A Skyline That Won't Go Away

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It was a small detail, but one that had to be reckoned with. Louis Rukeyser, one of America's most popular economic commentators, had set an image of the New York skyline atop his financial newsletter for years. In the center were the World Trade Center's twin towers.

In his October issue, Rukeyser informed readers he would be eliminating the storied buildings since their depiction was no longer accurate. That's when the award-winning host of PBS' "Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser" says he learned a quick lesson in the power of visual symbolism.

In a rare outpouring, readers by the hundreds urged Rukeyser to keep the venerated skyline the way it was. Popular sentiment triumphed over a dark reality, and the towers remained. But in a bow to events, Rukeyser added an American flag and the phrase "Lest We Forget" to the newsletter's logo.

"I wanted to do the right thing, and I think I did," said Rukeyser. "What really touched me was one reader who said, 'Would you remove the photograph from the mantel of a loved one you lost?'"

While Rukeyser stood fast by the icons of capitalism, in the traumatic days following the attacks it seemed as if almost nobody else would.The people behind a host of commercials, computer games, television shows and movies demonstrated an Orwellian-like purging of images of the twin towers.

The well-publicized edits were performed with the noblest of intentions--to avoid provoking further feelings of grief, not only for the victims' families but also for a saddened nation. There was a sense that if the images were removed, so too would be the pain.

But whatever initial sensitivity there was seems to have been replaced by an urgent desire to see and even display the pre-Sept. 11 New York skyline.

Motivated by what appears to be a complex mix of grief, nostalgia and defiance, many Americans are now bothered by the alterations.

"I don't think it does justice to the towers or to the victims," said Ed Prete, a New York City Web designer whose memorial to the World Trade Center at http://www.thewtcmemorial.com features the buildings and has garnered more than 30 million hits. "That's almost to say they didn't exist because they aren't there now. I don't think it's right."

The dilemma over the images has been most obvious in the cinema. The buildings were digitally erased from September releases such as "Zoolander" and "Serendipity."

In addition to the desire not to cause further grief, it was argued that the bigger-budget fall films were light romantic comedies and the sight of the ill-fated buildings so soon after the disaster would ruin the intended mood.

The filmmakers were far from being alone: A spate of video games and television shows such as "Spin City," "Friends" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" blotted out the skyscrapers as well.

Other filmmakers whose works were shot in New York City before the attacks, however, have been adamant about retaining the buildings.

Director Cameron Crowe never considered removing the World Trade Center from the recently released "Vanilla Sky," a movie with darker themes than his previous works.

The Oscar winner regards his latest effort as "a tribute" to events and defends the skyscraper's inclusion as being consistent with the characters' vision of New York.

"We filmed it a year ago, and the people that were in that building were like the actors in the movie," explained Crowe to PBS talk show host Charlie Rose. "And we made the movie together, and I wanted them to stay."

Likewise, actor-director Edward Burns also refused to alter his film "Sidewalks of New York," which was shot almost entirely in lower Manhattan. (But Burns did agree to change the film's promotional poster, which originally showed Burns and co-star Heather Graham behind the World Trade Center.)

"Nobody wanted to pretend that the towers were never there," Burns told the Baltimore Sun about the romantic comedy released in mid-November. "We just felt strongly that they should stay in [the movie]."

Though a close-up of the buildings may depress some moviegoers, the sight of the gleaming towers has provoked unexpected audience reactions.In "Glitter," a movie otherwise savaged by the critics in September, the lone bright spot was the vision of the twin towers on the big screen and the spontaneous applause that followed, said film critic Jack Mathews, who saw the release days after the attacks.

The public is eager to do more than clap for the towers; it's also willing to pay to hold onto images of them. Sales of pendants, collectibles and books--all released post-Sept. 11--have been spectacular, according to merchants and retailers. Enjoying especially brisk business has been the New Yorker magazine, which exhumed several old covers depicting the grand towers and converted them to full-size posters.

"These sales are reminiscent of the popularity of pre-eruption postcards and photographs of Mt. St. Helens and of the Titanic afloat," said Michael Kearl, a sociologist from Trinity University in San Antonio, who has researched nostalgic movements and attitudes toward death. "They are frozen-in-time visages of dominant, taken-for-granted sights that will never again be seen."

For others, the desire to behold the towers is a necessary part of processing the loss, said Kearl. The need becomes particularly pronounced because of the sudden way events unfolded.

"Most death for us comes in slow motion," said Kearl. "You can prepare; you can say your goodbyes; you can make amends. But in this situation that didn't occur.

"I think too this episode is like a phantom-limb phenomenon," he added. "The twin towers are still in our memory banks, and you can still kind of see them when you look in their direction and you can still feel them, but, of course, they aren't there."

But if someone wants to avoid the emotional pain of looking at the towers, it doesn't mean they are unpatriotic or uncaring, say mental-health experts. People grieve differently and need as much patience and compassion as possible, they say.

"People suffering from major stress need to make a conscious choice to get away from what is upsetting them," said Debbie Thomas, a University of Louisville mental-health professional who specializes in trauma-related psychological disorders. "That might mean turning off television news for a while and doing a little gardening, or watching reruns of an old comedy show.

"I personally do not want a visual reminder," she added. "I have one in my memory."

New Yorker Sara Schwittek, whose office building used to have a spectacular view of the twin towers, said it's impossible to avoid images of the World Trade Center.

"We're not going to erase the image," said Schwittek, a Web designer who photographed the collapse of both towers from her office. "But people need to grieve in their own way, and that's not going to be known to all of us. People have their husbands, wives or children buried there forever, and I can't imagine the grief they must feel."

Those who are sensitive to the World Trade Center image are in for a hard time, she said. "It's like BC and AD," said Schwittek. "There was before Sept. 11, and then there was after Sept. 11. And nothing so vividly says this like the thousands of images that still remain."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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