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9/11 Revisited

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By Brian Hieggelke and the 2001 Staff

9/11 was a Tuesday.

For anyone who ever worked for or with Newcity, you know Tuesday means one thing: deadline day. On September 11, 2001, we’d been at it more than fifteen years, so it’d become fairly routine. Except this day.

Jan and I were the first ones in early that morning, ensconced in our office in the back of the Newcity space working away at whatever was on our plate that day. We’d taken a big risk with the business we’d built, trying to create a national alternative media portal and network on the internet, and the in-process crash of the internet economy was creating major headaches for us. (They were soon to get far worse.) Although I was editor-in-chief of Newcity, I’d ceded most day-to-day operations to our managing editor, Elaine Richardson. Print, we’d figured out (we thought).

Sometime before 9am, Dave Wilson, one of our senior sales guys, burst into our office. He’d just heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We rushed into the conference room and turned on the television, where we stood, transfixed, as the news unfolded: the second tower hit, the Pentagon hit, the towers collapsed, the plane crash, as staff members continued to arrive at the office and the congregation around the television grew in silent contemplation.

Nobody wanted to move. But it was Tuesday. We had to figure out what to do. For most companies, it was easy: close up and go home. Though we were not a breaking-news organization, we were journalists: we were not going home. I conferred with Elaine about the state of affairs: we had a cover story and cover finished, about murders in the city’s Indian community. The cover graphic was a blood-spattered affair. Just business-as-usual, just getting what we had out the door, was not an option.

We gathered the editorial staff. They were a very young crew and looked especially shellshocked.  (Not that my extra years added any experience relevant to a day like this.) Some thought we might postpone the issue and go home, which was an entirely reasonable reaction. Instead, I made some kind of comment about this being the kind of day that comes very rarely in the life of a journalist, where we have to put aside personal feelings and step up and into a story. We chatted a bit about angles that we could take that would reflect Newcity’s persona, and that would still be fresh a day-and-a-half later, when we hit the streets. I left Elaine in charge to continue the brainstorming and planning, in order to tend to other matters.

One of our web designers, Marcy Grant, called and said she could not get to the office. The Blue Line was shut down, but she assumed we were just closing anyway. “Oh, no,” I said, “We need you. I’ll come pick you up.” (I still owned a car in those days.) We had two parallel operations at that point, print in Chicago and our national site, which Marcy designed. Frank Sennett edited that site remotely from his home in Washington State. Though we only occasionally published original content on the site—it was a blog, basically, before the term existed—this was one of those occasions. The conversation and planning ran parallel to what we were doing in Chicago, though Frank did not have staffers he could “put on the street.” He ended up gathering a package of stories from around the world—Marc Spiegler, a now-expat who’d served as a Newcity editor a few years earlier, contributed his take from Europe, which we’d also end up running in print and which would create a fair bit of controversy for its off-the-party-line perspective.

Other details dawned on us. Was our printer even going to stay open to print us? Were the ads that were still due in from the movie studios going to come, or would we have to fill big blank spaces? What kind of environment would our drivers encounter on the streets of the city tomorrow? Jan dug into these issues and, in most cases, everything fell into place. We’d have to deal with driver issues as they arose, but our printer was also stepping up and most of the movie ads were still coming. America would need the catharsis of the cinema by Friday.

What, then to do about cover art? I went over to our designer, Sean Hernandez, and we put our heads together. This one was, to put it mildly, delicate. What about a photo-manipulation of the Statue of Liberty, I suggested. The familiar image, with a limb holding the beacon of freedom severed. Sean was able to execute it beautifully. What did we want for the headline? he asked. Nothing, I said. The absence of a headline, combined with the image, said it all.

Things were falling into place. Elaine and her staff had dispersed around town in search of stories. I wanted to get out there myself and drive around and see what was happening. Plus, I wanted to check on my kids. My daughter Erica was off at college in Massachusetts, and we talked on the phone. She was shaken, like all of us, but seemed OK. My two sons were at Whitney Young: Todd in seventh grade; Matthew in high school. As parents, Jan and I were both concerned and guilt-ridden that we would not be home after school to be there with them, to comfort them, to help them process this. But I called my brother Justin and asked him to come stay with them till we got finished. Meanwhile, the school’s had decided to stay open, I seem to recall, but I was worried about them getting home safely. My younger son, Todd, was bused home by the CPS, but the older son, Matthew, took the El and the CTA was both irregular and a potential threat at that point. As I drove around the ghost town of Chicago, I made my way over to try and pick them up before they made their way on their own. I got Matthew, but Todd went straight to his bus.

It’s a reflection of the quality of our staff that my recollections end here. They were professionals: got their stories, wrote them, filed them, designed them and we went to press. I wondered what our rival, the Reader, would do with the extra day they had to work with before their deadline.

The next day, we were launching a new series with the Chicago Cultural Center and Criterion Films, called International Dinner and a Movie. Astonishingly, it was one of the few events in the city not canceled. The film was Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion,” and the auditorium was packed. Its message, about the hypocrisy of war and the fallacy of nationalism, could not have been more poignant.

The next day, the Reader came out. They’d gone with their original cover story, as if nothing happened.

- – - – -

Ten years later, I’d always thought I remembered the day with complete clarity, till I sat down to write and noticed some of the gaping holes in my recollections. We’ve included links to our original package of stories below and I offered the chance to retrospectively comment about them to the writers and editors who put that issue together. It’s the kind of day that every single one of us has an unforgettable memory of and, in that sense, a memory that we alone own.

Elaine Richardson, managing editor:
The funny thing about that issue was that we’d gotten everything in so early. We really didn’t have that much left to do, so I was feeling pretty good that morning, thinking it wasn’t going to be a particularly late night. That all changed in an instant. Even if we had wanted to, we couldn’t have left the cover story we had, which I seem to recall was about some trouble being faced by Muslims on the North Side. Not a great topic for that week.

Anyway, because we were working, I didn’t actually see a lot of the TV coverage. Seeing things now… I can definitely say that day of I understood the gravity of the situation, but probably not the scope—not just of what had happened, but what the fallout would be.

There are three things that I remember very, very clearly.

The first was trying to get to work. At the time, I was coming in from Oak Park down the Eisenhower. This was sometime around 9am and they had access to downtown closed off—a police barricade completely blocking off the ability to continue down Congress. Traffic going the other way was completely backed up as people fled downtown. I talked my way past the cops and down onto Franklin and as I drove up Franklin I saw people running—running flat out—from the Sears Tower. The street was empty of cars, except for mine, but there was chaos. Just waves of people, spilling out onto the street and then taking off as if their lives depended on it. Which at the time, no one really knew if it did. Just the sight of that, in the context of everything we didn’t know at the time, was truly frightening.

I took some back streets and managed to make it close enough to the office to park and walk. The TV was already on in the office and I remember watching it with a real sense of detachment. The towers coming down is really what did it for me in moving the lever from “I don’t believe this” to “This is actually happening.” What was clear was that we had to have something to run. I got on the phone at that point, calling everyone who usually came in later. When we sat down to discuss what to do, for a minute, it was like no one knew what to say. In the end, I think that exact thing is what drove us to do what we did—to tell people’s stories—because it was hard to know what to say or feel. But once we got going, instincts kicked in. Everyone did what they needed to do—started calling around to see who we could find in New York or other areas to write things. I remember Ray being in Toronto at the film festival—where he’d be trapped for awhile until he managed to get back.

While Sean was tearing out the design and you guys were looking at some new cover options, those of us around had scattered to go and see who we could find in the city to talk to. And this is the second thing I remember. The city was… empty. There was no one. And that was extremely creepy—like a post-Apocalypse city. No one was outside, anywhere. Finally managed to find some guys in a bar. Mostly cabbies. It was afternoon by this point, and it was clear that they’d been watching the news and drinking for a large portion of the day. I remember thinking that if I hadn’t been working, that might have been a pretty good option.

Anyway, the last thing I remember about that day, is actually something that happened the day before. Because Ray was gone, Monday night I’d gone to an advance screening for a movie called “Big Trouble” with Tim Allen, Rene Russo and a few other people. It had some laughs and was generally fun. That movie has a sequence where a couple of bumbling thieves manage to get a gun and a nuclear device past some very lax airport security guards and onto a plane. A day later, that concept didn’t seem quite so funny. I remember feeling a little sick that I’d laughed at it. That movie, which was supposed to come out the Friday of that week, wouldn’t actually be released for another nine months.

We had a lot of pretty deep conversations that day, and a lot of them had to do with our responsibility in the wake of things. And I like the fact that we agreed that we did have a responsibility to continue to provide the type of coverage we did, despite the circumstances. On a certain level, there’s the “suck it up and soldier on” thing—very British of us—and we did that. We’re all human and that was one scary day.

But one of the things I’ve always liked best about Newcity was that we embrace the idea that a good story isn’t just facts, but personality. We’d taken a punch in the gut and we weren’t going to just run the same stuff and pretend we didn’t see it and weren’t feeling it, but we were going to tell you some stories that you could relate to as we all tried to figure out how to feel. And then we’d come back and use what we felt that day to become better at what we did. I was proud to have done that, especially that day when it would have been very easy to just say we’re not doing an issue at all. I’m definitely the better for having been through that day the way we did.

In terms of lessons learned, unfortunately, that fear that we saw didn’t help journalism as a profession. IN fact, you can argue that the profession fell down on the job in many ways after that, because we got to a point where questions that should have been asked weren’t, because somehow it wasn’t patriotic to do so. There was a lot of trouble finding the right ground between the responsibility and the emotion and, ten years later, I’m not sure we’ve come all the way back from that.

 

Frank Sennett, editor of Newcity.com, then our national alternative portal:
I left Chicago on Thanksgiving Day of 1998, following my then-fiancee to her new job as a newspaper reporter in Washington State. The Hieggelkes helped make the move possible by allowing me to shift from the weekly to become launch editor of an alternative-press portal site that we hoped would soar above the likes of Webvan and Pets.com. It didn’t, but we were still plugging away at it on September 11, 2001.

The site didn’t commission much new content, as our goal was to harvest and showcase news and reviews of national interest from alternative-weekly member papers across the country. But on 9/11, when my Pacific time schedule meant I didn’t wander into my living room until CNN’s Aaron Brown was already reporting on the first smoldering tower visible over his right shoulder, we scrambled to do something, anything. While folks in the Chicago office were remaking Newcity weekly, we started reaching out to people like former senior editor Marc Spiegler, who had moved to Switzerland and quickly turned around what he saw as the view from Europe. A college friend of mine shared his perspective from an editorial office in midtown Manhattan. Within a few hours, we had a decent package of analysis up and running. It wasn’t much, but helping readers make sense of calamities is an automatic response for journalists, no matter how far removed they are from Ground Zero. And that was a day when it was good to just immerse oneself in work and make as many positive connections to fellow human beings as possible.

 

Ray Pride, film editor:
The first time I flew into New York after 9/11, the 767 rode low over the lights of Manhattan, as if tugged gently along the beaded arterial glow of Broadway. It was a sooty dusk that day in December 2001, not from smoke, but from fog and shattered light. It is as if this spectacle were composed of albumen and platinum and memory, like a Stieglitz print on a clean, well-lighted gallery’s wall. (That was contextualizing, though, dulling sentiment.) Of course I looked for the absence. Once on the ground, I found my friends there filled with simple enthusiasm, simple hope. But on the morning of 9/11, I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and wrote this, galvanized, rooted, as immediate response in the first hour of waking to the events in Lower Manhattan.

Northern Composure? An American in Canada forsakes fiction in a world of mad fact

 

Jonathan Mahalak, listings editor:
I was deployed to Billy Goat, which at that time was a place where newspaper people mingled and ate lunch. Maybe I’d overhear some new information or could find a Trib or Sun-Times writer to talk to.

Elaine gave me $20, so I took a taxi. There was very little traffic. The CTA had been closed and many of the buildings downtown had been evacuated—no one was sure exactly what had happened or if there would be more attacks in other cities. Men in loose ties and women carrying pumps walked in the opposite direction. The driver told me he was Basque. In high-school French I’d learned that the Basque people made beautiful lace, so I asked him if his family made lace. I don’t remember his answer.

The Billy Goat was empty except for the staff and maybe six or seven customers. None of them seemed like newspaper people, and none of them were talking. The TVs were all tuned to the news and the volume was turned up.

I saw a payphone and decided to call my mom to tell her where I was and what I was doing. Then I sat at the bar and ordered a beer.

 Real Time: Tragedy and beer in the confines of the Billy Goat

 

 

Joshua Fischer, freelance writer: 
Once I learned the news, I banged on my roommate’s door to wake him up and tell him something terrible has happened. With the TV on, he sat silent on the living-room couch; I stood screaming at those horrible images on the screen. My roommate, Jonathan Mahalak, was a writer and editor at Newcity and he said he had to go into work. It was Tuesday. They had an issue to put out. An hour passed and the phone rang. Jon said Newcity had scrapped the entire issue to write a whole new one based on what happened this morning. As I had been a freelance writer for the paper, he asked me to contribute. I told him: No, it didn’t feel right. He put the managing editor, Elaine Richardson, on the phone and she said Newcity was in a real jam, they needed me. What am I supposed to do? I asked her with real sadness and desperation in my voice. She told me in the most calm and assured manner: Just walk around and talk to people. I walked all the familiar streets and spots of Wicker Park. Unlike any other day I’d experienced, everyone was completely open and available. Tragedy is a dark, connecting fabric. I was twenty-four years old then, finding my way in a world that suddenly seemed to be changing faster than I could keep up with. Ten years later, I’m in my eighth year living in Brooklyn and dreading this anniversary. I don’t want to see the images. I don’t want to read the stories. I don’t want to forget but I don’t want to be reminded. I figure, the best way to deal with it is the same way I did a decade earlier. Just walk around and talk to people.

Massive Attack: Joshua Fisher spends the day wandering about, talking about tragedy 

 

Deena Dasein, freelance writer:
I was getting ready to go to work—to teach my sociology classes—when I heard the news over the radio. With my mind on my students, I immediately thought of how the event could be woven into class discussion, focusing on mass behavior—the reaction of the population to the event.

As soon as I learned that classes would be cancelled for the day, I felt the wound—to flesh and blood human beings. Then I grasped the hit that the national ego would take from being attacked this way. I realized that this was a one-shot affair. I had no fear that the attack would presage more for now.

Then my mind shot to the idea: The most important consequence of the event would be the damage it would do to Americans’ freedoms and the state repression that it was likely to bring. I felt very strongly about this, so when the opportunity to write my judgment and prediction in Newcity I jumped at the chance.

Since then, we’ve seen Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, renditions, secret prisons, waterboarding, domestic surveillance, drone attacks, airport security, and there’s more, but I’ll stop. You see the point. The people and the supine and exploitive political class have brought it on ourselves. Mass behavior. Maybe I should weave it into my class discussion this week.

Gag Orders? The us vs. them reaction to tragedy may serve to silence criticism

 

Margaret Wappler, assistant editor:

I watched the second tower get hit by an airplane on TV. I still had the blanket wrapped around me from bed. I said nothing for several moments as the newscasters similarly struggled for words to describe the violent plumes of smoke and fire erupting from one of the most symbolic buildings in the country, one I’d visited only a few months before. We’d taken the elevator to the top floor where there was a bar. We had a drink and marveled at the view. At one point, I remember touching the glass of a giant window showing off the capitalistic prowess of Lower Manhattan, getting frightened at the height, and then stepping away.

On September 11, 2001, I was supposed to be serving my second day of jury duty on some routine lawsuit case. I called the courthouse and asked if we were expected to come in that day. I was told yes by the bailiff of my particular case. I waited an hour, called back and the courthouse was closed. Then I called Newcity out of duty to my job but there was no part of me that actually wanted to be there that day. All I wanted to do was watch the images battering the TV and process them on my own. All I wanted was more information. Who did this? Why? Was my sister -in-law OK? What about my friend Shelly? What about Sarah and Sean?

But I was told I should come in, so I did. Before Elaine and Brian called the staff meeting, I was sitting at my desk and fighting back tears. I was scared for my friends and family out there, my mind looping with worst-case scenarios involving their whereabouts. And I was also frightened for the country. Would this be the beginning of several attacks? Had we all just cleanly stepped over a line, a day that marked one era of peace and prosperity from another era of violence and fear?

I started to feel better as the meeting progressed and we got our plans. I volunteered to go to Holy Name. I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious person but I knew it would comfort me on some level. I’m the daughter of an Episcopalian minister; he died when I was fifteen. Going into a church on a day like September 11 would be the closest I could come to having my father smooth his hand over my hair, a gesture he often did to soothe me.

I also knew, on a purely journalistic level, that it’d give me good material. In some ways, the piece is really about the different kinds of home, metaphorical and literal, that we strike up in times of pain. The hotel and bar are transient spaces but both can function as home, and the church is the spiritual shelter. The World Trade Center housed America’s most ambitious economic appetites, the ethical and unethical alike.

Reading this piece now, I’m struck by the last line. I wanted to have this balance between the reverence displayed at the church, and the other reaction to 9/11, at least on the surface—cynicism. I remember thinking that the guy might be wrong that the footage of the World Trade Center would be in a rock video by next year but it didn’t matter. His cynicism rang true to me as a very real and American reaction. We are subjected to an onslaught of images every day—even violent ones. How was he or any of us to know that day what would be the true meaning or purpose of this particular one? Ten years later, it’s still hard to say.

Saving grace: Prayer, hotels and beer in River North

 

 

 

 

Stories contributed that day by other writers:

 

Empire’s End: An expatriate American welcomes the nation to a cold, new world

Close Call: Two New Yorkers recall the final moments of the World Trade Center from a very unique view

News hits the fan: Notes from a broadcast journalist

Jury’s out: The wheels of justice grind to a halt in the wake of the terrorist attacks

Shuttered and War? What War?

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