was happening.

Looking Down Smoke
Photography © NY ArtWorld 2001

Looking Down Lafayette Street

September 11, 2001

At that time, the information available on TV was as sparse as my own. I repeated this process three or four times, from my loft to the street and back. Several people from our buildings watched the entire spectacle from the roof, among them my neighbor and fellow artist, Jacqueline Gourevitch.

At about 4:00 pm the electricity and phones went out and weren't restored until five days later. But as I write this some six weeks after the event, we still do not have phone service. My wife Nan, who is a psychiatric social worker in the Brooklyn school system, was unable to get back into the neighborhood that evening and stayed with friends.

Ground Zero Smoking
Photography © NY ArtWorld 2001
Smoking Fires at Ground Zero - October 18, 2001

Everyone in our building relocated to other areas of the city, leaving me and Jean and Steven grillo as the sole occupants. After talking awhile with the Grillos, we decided to go out to try to get something to eat since it was impossible to cook anything in our lofts with nothing working. We were not allowed into Chinatown and realized at that time that if we left the neighborhood we would not be allowed to get back in. A food service station for the rescue workers had been set up in a city building across Duane Street and we gratefully accepted the food they offered us.

The following day all of the city schools, including F.I.T. where I teach, were closed so there was no way my wife and I could contact each other until the next day when she met me at F.I.T. During the next five days we stayed with our daughter's friend in the West Village. Sometimes we would be allowed into the area with ID so that I was able to feed our two cats. Some evenings the police did not even allow residents into the area since they feared the collapse of more buildings.

On Friday, September 14th, we went to Jack Beals opening at the George Adams Gallery on 57th Street. Jack was sitting in the middle of the gallery surrounded by his beautiful paintings, greeting the intrepid souls who ventured out into a deserted city. He was delighted to see us and said, "We have to keep making art so that Osama bin Laden doesn't win."

On Saturday the electricity was restored to our neighborhood. We cleared out the refrigerator and were glad to be back in our loft.

I'd kept the windows closed , which was effective at keeping out the dust. However, the windows were caked with ashes, so heavy that a nightly hosing down of the street was necessary. During those first three weeks, the neighborhood seemed like a war zone. The streets were lined with trucks, earth-moving machines, emergency vehicles, mobile police command posts, port-a-sans, Fire Department jeeps, and other equipment.

Fires Still Burning
Photography © NY ArtWorld 2001
Fires Still Burning at Ground Zero - October 18, 2001

There were at least ten officers on each corner of Duane Street from Broadway to West Street, controlling the access to Ground Zero. From Canal Street to the tip of Manhattan, I saw a great variety of uniformed groups, among them the National Guard, the State Police, the NYPD, the NYFD, rescue workers, MTA and Verizon workers, as well as police and fire fighters from neighboring cities and states.

Other artists in the area were not as fortunate as we were. Mike Mulhern, who was asleep on the couch in his Cedar Street studio, a block south of the World Trade Center, was awakened by a telephone call from his son telling him to look out his window. He did and saw the first building starting to collapse and rushed to the back of the studio, thereby saving his life.

Building materials and debris crushed the window in the room where he had been sleeping and filled the loft with dense smoke and debris, destroying everything. Mike covered his face with wet towels to avoid smoke inhalation and managed to turn on the exhaust fan to suck out some of the heavy soot. The other tower fell and he was unable to get out until 1:30 pm.

George Kokines, who lived not far from Mike on Greenwich Street, came out unscathed, but his entire studio was destroyed by the rubble. Jeff Russell's lofe is on Fulton Street, just east of the towers. He saw people jumping from the buildings and believed the tower was going to fall directly on his street and loft. He thought it was all over for him and called his wife to say good-bye.

Down Broadway Nightmare
Photography © NY ArtWorld 2001
Lafayette Street - Empty Except For Smoke
September 11, 2001

Then there are the many artists and others living below Murray Street who still cannot get back into their lofts since the area has been declared a crime site. My colleague Stephanie DeManuelle and her family are among the group.

Even now, viewed from Broadway, you can see the skeletal remains of the towers, silhouetted by the lights shining eerily through the white smoke. Looking south on Greenwich Street from Chambers Street, you see a mountain of twisted steel girders with smoke still pouring out from the fire still burning in the depths of where the once proud buildings stood.

by Vincent Arcilesi

Printed in The Artists Proof, N.Y. Artists Equity Association, Fall 2001, Vol. 18

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