Collapse of the South Tower by Hilary North, September 2001

...Lost angels
Wrapped in dust drift down,
An avalanche of ash disappears the world,
With every breath, a shower of shoes.
The day's sandwich is uneaten.
My sense of security jumped out the window.
I cannot determine what is the worst thing.
Fear rips out my tongue.
The dead race for the sky,
My peace lies beside your peace....

From the collaborative poem Tower One

Courtesy of City Lore

The attacks of September 11, 2001 challenged this nation’s, and the world’s, sense of “security.” The ease of execution, the brilliance of the symbolism, the power of this one decisive and destructive violent act with its resulting grief, pain and loss all call us to examine the structures that determine our worldview.  As poet Heather Bourbeau of Tower One writes above: “My sense of security jumped out the window.” 

As time passes, the tragedy of 9/11 is reframed in the light of current events.  It moves before our national consciousness, sometimes manipulated by people and organizations for their own ends, sometimes manifested in personal fear, anxiety and a continuing sense of loss.  It has been a call to arms and a cry for peace.  I suspect the meaning of 9/11 will continue reflecting and refracting our national personality as well as our private lives for years to come.

But the outpouring of art, ritual, and poetry on the New York City streets after 9/11 has its own value as memory and history.  As Steve Zeitlin of City Lore writes, “In this worldly city, along our secular sidewalks, stoops, and parks, in all five boroughs, New Yorkers spoke to one another in a language of symbols and ritual acts, refusing to give death the last word.” 

Since its inception in 2002, the music peace project Race for the Sky, which commemorates this public sweep of expression after 9/11 in art and ritual, has shaped my perspective. It is the lens through which I observe other memories of 9/11. 

In early 2009, I attended a public forum class presented by Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.  Over the period of several weeks, theologian and new seminary president Serene Jones, ethicist Gary Dorrien, and philosopher and theorist Cornel West discussed the current U.S. economic crisis and Christianity’s response to it from a variety of approaches.

In March, a special guest lecture featured political theorist Benjamin R. Barber. Dr. Barber spoke on the blurring of nation-state boundaries in global economics and issues of national security. He also stressed that in the United States there is a cultural emphasis on sovereign independence, together with an accompanying national mythology celebrating the value of “going it alone.” I agreed with him.

In a story he shared rather as an aside, Dr. Barber recalled speaking at a rock concert, together with Yoko Ono, just after 9/11 in New York.  The crowd, comprised of many wearing American flag pins on their shirts, began to chant, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” four to five times during both his speeches and those of Yoko Ono. This chanting, which he said sounded like “what you hear at football games and elsewhere” was not an expression of jingoism or even nationalism, Dr. Barber felt, but something else. He concluded that, even in “liberal” New York City, the chanting was voicing the national mythology that we (Americans) can do it ourselves, that we are powerful and we can make it on our own.

Lower Broadway near Ground Zero, 10/28/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

I agreed with Dr. Barber’s point in principle, but all the years of performing and sharing the music and artifacts of Race for the Sky made me sit up and think, well, yes – but maybe, no.  Not quite.  Something seems incomplete in this interpretation. I remember well the American flag pins that proliferated after 9/11.  I remember too the chanting.  But I don’t recall necessarily expressing a desire to go it alone by wearing those pins or reciting the abbreviated name of this country.

This personal memory wasn’t the focus of Dr. Barber’s lecture. It was an aside that tied in a personal experience with the broad topics at hand. But because of my history with Race for the Sky, it is one of the moments in the lecture I remember most clearly.


Thanks to Dr. Barber’s comments and my own resulting sense of dissonance, I began to wonder, what were people really saying when they were chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”?

Based on my experience of Race for the Sky, this is what I knew:  after 9/11, New Yorkers were grieving.  For loved ones, neighbors, co-workers, friends. For buildings, neighborhoods, and a skyline forever altered by a violent attack. For a sense of security that, as noted earlier, “jumped out the window.” New Yorkers loved their damaged city; they loved their country, their family and friends, the rescue workers that risked their lives on 9/11, and their way of life in this most particular of American cities. New Yorkers were fearful:  what happens now? are we safe? will this happen again? can we find hope?

How did New Yorkers say all this communally? They chanted, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Nino’s Canal Street, 10/07/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

Dr. Barber’s fleeting remark of the chant’s resemblance to “what you hear at football games and elsewhere” made me consider that connection more deeply. Why is it that “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” is identical – in rhythm, meter, and expression – to the cheering we engage in when we show support for our favorite sports team? It appears to me that most of our communal gathering in the United States happens – with the most ritual frequency and intensity – not in our civic institutions or religious organizations, but at sporting events in stadiums, fields and arenas massive and everyday across this country. “Sports” is a national language and ritual activity widely shared in our country.

As the daughter of a retired NFL and collegiate football coach – who spent countless childhood and adolescent hours at games and practices, and even more hours as an adult within earshot of ESPN and the New York radio station WFAN (my husband and son are knowledgeable enthusiasts) – I note this ritual experience without rancor.  But rituals they are (is it just a coincidence that the arched entry to the third floor of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, greets the visitor/pilgrim with the words: “Entrance to Sacred Ground”? And the Museum’s web site describes the third floor exhibit this way: “Sacred Ground - Examining ballparks of the past and present, this exhibit takes a look at America's cathedrals of the game.”?).

In times of crisis, we revert to what we know. The similarity of a team cheer and the chanting of “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” at the 9/11 rock concert is undeniable. Upon critical reflection, what is also undeniable is that these mainstream rituals of sporting events nearly always have a specific social construction:  Us vs. Them.

Canal Street, 9/17/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

There is a winner and a loser. The sporting field is a prime piece of dualistic and hierarchical real estate, with one team or athlete emerging over and above the other.  Complexity, diplomacy, nuance – these are not among the social structures of our mainstream sporting events. When one wants to show support for one’s community, one simply (and vigorously) cheers for one’s team. It is the appropriate response to the nature of the event. Just so, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” after 9/11 expressed support, community and spirit.

But should we also take the implied hierarchical dualism of the team cheer and apply it uncritically to the expression of New Yorkers after 9/11?  Can we really say that New Yorkers were declaring to the rest of the world that the U.S. was ready to go it alone against any and all adversaries? Or is it possible that sporting event chants were simply the habitual form of vocal expression with which people knew how to communally express themselves?  The team cheer was familiar and comforting – and met the need to forge solidarity and turn a hopeful face toward the future.

Battery Park City, 10/28/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper


One of my own personal recollections after 9/11 was joining gatherings at neighborhood shrines where we lit candles, offered prayers, and embraced one another. Often a song would begin. It might be a folk song, a patriotic song, a hymn, or a childhood favorite. As I joined with the other voices, invariably someone would clasp my arm, looking into my face with tear-filled eyes: “You can sing? Oh, how I wish I could sing!” Many of my musician friends reported similar exchanges at different streetcorner shrines. People wanted to participate with each other in communal mourning and support – even when they felt limited in their capacity to do so.

I couldn’t help but think, that evening at Union Theological Seminary when I began to wonder about chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” in the context of 9/11 response, that when the habitual linguistic and ritual palette of a people doesn’t include indigo, azure, navy and cobalt – then people are left calling out, “Blue! Blue!” to point at what they mean. 

 An anonymous poem found on a number of shrines and memorials reads this way:

As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,
We became one color.
As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building
We became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hope
We became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers fought
Their way into the inferno
We became one gender.
As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength
We became one faith.
As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss
We became one family.
As we cried tears of grief and loss
We became one soul.
As we retell with pride of the sacrifice of heroes
We became one people.

- Courtesy of City Lore

As New Yorkers became one, I don’t believe they necessarily wished to “go it alone” on the international stage. The movement to become one doesn’t automatically reflect a desire to fly solo. Their unity was also not necessarily dependent on the construction of an opponent Other, although an Other seemed to have constructed itself already. But even in the confusion and fear that were part of the immediate aftermath of the attacks, voices were raised that already stretched toward a more complex understanding.

From the collaborative poem Tower Two

Future Day of Remembrance: They tried to destroy us. They didn’t. Let’s eat.
They? We are they, and they are us, united in our fragile humanity
How does the healing of so many extreme days begin?
When all the meanings have changed, where is the path?
For the first time, I don’t have an answer, instead I’m listening….
We are on the verge of imagining something else, aren’t we? Can you feel the sentence forming?

“Love should be put into action,”

screamed the dirty hermit of another poem.
Missing Flyers, Park Avenue and 26th Street, 11/18/01 Photograph by Martha Cooper
Missing Flyers, Park Avenue and 26th Street, 11/18/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

All human beings may potentially strive for unity through their shared humanity, which includes common experiences of suffering and shared horizons of tragedy and crisis.

I don’t deny that jingoism, nationalism, or national mythologies were among the expressions of response in those first days after the attacks, and most likely were also present in the chanting at that 9/11 rock concert. Steve Zeitlin in his lecture for the Missing exhibit recalls seeing the message, “Kill the bastards” on the city streets.

I only wish to say that the memory of 9/11 shouldn’t stop there. Along the streets of New York, there were overwhelmingly and continually pleas for peace, messages of hope, and questions that asked “not how, but why?” as New Yorkers searched for deeper understanding.

Artistic expression helps us understand our experiences and our memories. It doesn’t so much analyze as it pierces and illuminates. Instinctively, New Yorkers after 9/11 reached for artistic expression to meet the challenges of the crisis – and they used the tools, habits, and materials at hand. They expressed themselves spontaneously and freely through the mediums of art, symbol and ritual. And when they could, they chanted together “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Union Square, 9/13/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

Alongside the flag pins and U.S.A. chants, the testimony of the transformed New York city streets commemorated in Race for the Sky offers a powerful witness to a variegated depth of emotion, thought, and articulation of hope just beginning to find expression in the city’s consciousness. It is a mistake to reduce the hopes, desires, and expressions of New Yorkers after 9/11 to anything less complex.

You may disagree with my interpretation of those days, and I expect no less. Memories of 9/11, I have found, are deeply personal and reflect some of our most closely-held values and worldviews.  Grief, loss, hope and fear move through us, shaping and coloring the lens through which we see ourselves, others, and our memories. This kaleidoscopic lens of our memories is important to remember, as an event as influential as 9/11 is brought to bear upon so many social and political decisions.

Union Square, 9/13/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

Race for the Sky remembers how individual and diverse New Yorkers gathered to mourn, sing, embrace, write, pray, and create together. Before time and weather swept away the evidence of New Yorkers’ first responses, I wanted to capture them in music so the story could continue to be told.

I am a musical storyteller. Even now, nine years after the attacks – and ninety years after the attacks – remembering the spontaneous and unsolicited creativity of everyday New Yorkers in response to crisis is a song worth singing.

I am so glad and grateful you have ventured into the journey of Race for the Sky on the web. I hope you will spend time with the images and poetry that graced the streets of New York after 9/11, and visit City Lore’s web site to find out more about their remarkable, prophetic work in those first days after the attacks. The diverse voices of New Yorkers in those difficult days of crisis deserve to be heard by many. 

I hope you may be curious enough to listen to the music that was written in honor of this outburst of creativity born from shock, grief, loss, hope and pain – and will join me in remembering all those we lost that September day. May we all recognize in our suffering and loss the same afflictions in others across our troubled planet.

Above all, I hope that Race for the Sky will contribute to a remembrance of 9/11 that holds solidarity, complexity and sensitivity – remaining open to the hope of a world at peace.

In music, memory, and peace,

Lisa Radakovich Holsberg