On 10 July 2007, The New York Observer published an abbreviated version of the following essay arguing that it's time for the flags in Grand Central's main hall to come down. You can read the Observer essay here.
Of the more than 1,100 New Yorkers who responded to
a Gothamist poll based on the Observer essay, fully two-thirds agreed that the Grand Central flags have overstayed their welcome.
:: :: ::
Unbidden, they came. Not in response
to any appeal, official or otherwise,
but as visceral, desperate, speechless inarticulations of solidarity and resolve.
In a matter of hours after 9/11 morning, there were thousands of them, and they were everywhere in New York — on storefronts; in building lobbies; on bumpers, subway cars and lapels; lining the avenues.
Among all those impromptu American flags were two
placed in the iconic main hall of Grand Central Terminal: The first, a flagpole standard, soon was joined by an enormous 40-foot-by-20-foot banner, vertically suspended over the center of the room. Smaller flags have been hung in Grand Central's main hall before, especially during times of war, according to Metro-North spokeswoman Margie Anders, but a flag of this size — nearly four stories tall — is "basically unprecedented".
Both flags hang there still. But they can no longer mean
what they meant in the days and weeks after 9/11. Now, four-plus years into a war that, according to a recent CBS poll, more than three-quarters of Americans think is going "badly" and more than 60 percent think we should never have started in the first place, the flags at Grand Central don't unite us; they divide us. This is only the most obvious reason they must come down.
:: :: ::
HERE'S another flag story. It took place in my
hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky.
Having left Owensboro for college in 1983 — and never expecting to get back there much, apart from whatever visits the life of a good son entailed (this was, after all, Owensboro, Kentucky) — I found myself "lodged" there again, between the summers of 1990 and 1991.
I'd just graduated from the University of St. Andrews
in Scotland and, having spent the previous four years abroad, I decided to take a year off before jumping back in to graduate studies in religion and theory. Since
a job in Nashville or Louisville (the cities closest to Owensboro) was not forthcoming, Owensboro became the unlikely site of my repatriation — a repatriation that was about, among other things, religion.
I was raised Southern Baptist. But while the relatively
small church I attended in my childhood was extremely conservative, it wasn't what "fundamentalist" has
come to signify over the last 25 years. It was more about the "old time religion." And, especially given what a Democratic stronghold Kentucky was until 1994, "victory in Jesus" had nothing to do the Republican Party. Anyone, including my parents, still warming the pews of the Hall Street Baptist Church in 1990 would have told you the same thing.
The man who occupied the pulpit thought differently.
C. Richard Dendler had been installed as the pastor of Hall Street in 1982 — about four years into the meticulously scripted political takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists aligned with the cultural right wing of the Republican Party. The intervening years had seen the consolidation of fundamentalist control of the Convention. And while Dendler had not, in 1982, disclosed his connections to this movement, it was clear by 1990 that he had always seen Hall Street as his ticket to glory within the new Southern Baptist ecology of power. This meant, for starters, that he would have to turn Hall Street into a megachurch. For it surely was no accident that every fundamentalist pastor with influence had one.
Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery,
and one of the easiest ways to at least look like a megachurch was to hang a large American flag in the sanctuary. The flag was, in so many ways, the perfect symbol of a Christian fundamentalism that had worked hard to blur the line between Christianity and militaristic nationalism in the guise of patriotism. No longer was the "God and Country" service limited to the Fourth of July; it was every Sunday morning of the year. Never was this more true than during the military escalation leading up the Gulf War of January 1991.
So it was that, sometime in the fall of 1990, Richard Dendler, flaunting even the pretense of church protocol — his philosophy: do first, ask later (or not) — prevailed upon a few able-bodied men of the church to hang a large American flag directly over the pulpit. Not a Christian cross over where the Christian gospel was to be preached, but an American flag. It was physically impossible to cast one's eyes toward the pulpit, without first seeing the stars and stripes.
This was no longer the church that my parents knew. By
this time, in fact, nearly everyone there had lined up for or against the pastor, and many of my parents' closest friends — people I had known all my life — had long since left. And yet, my parents, having been active at Hall Street for nearly 40 years — my mother as church pianist, my father as a deacon — were loath to be edged out by someone they regarded as a pretender. The least I could do was to join them on Sunday mornings, if for no other reason than to make them feel less alone in their own house.
Like virtually everyone else who walked into the church that first Flag Sunday, I was dumbfounded. I took one look at it, clenched my teeth, and didn't stop clenching until I walked out sometime during the first hymn. The next day, I sent a letter to every deacon in the church, imploring them to take the flag down, and explaining why. If they hadn't figured out a way to resist this pastor after eight years — and the large majority of them were squarely against him — they clearly needed a push.
The following Sunday, I returned, hoping to see that my letter had done some good. Alas, the flag was still there. I made it through the first two hymns this time; next, the offering plates would be passed.
Traditionally, the offering concluded with the ushers walking the plates up the center aisle, the congregation standing, and the choir leading everyone in singing the Doxology — "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" — as the ushers placed the plates on the altar table. But on this day, right at the big "Render unto God" moment, the choir belted out "God Bless the U.S.A.," and we were all expected to join in while the flag looked on.
When I returned a couple of months later, it was Richard Dendler who — having seen the writing on the wall — had left the building, left the church, and left town.
:: :: ::
LIKE any very large painting or sculpture in a public space, the flag at Hall Street — and the ones in Grand Central's main hall — are examples of large-scale iconography.
How do large-scale icons influence public spaces?
Icons visually define their spaces. Planners often describe any public space in terms of the amount of floor (or ground) area it provides for sitting, walking, playing, having a picnic, holding a greenmarket, or staging a rally. But a public space, like any other space, is never just a floor; it's always an entire room, defined by its walls and ceiling — literally so, if it's an indoor space like Grand Central; figuratively, with buildings around and the sky above, if it's outdoors.
In both cases, we see and experience the room three-
dimensionally — side to side and bottom to top. We experience the space whole.
This is why one doesn't — and can't — visually separate a large, prominent icon within a public space from the space itself.
Think of the free speech argument for more liberal television broadcast standards: If you don't like it or think you might be offended, change the channel. Today, at Grand Central, this isn't an option. The flags aren't one more channel, they're part of the screen — and because they're part of the screen, they fundamentally alter the picture itself.
For decades, Tony Rosenthal's 1967 sculpture, "The
Alamo" — better known among New Yorkers as "the cube" — has presided over Astor Place, the pedestrian crossroads of New York's East Village. Such is the anchoring and defining presence of the sculpture that when the Parks Department unceremoniously removed it in March 2005 — the City did not explain until later that it was only borrowing the sculpture for a long-overdue restoration — residents and other neighborhood travelers were, quite literally, thrown off balance. They did not regain their footing or recover their sense of place until the cube was returned eight months later
and Astor Place was, once again, Astor Place.
The reverse is equally true. When a prominent new object is introduced into a familiar old space, the effect on those who use the space can be jarring, even alienating, as when the flag went up at Hall Street.
Sometimes, of course, a large-scale sculpture or painting is exactly what a public space needs to energize it; calm it; or provide the spatial "center of gravity" that an otherwise diffuse, even confusing, public space needs to make it "legible." Positive examples abound.
But in both cases, the effect of such a new object is
never merely decorative. It recreates the space itself.
Grand Central's main hall is now, in virtue of the two flags that hang there, a different room than it was before 9/11.
Icons emotionally define their spaces. One doesn't ordinarily think of a church sanctuary as a public
space. But architecturally and, for want of a better word, phenomenologically, that's what it is. A sanctuary may be a private public space — a space for a "private public" — but, for those who use it, it's still a public space.
Hall Street is a community of believers rooted in a
tradition that already has an icon, the Christian cross. The Hall Street-ers also happen to be Baptists, a group whose hallmark contribution to American religious and civic practice has been its dogged insistence on the separation of church and state. So to make an American flag the central icon in a Baptist sanctuary, of all places, was just absurd.
But are the two flags now hanging at Grand Central any more fitting? The received wisdom, surely, is that the American flag is always appropriate for such a truly public space. Let's think about that.
Grand Central's main hall is the closest we come in New York to a town square. It's a piazza with a roof on top. And teeming in, out, across, and through this piazza, at any given moment, are hundreds of people of every nationality and creed.
Soaring high above this perpetual scene, the barrel-vaulted ceiling, in luminous teal — etched with constellations and embedded with tiny lights for stars — offers one of the best sky views in the City. Looking up at these plaster heavens, you can do what one does with a few spare minutes and a patch of blue: Tell the sky your thoughts and hopes, then listen for what bounces back down to the ears of your soul. A rare serendipity in Midtown Manhattan.
What makes Grand Central exceptional is that it's the one place anywhere in New York where you can stand right in the middle of the most careening rush of human ambition and diversity, and yet be completely alone in your reverie, This is the urban embodiment of the American idea of welcome and possibility, and it's what has always made Grand Central's main hall a great American room.
Icons must be seen to be felt. It was an American flag that kept the Baptists at Hall Street from seeing the pulpit, their central icon, on its own terms.
For Grand Central's entire history, two icons have defined the essential character of its main hall: the great gilded, four-faced clock below and the sky ceiling — one of the glories of New York — above. And yet, today, our view of the Grand Central sky is forcibly distracted, mediated and, ultimately, blocked by a competing icon: a four-story-tall American flag.
:: :: ::
HOW, you ask, could the American flag be a problem in an "American room"?
The flag always is a contested symbol, since it stands both for general national ideals — freedom, diversity, the rule of law, self-determination — and specific national policies being carried out in the name of those ideals.
For those who see President Bush's war policy as an expression of national ideals, Grand Central's flags "hold together" — they are true.
But for the solid and increasing majority who oppose the
war — and whose opposition signifies a more generalized shame over U.S. state policy in Iraq and elsewhere — national ideals are especially hard to decipher in the Grand Central flags, which lord over the main hall as corporatized, Orwellian symbols of state power and pride.
For many — and for me — those two flags are billboards
for the war.
:: :: ::
A PUBLIC space is a blank canvas for the "art" of public life, a canvas on which the "painting" changes every second. But just as the fabric, texture, and thickness of a canvas determines the quality of the painting, public spaces also create their publics: We are influenced by the spaces we use.
Scale and beauty aside, the added influence of Grand Central's main hall lies in the fact that thousands of people every day cannot choose not to walk through this room. Understanding this, New York State's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) — Metro-North's parent — obviously believed that the flags would transform Grand Central's main hall into a public incubator for the local and national esprit de corps that coalesced shortly after 9/11.
But what about now, when the failures of Iraq and of the "war on terror" have eviscerated every trace of that solidarity? Or, looking at the military impulse that has always been in the post-9/11 mix, is the better question: Solidarity for what?
Addressing the country on 9/11 evening, Bush called
the terrorist attacks "acts of terror" and "acts of mass murder." The next day, he branded the attacks as "acts of war," which the New York Times reported as "a distinction intended to lay the military, political and psychological groundwork for military action" — specifically, "bombing attacks by manned aircraft" and "special forces troops on the ground" that would "broaden potential retaliation beyond the low-risk unmanned cruise missile strikes of the past."
On September 14, after the U.S. Senate authorized Bush to order military strikes, Bush told rescue workers at ground zero that "the people who knocked down these buildings will hear from all of us soon." Over the next week, national public opinion polls showed support for military retaliation ramping up to more than 90 percent. American bombs began falling on Afghanistan on October 7.
So by the time the MTA hung the large flag over Grand Central's main hall — the agency didn't have a four-story-tall American flag just lying around; it had to order one, according to Margie Anders — the United States had been on a war footing for days, if not weeks.
Grand Central's flags always were at least partly about rallying national unity for vengeance and war.*
:: :: ::
ONCE the flags were up, it presumably didn't take the
MTA long to recognize that leaving them up also was good for business. The flags feed a certain mythology
of New York as the land of 9/11 retributionists — a mythology that always has had less to do with many New Yorkers than with the hordes of heartland tourists who saw 9/11 on TV and who believe that the pro-war Rudy Giuliani actually is "America's Mayor."
The New York Times observed, barely more than a week after 9/11, that "[t]he drumbeat for war, so loud in the rest of the country, is barely audible on the streets of New York," with many "worried that the rest of the country, encouraged by the White House and the news media, was driving the nation toward a large-scale conflict."
Within hours of 9/11, the southern end of New York's
Union Square Park — initially, the northern border of a downtown "frozen zone" quarantined to everyone but residents; business owners and employees; government officials; military security; and rescue workers — had been transformed into a round-the-clock memorial shrine, peace vigil, and anti-war rally that lasted for weeks.
On October 8, the day after the U.S. bombing of
Afghanistan started, 10,000 New Yorkers protested the
move by marching from the park to the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square. Hundreds of thousands marched here in January 2003 and again in February 2003, in the wake of Congress's October 2002 vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. And in August 2004, half a million endured sultry mid-summer heat to protest the Republicans who had come to town to rubber-stamp another four years of George Bush.
The week before the August 2004 march, a New York Times poll had only 25 percent of New Yorkers saying that the U.S. ever should have gone to Iraq in the first place. How many thought that the war in Iraq was "worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq"? 17 percent.
That was nearly three years ago.
And yet, tourists still flock to New York's twin shrines of patriotic spectacle: Grand Central to the north, ground zero to the south.
That gets them to lunch. What's next? An afternoon
of (more) shopping? Dinner at the Times Square Applebee's? Whichever, New York's latest initiates to the Church of 9/11, flush with all this "New York"-ness, retire to their hotel beds in the hope and belief that, god, it's great to be an American, as Randy Newman, wherever he is, smiles and shakes his head.
But how do they sleep on that? What connection can
they make between the flag and ground zero, at a time
of ever-waning support for a war that George Bush insists on connecting to ground zero and the flag?
:: :: ::
THE fact is, if putting the flags at Grand Central was an act of raw, complicated humanity, leaving them there now is mostly an act of politics — or, at the very least, political correctness — that reduces the large flag, in particular, to a fetish of knee-jerk triumphalism.
Of course, triumphalism always is delusory. It was the United States, after all, who, in the late-cold-war ambitions of the Carter and Reagan administrations, financed, armed and trained the Afghani mujahideen — which was itself organized and financed by Osama bin-Laden — to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 1980s. And it was the United States who, once the Soviets had pulled out, left Afghanistan to devolve into chaos and warlordism.
The ignorance of most Americans about this history made it easy for American politicians and journalists of all descriptions to push the idea, in the days, weeks, months, and years after 9/11, that 9/11 was terrorism's original sin and that America was blameless in the fall. This enabling fiction continues to underwrite and sustain in America a low-level siege mentality of fear and aggression — a mentality which, by now, is rooted in a virtual theology of permanent American victimhood, a theology that these same politicians and journalists can use to justify every American response to the very existence of terror, be it real or perceived.
Indeed, to the extent that Grand Central's current flags ask to be read in this way, they are the flags of a false religion.
But don't hear me saying that there shouldn't be American flags in public spaces, including at Grand Central. In fact, try this: Take the current flags down and plant a single flagpole in the floor of Grand Central's main hall. Make it tall. Raise a simple flag to half-mast, and leave it there until every last combat veteran in Iraq either is redeployed or comes home.
That will bear a more profound and truthful witness to American patriotism than the flags that now hang there
And it will clear the view, for too long obstructed,
of the very "sky" that always has helped to make Grand Central such a profoundly American space. It is an American-ness that those who pass under this sky have, for generations, felt on a deeply spiritual level.
It is an American-ness that has never required literal flags to validate it.
* There is one (and perhaps only one) other clearly documented case
of an extremely large American flag being hung at Grand Central. It too
was used to translate fear, angst and aggression into a spectacle of good old-fashioned American boosterism. In late 1957, shortly after the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the U.S. Army's Redstone nuclear missile was briefly displayed in Grand Central's main hall as part of a promotional campaign to calm America's cold-war nerves. A flag comparable to the largest flag now at Grand Central was used as a backdrop.