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Civic and Sacred Sites in New York City: Education in Death, Mourning and Hope

by James Shields - February 01, 2013

The purpose of this essay is to provide the knowledge and tools to become aware, then observe, and finally to engage, intellectually and morally, with civic and sacred sites and memorials as individuals and as communities, educationally and politically.


In its relatively short history the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center in New York City has become a major public site for communal mourning. In its first year more than 4 million people visited it. In an interview in The Wall Street Journal (2012) the Memorials President remarked, All these visitors are helping to preserve the memory of the dead.

Thousands of People have not only experienced the September 11 Memorial in person, but have viewed it through the more than two-dozen new television documentaries made since the 2001 attack. A review of these films in The New York Times (2012) concludes that the future of September 11, 2001 on television is to join the life of Hitler and the tank battles of World War II as part of the sub-genre of historical violence thats always somewhere on cable.

Human suffering, loss and death are building blocks of civic culture and sacred tradition. As Thomas Lynch (2006) reminds us What separates us from other living, dying human beings is that death matters to us. Deaths door is always ajar.

An important function of civic and sacred sites and memorials is to deal with this quandary of loss from severe physical destruction and death. Many, especially the families and friends of victims, visit them to seek consolation for the suffering, chaos and disorder they feel, and the assurance it can be controlled.

These sites have become important public classrooms outside schools for teaching civic and moral values. They tell stories about heroes and villains in which personal and societal battles between what is perceived as good and as evil is told in the context of the fundamental fear and terror all experience in their daily lives. Visitors inevitably come away from these sites with a wrenching story about a cast of angels and devils featured in the historical fragments of human drama enshrined there.

Historically, education scholars, practitioners and policymakers focus research and reform agendas primarily on classrooms and school systems.  The reality is education is a major function of all social settings and institutions, in families, religions, the world of work, government programs, sports and cultural events and, notably in this essay, civic and sacred sites. (Shields, 1973, 1974)

For all New Yorkers the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 was a deeply felt personal and public experience. Personally, since they were completed in 1973, the Towers were never too far from the sight lines of my life. They were my compass to anchor my daily movements as I crisscrossed the multitude of distinct urban neighborhoods in Manhattan.

My own neighborhood, the Upper Westside, is an approximately sixty-five-block area, bounded by two powerful forces of nature, the Hudson River to the west, and Central Park for a long stretch to the east. This is where I attended university and have lived and worked at the City University of New York and Columbia University for over fifty years.

At times I found myself reading the Towers as a sacred text and experiencing them as Paul Goldberger (2004) described them, &spectacular sparkles of light, softy modulated with a gentleness and quietness that masked their size. In these rich moments, spiritual in their impact, they were architectural jewels.

Unexpectedly, as Goldberger found, the Towers at times appeared to be one huge, up sided, open book. At other times they seemed to beckon onlookers to dance with them as they shamelessly vibrated, in brilliant light, and sway in the wind at sunset.

Paradoxically, at other times, the Towers, in comparison to the Hudson River, Riverside Park, and the sky, looked like awkward, definitely brutish giants on the landscape. They occupied two competing realms; one, aesthetically inspiring architecture; the other, economic monoliths, profanely materialistic and commercial.


A few years after September 11, 2001, sitting on a pier jutting into the Hudson River at West 70 Street, I looked south to the empty sky where the Towers had been. I recalled the day I watched plumes of white smoke bellowing out from the site that looked like an endless spray of white whales playfully assembling and disassembling themselves out of the vapor of drifting cloud formations on the shoreline of the 16.2 acre World Center complex.  

Herman Melvilles Moby Dick (1992) and Captain Ahab came to mind. Since then this nineteenth century literary classic has become for me a codex for unraveling why the attack took place, and for healing sadness around the loss of life and destruction of the Towers.

Architecturally, I would have been more impressed if the recently completed National September 11 Memorial had been designed as an upwardly directed shape that subtly suggested lurching white whales. Instead it is two dark, downward, reflecting pools, ringed by falling water. This idea was further strengthened when a visitor next to me at the Memorial asked me, Whether or not I thought it would have been better if our eyes had been directed toward Heaven instead of downward to Hell?

In terms of understanding why the World Trade Center was attacked, Andrew Delblanco (2005) also found relevant meaning in the narrative details of Moby Dick, notably, the brutal search and trading of oil, a commodity perceived to be indispensable for lifes basics, warmth, illumination and travel, and the use of slaughter as a vehicle to triumph over the wealth and power of perceived enemies.

Columbia University professor, literary critic and theorist Edward Saids (2010) view of the meaning of the narrative of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick parallels Delbancos. It is a story of demigods, Said claims, who stop at nothing in their hunt for material resources and domination and destruction of anyone and everything in the way.

In terms of Moby Dick metaphors, Said describes Captain Ahab as persuasive an orator as Hitler and Napoleon. These are men, Said says, who had a genius for dominating others and enlisting them in the destruction of those identified as devils to be destroyed at any cost.

The choice of the word orator is a telling one. It has roots in the Latin word, orare, which means discourse, speaking and prayer. It embodies ancient Greek and Roman philosophers understanding of the symbiotic relationship between civic dialogue and the sacred, whether conveyed verbally or in the material culture.   

This kind of rhetoric, which functions way beyond the mere expression of simple grief and mourning, clearly came into play in the overall response to the Trade Center tragedy in the media and among many political leaders. Often the rhetoric was filled with angry hate and demands to respond with aggressive revenge for the slaughter and destruction that took place. This rhetoric, as if by a magic twist of hand, somehow transmuted into war in Iraq at a cost of tens of thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars for which American taxpayers continue to be indebted.

Alternatively, more conciliatory and compassionate responses were made and were added to the public debate about what should be the overarching story to employ as both the rationale for a national response, and for the core narrative to be fabricated into the design of memorials dedicated to representing the event.

Among those who advocated a less harsh response, were the Dalai Lama and his disciple, Robert Thurman, Columbia University professor and author of Inner Revolution, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness. (1998) It was their belief that a crisis of this magnitude should be seized as an educational opportunity to move society toward limiting the enormous importance given to hate, reckless consumption and power, and the wanton taking of life.

Theirs was not the dominant civic and spiritual message that would finally emerge as the narrative of the majority of national leaders and the general public. Instead the response became one of continuing, obsessive consumption and accelerated military adventurism on all sides in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere.


The National September 11 Memorial is about more than geography and architectural design. It is about more than a place to mourn human loss and physical destruction. It is about more than telling a story, whether pessimistic or optimistic or bitterly hateful or compassionate about national heroes and an enemy. Fundamentally, it is an educational opportunity.

Civic and sacred sites and memorials function, implicitly and explicitly, as educators. All kinds of lessons can be based on these sites. At their best they teach about the meaning of life, death, and hope, and the challenge of relating to others compassionately across diverse faiths, political ideologies, and cultural groups, and to the natural world.

A compelling place to explore this role is through an exploration of the history of the earliest individual, institutional and community responses to the destruction and loss of life that immediately followed September 11, 2001. At the outset of the fiery destruction of the Trade Center, New Yorkers found themselves spontaneously expressing their grief publicly with others. It was an extraordinary moment of interfaith, cross-cultural communion. Friends and strangers from multiple civic cultures and religious traditions joined together effortlessly.

Suddenly, the World Trade site itself and an array of hastily composed, satellite sites, nearby and scattered throughout the City became places of pilgrimage where people gathered together for prayer and reflection, remembrance, catharsis and healing focused on the pain of loss of physical property and of human life.

Shrines were quickly etched into the architecture of New York City and richly furnished and decorated. Photographs of the dead of every age, color and ethnicity were posted; candles were lit; messages were scribbled on pieces of paper; flowers were strewn on the ground; stuffed animals added to the mix silently returned passing glances; incense burned; American flags, large and small, were in evidence everywhere.

Some of these ad hoc shrines remained for some time afterward as semi-permanent fixtures on the urban landscape. One in particular, a display of dozens of hand decorated ceramic tiles covering a chain link fence around an empty lot on the corner of Seventh Avenue and West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village, remained in place until 2012. The tiles read like a Litany of Saints and a Pledge of Allegiance to the United States. They were a soulful dirge for the dead.

Today, both inside and outside New York City, similar sites can be found in increasing numbers in the form of roadside memorials built by loved ones of car accident victims replete with flowers and crosses and other spiritual icons. They are cries of bereavement to those who pass and pleas to all drivers to practice safe and morally righteous driving habits (Urbana 2006).

These and other sacred pilgrimage sites worldwide on the margins of mainstream religious practice and with loose institutional ties are similar to those civic and cross-religious faith experiences thousands of New Yorkers embraced in spontaneous outpourings at impromptu sites all over the City in the days and weeks after the Trade Center tragedy.

They are a response, Harvey Cox (1998) says, to a deep spiritual need to undertake pilgrimages near and far, even for those who are not active churchgoers in their home communities. Thomas Lynch (2006) says, in his review of Sandra Gilberts Deaths Door, there is a widespread shift in the cultural meaning of life and death which has increasingly distanced many individuals from their ethnic, religious and community ties that has left them ritually adrift, metaphorically impoverished and existentially vexed.

As important as the satellite sacred and civic places were in New York City, the major pilgrimage to mourn the victims of September 11 was always the original site with the two pits where the north and south towers had been. They are the epicenter, a kind of Holy of Holies.  In the early period after the attacks, the scene around the memorial felt like a Wailing Wall. The world beyond seemed trivial.

Sandra Gilbert in Deaths Door (2006) says, It was a phenomenon all New York City inhabitants lived with for months after September 11, ingesting it; their eyes smeared with it; their throats raw with it. She describes those around Ground Zero with heads bowed and sobbing in sorrow, as they gazed into the vast, smoldering reality before them. They faced and felt the reality of death of others of all backgrounds, publically in silence, as they inhaled the incinerated remains of the victims still drifting in the air.

Personally, the memorial pits strike me as ritual bowels, a kind of spiritual offering of innocence capriciously brutalized. It reminds me of how perplexed and shocked I was as a child at Sunday Mass when the priest turned to the congregation, splendidly robed and holding bread and a gold cup above his head said, This is the Body of Christ. This is His Blood. Both experiences, as a child and on 9/11 generate profound insight into the mystery of death; the meaning of life, and the power metaphor plays in sacred ritual in transforming evil into goodness and destruction into rebirth.


Civic and sacred sites serve an array of functions. On their deepest level they (1) reflect the importance of death in human consciousness; (2) respond to the basic human drive to create sites and monuments to mourn; (3) tell stories which can stimulate both aggression and violence and, conversely, hopeful and compassionate messages; and (4) broaden cultural understanding and connection to others and to the natural world.

They also serve as vehicles for teaching deeper and more complex philosophical and sociological concepts, for example, (1) the non-existence of emptiness; (2) temporality and change; and (3) social and religious demographics and trends. A vast literature explores these concepts of which James Glanz and Eric Liptons City in the Sky, The Rise and Fall of The World Trade Center (2003) is a good introduction.  

In terms of using such concepts as visibility and emptiness and the non-existence of emptiness as teaching tools, inevitably, we confront the paradox that while the human sense of emptiness exists, there is a good possibility that actual emptiness, as an absolute void, does not. Michio Kaku, (In Tune&, 2006) a City University of New York colleague and physicist and co-founder of string field theory, describes a string so tiny that it cannot be seen with any instruments. The so-called nothingness, he tells us, is full of interactions. The energy of nothingness, he says, makes up 73% of the universe, and humans are made of elements that represent only 0.03% of the universe. We are an anomaly, he says.

His views resonate with those expressed in the ancient Chinese spiritual text, Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell, 1988) attributed to the old master, Lao-tzu, who encapsulates this paradox poetically. The Tao is like a well, used but never used up&it is like the eternal void&hidden, but always present. The implication of this concept is that there is no void, all life is interconnected, and every action sets in motion a chain of endless reactions.


Another important concept for teaching and learning about the National September 11 Memorial and other civic and sacred sites and monuments is the concept of individual and institutional temporality and permanence, stated more simply, change. The implication of this concept is that life is diverse and dynamic, not monolithic, nor static, as so many believe.

Civic and sacred memorials and sites change over time, as do the religious, family, educational, governmental, commercial, and sports, civic and cultural institutions that create and maintain them. They move in and out of a range of distinct stages. They come into existence, grow, decline, and experience what is perceived as death. They experience their own seasons of spring, summer, winter and fall.

An excellent example of this concept can be found on a local level in my neighborhood in the history of All Angels Episcopal Church on West End Avenue in the Seventies. The church had given the neighborhood an architectural richness and breath of aesthetic and spiritual grace.  It bespoke promise of a better and richer life on another plane. Yet in recent memory it was totally demolished and replaced by a non-descript, box-like high-rise apartment house. As I would a good friend, I mourn its demise.

All that remains is All Angels magnificently carved stone pulpit now on display across town in the atrium of The American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum. Its presence there is a sermon in stone of temporality, impermanence and change. It silently reminds visitors of the transformation of All Angels from a destination as a sacred site to museum artifact.

Some civic and sacred sites, buildings and monuments completely disappear. Others simply morph into public museums, tourist attractions, and showcases for pageantry, musical performances and cultural events. In some instances, they become residences and commercial properties. Ultimately, all, some sooner, others later, fade into other forms and functions, or fall from sight entirely.

The study of this process is one of the most critical and interesting educational ones in the study of civic and sacred memorials, as it incorporates and cuts across the connectedness of all individuals and every major social group and institution. As a result it is a powerfully educational tool in strengthening the possibilities for international understanding and world peace locally, nationally and globally.


Cox, H. (1998). In the presence of the sacred room. Journal of Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture, No.1, p. 8-9, 25.

Delbanco, A. (2005). Melville: his world and his work. New York, NY: Alfred Knopf.

Glanz, J., & Lipton, Eric. (2003). City in the sky, the rise and fall of the world trade center. New York, NY: Times Books.

Goldberger, P. (2004). Up from ground zero, politics, architecture, and the rebuilding of New York. NY: Random House.


In tune with strings: michio kaku explores a unified theory of the cosmos. (2006). Chart/TIAA-CREF, winter, p. 29-30.

Lynch, T. (2006). Review of deaths door, modern dying and the ways we grieve by Sandra M. Gilbert, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006 in The New York Times Book Review, February 26, p.16.

Manhattan, memorial hits milestone with 4 million visitors. (2012). The Wall Street Journal, August 10, p. A15.

Melville, H. (1992). Moby dick or the white whale. New York, NY: Modern Library.

New 9/11 programs are a british task. (2012). The New York Times, September 7, 2012.

Said, E. (2010). Introduction in Herman Melville and Edward W. Said. Moby dick or the White whale. America Paperback Classics. New York, NY: Library of America.

Said, E. (2000). Reflections on exile and other essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shields, J. (1973). The crisis in education is outside the classroom. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Foundation.

Shields, J. (1974). Foundations of education, dissenting views. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

Thurman, R. (1998). Inner revolution, life, liberty, and the pursuit of real happiness. Forward by Dalai Lama. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Urbina, I. (2006). As roadside memorials multiply, a second look. The New York Times, February 6, 2006. p. A19.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 01, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17014, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:01:44 PM

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About the Author
  • James Shields
    City College, CUNY
    JAMES SHIELDS is Emeritus Professor and founder and past Director, Japan Initiative, The City College, CUNY. Most recently, as Visiting Professor and Project Director, CEO&I, Teachers College Columbia University, gave seminars on Sacred Architecture and Cultural Meaning in Spoleto, Italy and Temple Emanu-El, New York City. Author of numerous publications including Japanese Schooling: Patterns of Socialization, Equality and Political Control, listed in 10 Top Published Books by Penn State Press, and past Vice Chair and Board member, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
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