Tuesday, February 16, 2010

'Like St. Vincent’s Itself, Missing Wall Means Much' by Clyde Haberman

February 1, 2010, The New York Times

NYC - Like St. Vincent's Hospital Itself, Missing Wall Means a Lot ...

By now, many people who walk along West 11th Street and see the sign on the south portico of St. Vincent’s Hospital must wonder what it could possibly mean. “The Wall of Hope and Remembrance,” it reads.

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Edward Keating/The New York Times

Fliers with photographs and descriptions of victims from the 2001 terrorist attack were displayed for four years. Hundreds were treated there on Sept. 11.

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

The empty wall at St. Vincent’s on West 11th Street, where the fliers were displayed.

Hope for what? Remembrance of what? No clue is offered. There is just a blank wall.

Something used to be there. It spoke of a city’s heartbreak. In a sense, it became a casualty of the financial troubles that have put St. Vincent’s future in doubt. A huge health-services network is looking to take charge of the hospital, recast its mission and, inevitably, alter its identity.

What used to be there was a tableau that stretched 25 feet or more. It contained hundreds of fliers that popped up across New York after the planes hit the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Missing, they said. The word was offered more in prayer than hope. You remember:

Have you seen Elizabeth Holmes? She was in 2 World Trade Center. How about Lindsay Herkness? He was on the 73rd floor. Maybe you know of Lucy Crifasi? She was wearing a striped blouse, black and olive green. Please, please, what about Thomas Edward Galvin or Harry Glenn or Joan Donna Griffith? “Still searching, never forgotten,” said the flier for David Marc Sullins, a paramedic killed while trying to rescue injured people.

Many of these appeals were posted outside St. Vincent’s. That made sense. The hospital was not far from the trade center. Hundreds went there for emergency treatment that day — a point that may well be put forth by those who fear that emergency care will end at St. Vincent’s if it is taken over.

Soon enough, hospital officials gathered the sheets of paper, placed them side by side, covered them with plexiglass and mounted them on the south portico wall. There they stood for four years, forming the Wall of Hope and Remembrance. But they began to deteriorate, especially after a winter storm ripped up the protective coating. The fliers were taken down, but with an intention to put them back eventually on display.

“People spoke very positively about doing something,” said Sister Kevin Phillips, a senior vice president at the hospital. “One of our doctors really got into it. He had a couple of architects who came in, and they made a very nice display. It was going to be quite elegant.”

“But the price tag was out of sight,” Sister Kevin said. “Then we had several changes in administration, and there was one crisis after another. Asking for money to do something like this was not really going to get anyone’s attention.”

The wall meant a lot to some people. Photos of the missing — forever smiling, forever holding their children, forever looking grand in gowns and tuxedos — cast a spell.

Tracy Daugherty felt it. Mr. Daugherty teaches writing at Oregon State University. But he spent a lot of time in New York researching a biography of Donald Barthelme, called “Hiding Man” and published last year by St. Martin’s Press. Barthelme had lived on West 11th Street (in an apartment above Thomas Pynchon). Mr. Daugherty went there often, invariably going by the hospital wall.

In 2008, he wrote a short story, “Bern,” for The Georgia Review. Its title character, passing the wall, is startled to find it “emptied of its elegiac icons.”

“I get shocked by my own reaction,” Mr. Daughtery said by phone from Corvallis, Ore. “Why did I feel the loss so keenly? I don’t know why. But I did.”

These days, Greenwich Village officials tend to focus less on the wall than on a nearby chain-link fence at Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue South. Hundreds of ceramic tiles dedicated to the sorrow of Sept. 11 dangle from the fence. Preserving them is important, said Jo Hamilton, chairwoman of the local community board. “Tour buses come all the time,” she said. “People stop and look and read and remember.”

The 9/11 fliers are now preserved in plastic and arranged alphabetically, from Terence E. Adderley Jr. to Ken Zelman, in four loose-leaf binders. Copies were made for future display at a center for 9/11 families that is to be part of the memorial and museum being built at ground zero.

The binders are in storage, emerging rarely save for one day a year. “We have a memorial Mass every Sept. 11 in the chapel, and we bring the books there,” Sister Kevin said. “We let people look through them, and then we take them back” — out of sight but never out of mind.

E-mail: haberman@nytimes.com

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