David Bernstein: Big Apple shaken to core

While in New York to attend an Outdoor Advertising Association of America conference, David Bernstein witnessed the aftermath of the terrorist attacks

The classic poster – one image and a few words. I anticipated reviewing the best of a world bunch at the Outdoor Advertising Association of America’s annual conference. On the day delegates arrived at New York’s Marriott Marquis Hotel, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center.

Sue and I were on our way downtown to our favourite bookshop. We carried on walking towards the smoke past stunned and ashen New Yorkers till police lines stopped us around 8th Street. Survivors and neighbours of the tragedy were standing in line to use payphones. Most shops were shut. Restaurants were dispensing free coffee and cakes.

Within an hour hand-written signs appeared. A scrawled yellow sheet stuck on a bus shelter site said ‘Give blood – 12th Avenue and 7th’. Lines of donors formed. Signs on shop windows declared faith in New York and the country. By noon many scaffolded building sites were adorned with the Stars and Stripes or a sheet with a red-painted message, ‘God Bless America.’ ‘Freedom won’t be defeated.’ ‘Pray for families and victims.’ Later on came the desperate personal messages crafted on PCs with scanned-in pictures of the missing.

Back at the conference hotel a note confirmed the obvious. ‘Due to the tragedies in New York and Washington DC the 2001 OAAA National Conference is hereby cancelled. All of our member company employees who have checked in at the Marriott Marquis have been accounted for and are safe.’

Outside in Times Square the commercial panoply was quickly changing. Moving news messages have traversed the big buildings for decades. In this digital age they’re accompanied by breaking news images. Sidewalk viewers could verify on-screen where the not-so-distant smoke was coming from. The Nasdaq sign which had just shown pre-market indices now proclaimed ‘our thoughts and prayers are with you New York and Washington’ and later a soundbite from the President.

The Walt Disney Company appropriated a space next to the screen – ‘the people of New York are inspiring the rest of our nation and the world’. All this within, what, three hours of the attack.

In the afternoon workmen dismantled the sign for Collateral Damage, a forthcoming disaster movie.

The OAAA executive held an emergency session. By late afternoon it e-mailed and faxed all its members:

‘Today the world experienced a crisis of unprecedented proportions, beyond anything our minds could have imagined A message has been developed to bring our country together. The design is a simple white typeface on a black background (attached) that says: In God We Trust, United We Stand. We hope each of you will select one or more of your venues to post as soon as possible. Imagine the impact thousands of billboards, transit, street furniture, and alternative outdoor displays can have in healing America. The outdoor industry can make an enormous difference by disseminating this message of hope. Please support this program.’

The following morning the message took pride of place in Times Square. Here’s how that day’s New York Times began its lead story:

‘Hijackers rammed jetliners into each of New York’s World Trade Center towers yesterday, toppling both in a hellish storm of ash, glass, smoke and leaping victims, while a third jet liner crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia.’

Thirty-six words. None wasted. One adjective.

You could read the paper while crossing Fifth Avenue. But if midtown was quiet, Central Park was crowded. The weather was fine. It was a black holiday. People came to commune. A couple got married in the gazebo by the lake.

Flags proliferated, most at half-mast and an enterprising local printer distributed versions on thick card with the ‘United We Stand’ motto at the base of the flag and above the legend:

FDNY. NYPD. EMS. National Guard. Red Cross. Hospitals. Volunteers and supporters. City, State and Federal Government. All American citizens.

The cards were carried, where possible displayed. That the printer chose to say simply ‘United We Stand’ and not invoke the deity may have been due to space. The devout were anyway at prayer, alone or together, and needed no encouragement.

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