The Berlin Wall in New York

September 9, 2008

A large piece of the Berlin wall resides in Lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the World Trade Center. Nearby is a Police Memorial, comprised of a short, long, stone wall engraved with the names of the police officers who had died in the line of duty. A pool of shallow water stands in front of it and a small plaque and wreath decorate its edges.

It was the Police Memorial that I saw first. It was standing against the innocuous background of the boardwalk in Battery Park City. It stood facing the absence of the World Trade Center. The piece of the Berlin Wall stood inconspicuously nearby – so inconspicuous in fact that I had trouble finding it. Eventually, I tapped on the window of the security booth located outside the World Financial Center.  “I’m looking for the piece of the Berlin wall. I think it’s near here,” I said. The guard, a large man with a West African accent, pointed in the general direction of the water. “See that painted wall with the face? That’s it,” he said. As I walked away, he mumbled, “It’s just a wall, why would someone want to look at it?” and laughed to himself, puzzled.

I was glad though to have found it. The wall had been painted: on one side – a  large green cartoon-ish face with deep red lips; on the other side – a more subdued but still whimsical abstract design in hushed nude tones. It represented several important moments in history: the construction of the wall after World War II, when it came down in 1989, and the years in-between where families and old friends were suddenly separated by both physical and ideological realities. There seemed to me something beautiful about this fragment of concrete. Perhaps it was in part that the wall had made its way to New York, that it stood here, not far from the Police Memorial as a reminder of a larger, global context.

As I raised my camera to take a picture, I felt the tension between viewing this site as a witness and viewing it as a tourist. The difference between the two subject positions is vast: one commands a position that is engaged, the other suggests a removed distance, an outsider observing but not acting.  In snapping a photo, was I actively engaging with this history? Or merely collecting it for display alongside less emotionally and historically charged landmarks: the Empire State Building or Central Park. Leaving the question unanswered, I took the picture and continued walking south.

At this point, it had started to get dark and by the time I walked back towards the World Trade Center site, the sky had turned from light blue to pink, then to navy. I noticed people on the street, walking quickly past the site, engaged in their everyday lives. Others stopped and posed for pictures in front of the backdrop of cranes, fences and rubble. Again, I felt a sense of disruption: the tension between the everyday and the traumatic, the enormity of history, and the intersection of past and present.

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