100 Miles from Ground Zero – Roadside Politics Photographed After September 11th , 2001

Posted on September 11, 2010


Moments after the collapse of the twin towers a wave of black smoke and debris billowed up the corridors between buildings and people fled just ahead of it in a darkening cloud. As the darkness spread out from the center, (Freshly painted American flag on Torresdale Ave., northeast Phila.) so did the ripples of reactions – shock, grief, anger, sympathy, disbelief, desire for vengeance, fear and then later a craving to understand, an urge to act, to help, to mentally process the attacks and continue with our lives. Residing 100 miles west of ground zero, I felt the wave of reaction wash over me and I recorded part of it – hand lettered or hastily posted signs through which people could express how they felt and could comfort one another and comfort themselves.  Rather than succumb to feeling completely helpless, these writers posted their brief thoughts.

What was my purpose in recording and presenting these messages? There is much wringing of hands over the lost voice of the ordinary person, subsumed in a sea of more polished, or at least more orchestrated and more widely disseminated information and media. Part of my purpose is to celebrate that common voice, which seems very strong and clear in this instance. This photo essay is about public display – and yet it pertains to all of our private responses, as well.

The photographs also contain a sense of my physical presence and thereby –  the viewer’s.  Shooting up at the signs causes a flattening of the image and quadrangles no longer have right angles. That sense of looking up, speaks of us, the readers, anyone passing by, being meant to see the signs.

The terrorists “hit us where we live” as it were – and roadside signs are similarly posted where the writer of the sign lives (or works). These are not dutiful corporate messages. In each case, the writer is an individual, your neighbor or owner of a small business. And the only agenda is that the writer has is to share how she or he feels.

New York seems to me to be the American ideal concentrated – “the best dream man has ever dreamed,” as Randy Newman put it in the song “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation Of Albert Einstein In America.” I broke down again in tears for the twentieth time in days, hearing National Public Radio’s Scott Simon talk about the emptiness that those two towers left when they collapsed.  My husband wept, driving into the city for the first time after the attacks and said that the hole left by the towers was like a limb amputated from a human being. I hope, as many must, that lower Manhattan will be re-built.  (I wrote this nine years ago; I add to this hope now that the memory of the 60 Muslims who died when the World Trade Center Came down receive the same respect in the revitalization of the downtown as the other victims).

I experience in moments of grief not only horror at the loss of life, but the larger symbolic significance of on the attack on New York. Nonetheless, the Pentagon was attacked too, and passengers sacrificed themselves in bringing down a fourth plane in rural western Pennsylvania. So, Pennsylvania has a story to tell too.  These photos tell the story of the reaction of people 100 miles west of the great city, people 100 miles west feeling grief, seeking comfort, rallying around the flag, watching the story with horror through television and computer screens, asserting their pride, bolstering one another, worrying about war and offering their opinions to anyone who cares to read them, posted at the roadside, where Americans pass by in their cars.

“GOD BLESS AMERICA” photographed at ADULT WORLD on Bethlehem Pike in Montgomeryville, PA. Immediately following the attack, though filled with grief, I also had a warm sense that we, Americans, and other members of the western world were as one – shocked, mourning, but also proud of being free citizens of democracies.  Two days or so after the collapse of the World Trade Center, a friend commented that he felt that people were being “more gentle” with one another. Reaching for comfort those first painful hours, I emailed news items and my own thoughts to some 700 people, but was quickly caught up in disparate threads of discussion about how to respond, dispelling that sense of solidarity. This sign captured my sense of unity and yet embodies such irony. It combines a religiously articulated message of patriotism with the legal purveyance of pornographic media, of which the religious don’t approve. One doesn’t ordinarily connect such sentiments. This type of business whose right to exist is protected by our constitution, is also an example of the very libertine culture, which may have drawn the violent rage of religious fundamentalists.

“BE AN AMERICAN THINK UNITED WE STAND” photographed at the Colonial Market on Broad Street in Lansdale, PA. I find this sign to be one of the most conceptually complex that I have seen.  The injunction to “be an American,” implies that to be an American is a volitional act, which is not true for all nationalities.  I attended the service at City Hall in Philadelphia on Thursday September 13, 2001 and Governor Tom Ridge was there.  He said, and I paraphrase, that “America is not a place on a map.  It is not geographically defined.  It is not just a word. It’s an idea – the idea of liberty and tolerance and opportunity and that idea cannot be destroyed.”  This sign seems to reflect that idea, that one chooses to be an American and in making that choice, embraces an ideal, not a physical place.  I am not sure how to process the second part of the injunction, “Think: ‘united we stand.”  Perhaps it means, “let’s put aside our differences and address this crisis together, remembering that as Americans we have more that brings us together than divides us.”

“REMEMBER THE INNOCENT & OUR FALLEN HEROES” photographed at the Barren Hill Volunteer Fire Company on Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill, PA.  This is interesting for several reasons.  This small-town volunteer fire company got a professional-quality sign up with blistering speed, for one thing.  Also, the phrase “fallen heroes” is very interesting.  It refers, of course, to the more than 250 firefighters and police who literally rushed into a burning building to help others and paid with their lives as the towers fell.  The phrase is interesting because it takes on the rhetoric of war and patriotism, which while not inappropriate, emerges as a kind of mythologizing of this tragedy.  It is interesting even to find myself using words like “hero” and “tragedy.” The firefighters are heroes and this is a tragedy, but there is a language inflation in the coverage of earlier events that cheapens this monumental and pivotal event – the first attack on civilians on American mainland soil since the war of 1812.  This claims-making is perpetuated in the recent decision to award a newly created “liberty medal” to civilians who died in the attacks.  It will be the equivalent of the Purple Heart, awarded to military personnel who are wounded. I can’t help but note the coalition of energies and perspectives that this event has stimulated.  Cerebral lovers of New York (as embodiment of the American ideal of diversity), allied with the blue collar interests of police and firefighters, and the global alliance which has come together to fight terrorism, while the crushed corpses of Americans, British, Canadians, Mexicans, Germans, Russians, Indians are interred beneath were once among the tallest buildings in the world. I heard a commentator say that “In some ways we’re joining the rest of the world” in that most of the people in the world live with fear.  And all but one or two nations are joining us, in realizing that liberty, diversity and tolerance are worth fighting for.

“GO EAGLES  GOD BLESS AMERICA  COME IN AND SAVE” photographed at a futon outlet just east of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge on route 73 in Pennsauken, NJ.  The football fandom comes first, even before the most common wording of acknowledgment of the September 11th attack), followed by an injunction to come into the store and spend money. This seems to me to be the distillation of the American sentiment: hoorah for our local team; hooray for us (and a supernatural being loves us too); participate in capitalism. In southern New Jersey, I noticed a similar mix of acknowledgement of the disaster and opportunism, young men selling tee shirts saying, “Get Fired Up! Get Strong!” (on one side) and “Wanted bin Laden – Dead or Alive!” (on the other.)

“HONK 4 USA” photographed on Torresdale Avenue in northeast Philadelphia. Twelve days after the terrorist attack, I drove up and down streets of row houses in scrappy, inelegant northeast Philadelphia, finding that here, words were not the manner in which people predominantly expressed their feelings, though flags in windows and flags on cars and other displays of red, white and blue abounded.  These displays included a plastic flag woven into a fence in front of St. Bartholomew School and a freshly-displayed flag painting on Torresdale Avenue in northeast Philadelphia. One of the few verbalizations was this three-word sign tacked to a telephone pole in front of one of those houses on Torresdale Avenue which says simply, “HONK 4 USA,” an abbreviated version of the longer statements of national pride found elsewhere in the region.

In a very different neighborhood of the sprawling five-county region, beside the fence around a suburban development, I photographed, “FLY – A – U.S. – FLAG EVERY DAY.” I particularly like its idiosyncratic punctuation (the dashes and the underlining) for emphasis.

Certainly the telegraphically short messages and non-verbal displays run roughshod over greater complexity that could be conveyed. What does a candle mean?  Does the viewer receive it in the same sense that it is offered? Does it add heat or light? What does the flag mean to those who display it? What does it represent to the average person? Like a sports team whose performance varies from season to season, for whom the management changes, for whom the players change – the fans cheer for the uniform. This may be the spirit in which people fly tattered American flags on their aerials and display flags in the rain and the night.  I steadfastly refused to display yellow ribbon during the Gulf War because I disapproved of the war, but I also wanted to share some symbol publicly.

“SEEK PEACE NOT WAR” photographed on Lincoln Drive in Philadelphia.  I noticed this sign a few days after the attack when raw grief had given way to controversy over how to respond.  By the time I came back a few days later to photograph the sign, it seemed to have been vandalized.

“PEACE IS MORE THAN THE ABSENCE OF WAR” photographed on Callowhill Road, Chalfont, PA.  This was a popular slogan chanted by peace activists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  Though these signs are so brief and simple, it’s interesting how eight words can injects a little more complexity into our thinking of how to act now that we have been attacked on our own soil. Though most of the signs I have seen and photographed have bordered on jingoistic and far fewer have advocated pacifism, it’s also very important to me to include opposing viewpoints, because the answer to speech with which one disagrees is more speech (not force).

“GEORGE U GET THE S.O.B.S. YOU DAMN WELL BRING ‘EM TO OUR COURT!” photographed on County Line Road in Colmar, PA. The man who posted this sign is the writer of hand-lettered road signs of political content who drew me into the project of photographing roadside signs with political content. An arch conservative, he has been posting signs for more than ten years.  I admire the semiotic density of this sign: the president addressed by his first name and his name abbreviated at that, the “U” for “you,” the abbreviation of the profanity “sons of bitches,” “’em” for “them” and assumption that the reader is sufficiently familiar with mutational organizations to recognize the abbreviation for the International Criminal Court.

“YOUR MOTHER BIN LADEN” photographed on Easton Road (route 611) in Warrington, PA.  This sign fairly vibrates with raw anger and yet the writer was unwilling to write, “Fuck your mother,” which seems to be what he was thinking.  Anger is certainly one of the responses that some of us traveled through.  I remember the day it hit me, the Friday of that week. I was running in the park and I found myself fantasizing about being one of the passengers on Flight 93 that crashed in western Pennsylvania. In my fantasy, I feigned hysteria or a seizure and then gouged a hi-jacker’s eye out with my spoon.  I’m not proud of those thoughts, but I thought them.  Interestingly, I observed a number of signs expressing anger.  One on Bustleton Pike in northeast Philadelphia read, “GOD BLESS AMERICA – KILL BIN LADEN” This evoked for me Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” in which he expresses the irony that both sides on any conflict invoke their god to do great harm to the enemy.

“STAND PROUD AND STRONG NEVER FORGET” photographed on Swamp Road (route 313) outside Doylestown, PA.  This injunction to “never forget” is interesting to me because evokes the struggles to find mottos and other assemblages of words to immortalize what will certainly be a life-changing event for many people. December 7, 1941 was the “day that will live in infamy.” This sign similarly evokes “Remember the Alamo.”

“GOD BLESS AMERICA STAND BESIDE HER” photographed on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough (neighborhood of Philadelphia.) There was a second sign, which read, “GOD BLESS AMERICA AS WE MOURN OUR COUNTRY’S LOSS.”  I especially liked the backwards “Y” on the second sign and the fact that fire engine drove up the street just as I was snapping the picture.

Artists and critics are ordinarily very comfortable with being cynical, not caring too deeply about any issue and deriding those who do.  For me, there is little space in these expressions for cynicism. Moreover, I find it comforting to see the words of people who are unselfconscious in sharing their feelings.

There were dozens of signs that I saw that I couldn’t photograph or which were redundant and which I therefore didn’t include here.  Even as you read this, other signs are out there in the countryside and the suburbs saying, Honor Our Fallen Citizens by the Way we Treat each Other,” “Give ‘em Hell George and then send ‘em there,” “We’re with you,” “Pray for our country,” “Pray for the fallen,” “Never forget 9-11-01,” “We shall overcome” and “Keep hope alive.” There is much invocation of prayer. Although not indifferent to why humans find it psychologically and socially valuable to construct the idea of god, I am an atheist, so I choose to have thoughts, not prayers to a supernatural being.  The other people who are living through this with me and the families of those killed continue to be present in my thoughts. I wanted to know how others are experiencing this crisis – which is what inspired me to record their words and share them.

~Adrienne Redd

Originally written Sunday September 30, 2001. Philadelphia, PA

This photographic essay appeared in the Canadian magazine, Wegway and as part of an exhibition in New York City in September 2002 that subsequently toured several American cities, including Detroit and Allentown.

Fallen Walls and Fallen Towers: The Fate of the Nation in a Global World is my seven-year project to make sense of the events of September 11, 2001 and other political surprises, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, in terms of the trajectory of international relations. The Kindle version is available at Amazon and the hard back book should be up within a few hours of this post. Direct sales are available at at Nimble Books

Buy my book. Write a review. Email an announcement to everyone you know. Comment on this blog. ~ Adrienne