On the afternoon of Saturday, August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene was about to land in Manhattan. Dusty Berke, then a resident of Charles Street, began a frantic effort to rescue the nearly 3,000 “9/11” ceramic tiles hanging on the chain link fence surrounding the MTA maintenance yard in MulrySquare at the corner of Greenwich and Seventh Avenues.
Some local storeowners, initially skeptical, then provided boxes and storage space, while about 100 passers-by (Berke called them “Village Angels”) stopped to help. After Irene, Berke and her volunteers rehung the tiles, only to have to repeat the whole process one year later when, with little warning, the MTA began to demolish its maintenance yard in preparation for the subway ventilation plant now occupying the site.
Berke then put the tiles into storage where they remain—“safer than Fort Knox”, she told me. What now? Berke’s vision is to display the tiles, collectively known as “Tiles for America”, in a local gallery. She has started a crowdfunding campaign seeking donations of $9.11 to raise the necessary funds. An ideal location, according to Berke, is the adjacent building most recently occupied by the Empire Szechuan restaurant. For now, there is a rotating display of tiles on the chain link fences surrounding the ventilation plant (as noted by Paul McClure in last month’s WestViewNews). (To donate to the crowdfunding campaign go to 911tilesforamerica.org.)
Along the way, there has been a kerfuffle or two about the tiles. The history of the tiles began when Lorrie Veasey owned a ceramic tile store called “Our Name is Mud” at 59 Greenwich Avenue, next door to the MTA yard. On 9/12, Veasey made a set of memorial tiles, which she hung on the MTA yard’s fence. Veasey was a member of the Contemporary Ceramics Studio Association (CCSA), and CCSA studios around the country began to contribute tiles, as did members of the public, many of them children. As the day for the MTA’s demolition of its yard dawned, CCSA and Christine Quinn (then council speaker) were murmuring about storing the tiles in Albany, but the Berke group got to them first.
While no one “owns” the tiles, CCSA did acknowledge and accept Berke’s possession and control of the tiles in a 2012 letter to her. (For Lorrie Veasey’s account of the history of the project and her comments on the later disputes, see tilesforamerica.blogspot.com.)
And what of the MTA’s role? It says the ventilation plant is complete. It has attached nine sections of new chain link fence to the plant’s walls (the building has three exposures) on which to hang the tiles. Each section is lit from above after dark. The MTA denies there is any liaison, official, or otherwise anyone wishing to host events, display light shows, or decorate the structure. It considers the walls of the plant a public space.
Dusty Berke views the tiles not as cause for celebrations, or as an excuse for promotions and sales, but as the Village’s very own remembrance of 9/11. Mulry Square was a center of people wanting to do something—anything—that day. Hundreds stood on line outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in what became a vain attempt to be useful. Though many of the tiles came from far away, she says, Mulry Square is their home.
—Clive I. Morrick