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Still Grieving, Group Seeks Ongoing Memorial in Park

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Two months after Mayor Giuliani told New Yorkers to “get back to normal,” a small but vocal group of city residents is asking for the right to define for themselves just what “normal” means. For them, it’s the right to mourn together in Union Square Park-and to preserve on the site an ongoing memorial to those killed on Sept. 11.

Attending the Nov. 8 Board 5 meeting, members of the Union Square Alliance spoke out against the Parks Department’s decision to clean up the grassroots shrine that had sprung up at Union Square Park in the days after the Sept. 11 attack. “They took down all evidence of the memorial,” said Gregory Nissen, who formed the alliance in direct response to the city’s regular sweep of the once-sprawling expressions of grief-candles, prayers, poems and hundreds of missing-persons fliers-posted around the park, turning it into the city’s spiritual epicenter just 20 blocks from ground zero.

On Sept. 20, following a forecast of heavy rain, the Parks Department cleared the site, bagging hundreds of materials, some of which had been sent by people around the country to comfort New Yorkers.

“If people want memorials, there are many places around the city,” Henry Stern, the city’s parks commissioner, told The Observer. “You can’t turn the park into a garbage dump.” According to Mr. Stern, the materials are being kept at the Hamilton Fish Recreation Center on the Lower East Side. The department is seeking advice from the Museum of the City of New York on how best to preserve and archive the materials as a record of the tragedy.

Whatever the Parks Department’s intent, many residents, including those in other neighborhoods, are outraged. “It’s like sterilizing our minds and sterilizing our emotions,” said Yvonne Fawcett, a writer from the Upper West Side, who also spoke at the Board 5 meeting. “Let’s get back to business, but let’s never forget.”

For Mr. Nissen, keeping an ongoing memorial at Union Square is crucial to the healing process. “It seemed to be the one place where you could go where feelings of grief and empathy were not overshadowed with patriotic rage,” he said. “[The Parks Department] stopped the momentum and natural outpouring that citizens expressed in Union Square.”

According to Mr. Nissen, the Union Square Alliance met recently with Manhattan Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to negotiate the presence of an ongoing memorial at Union Square. At the meeting, parks officials agreed to limit their sweeps to once a week, on Monday mornings, giving the organizers a chance to remove memorial items the night before.

But fewer and fewer people have been visiting the memorial; for the alliance, the park’s confiscation of “vigil materials” has discouraged gatherings and vigils when they are needed most.

The alliance asked the board to serve as an intermediary with the Parks Department. Board 5 agreed to put the proposal on the agenda for its December meeting.

– Shazia Ahmad

‘Save the High Line’ May Be Too Late

Like Pennsylvania Station before it, the old, elevated West Side Highway went down in the late 1970’s in a silent crash of ornate metal and concrete, with just a few hearty souls resisting the idea of obliterating this vestige of a simpler New York.

That can’t be said for the High Line. A phalanx of celebrities (Diane von Furstenberg and Glenn Close, to name two), area residents and even Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg have been pushing for the preservation of the rusting elevated railroad track on the West Side. But chances are that the High Line will, like the old West Side Highway, still face the demolition cranes.

Board 4 learned in October that the city in March lifted a hurdle to the High Line’s destruction by making a “negative declaration” that its demolition would have no environmental impact. The board hasn’t taken a position on whether the High Line should be preserved or demolished, but at its Nov. 7 meeting it quickly took a firm, very negative position on being left out of the loop.

The High Line, which stretches for 28 blocks between the meatpacking district and 34th Street, was built during the 1930’s to lift freight transport off street level and avoid pedestrian accidents. It has been out of use since 1980, and the owners of the property over which it runs have been trying to have it torn down for more than a decade. They formed a group called the Chelsea Property Owners and have been negotiating with the High Line’s current owner, railroad company CSX, over how to split the demolition costs.

On the other side, however, is the Friends of the High Line, which wants to see the High Line entered in the national “Rails to Trails” campaign, whereby thousands of miles of out-of-use rail track have been converted into open public space.

The city hasn’t been receptive to the idea thus far, but the Friends of the High Line is “hoping very much that there’ll be a shift in view that the High Line can be a positive element to economic development on the West Side,” Joshua David, one of the organ-ization’s founders, who is also a member of Board 4, told The Observer .

More than a dozen High Line supporters urged Board 4 at its Nov. 7 meeting to take action against the city’s issuance of a negative declaration without public review. “I’m outraged that this deal is being made behind our back,” Chelsea resident Rodney Durso told the board.

The legality of the negative declaration, which was based on an Environmental Assessment Statement prepared under the auspices of Rudy Washington, the deputy mayor for economic development and finance, is just one of the issues the board wants to see discussed in a public forum.

The board dispatched a fiery letter to Mr. Washington saying that it is “deeply disturbed” about the fact that demolition plans have been progressing without “public review or even notice.” The letter goes on to reject the “sweeping assertions” that tearing down the High Line would have no environmental effect. “The impacts of demolition on over a mile of the fashionable arts district and on the new residential buildings in the area as well as the resulting interruptions to traffic is sure to be a considerable economic and environmental burden.”

City officials did not return calls for comment.

– Karina Lahni

Nov. 14: Board 6, N.Y.U. Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750; Board 8, Hunter College School of Social Work, 129 East 79th Street, auditorium, 7 p.m., 758-4340.

Nov. 15: Board 2, St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 West 12th Street, Cronin Auditorium, 10th floor, 6:30 p.m., 979-2272; Board 3, Public School 20, 166 Essex Street, between East Houston and Stanton Street, auditorium, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300; Board 9, 565 West 125th Street, between Broadway and Old Broadway, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200.

Nov. 20: Board 1, Southbridge Towers, 90 Beekman Street, community room, 6 p.m., 442-5050; Board 11, North General Hospital, 1879 Madison Avenue, first floor, 6:30 p.m., 831-8929.

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