The P.S. 234 gymnasium, two blocks from Ground Zero, was nearly empty when I entered to vote. This is the same gym where my children played basketball, the same gym where they waited for evacuation orders on September the 11th. Except for a woman police officer, and several volunteers, the space seemed unexpectedly vacuous, as I had in mind long lines being formed in other parts of the country.
There was only one lady in front of me in the “A-M” line, and she tried several names before she had to move across the gym to the “N-Z” line. She had just gotten divorced, and her frustration could be felt in her silence as she moved away. As my turn approached, I put forward my driver’s license before I stated my name. I’ve learned over time that “Fujimura” is better communicated by visible means, rather than audible. I helped the officials to find my name in the black voting registration booklet, and began to lean forward to sign my name. The lady looked up at the next person on line.
“Libeskind…L,I,B,E,S…” I heard this voice from behind me.
“Libe…what?” The lady asked. As Daniel Libeskind started to spell his name again, more slowly, this time, I turned to face one of the most important architects of our time.
Daniel Libeskind was chosen over many other world-class architects vying for the design to replace the World Trade Towers. His design, which features a Freedom Tower soaring to be 1776 feet high, seemed to me the most transcendent of all the design ideas. Since the selection, the design process has been co-opted by a political process with the owner of the towers bickering with local and Port Authority and MTA officials. Now, although six major architects Frank Gehry (multi-arts complex), Santiago Calatrava (transportation hub), and David Childs (appointed by owner Larry Silverstein’s choice to work with the Libeskind design), and Arad and Walker Memorial Park, are now trying to work together in the same site, Libeskind’s design and vision will still be the most visible and important aspect of the new skyline.
Small in stature, wearing his long, square glasses and black outfit, he smiled broadly as I introduced myself. I complemented him on the designs of crystal-like towers, which are now being built only a few blocks away from the school. I told him I am a local artist, and gave him the invitation I happened to have in my pocket (artists: always carry your invitations cards!) for a current exhibit, also a few blocks away.
I told the poll workers that he is a very renowned architect, and started to help them with his name. “You are an artist?” asked one of the workers, still quizzical, to Mr. Libeskind. He said, very kindly pointing to me, “No, but he is,” and showed the lady my invitation card. He told me afterwards, outside the school, that the design of the card fascinated the poll workers (a photo of the front of the card is above, a collaboration with Ryann Cooley, a photographer friend). I thanked him for his generous spirit and as we parted, I noted how the fiery Japanese maple in the schoolyard was lit in the quiet light of this TriBeCa morning.
At the news conference in February of 2003 after his design was chosen for the site, Daniel Libeskind compared the “slurry walls” that surrounded the base of the towers to the resiliency of democracy. “The foundations withstood the unimaginable trauma of the destruction,” he stated then, “and stand as eloquent as the Constitution itself asserting the durability of Democracy and the value of individual life.”
Thus, two creative artists with strange names did cast their votes this morning, two blocks away from Ground Zero. I was fortunate that both of our names were hard enough to spell to have enough time for a genuine conversation with an important architect. No matter what the future holds, the voting process spells out names of countless faces, one by one, and all votes will be counted equal after all. Perhaps in that sense, it is good that the poll worker did not recognize us. They do not have to know who we are: they just have to identify our unique names in the black book, two artists trying, even with their votes, to honor those anonymous names etched in the slurry walls of democracy.
Purchase Refractions: a Journey of Art, Faith and Culture here, my post 9/11 essays including a longer essay on Libeskind based on this entry