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September 12, 2012

Alan Chin in Lower Manhattan: You Said You’d Never Forget

A couple takes photographs looking up at #1 World Trade Center under construction. September 11, 2012.

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Nine eleven.”

“Nine eleven who?”

“You said you’d never forget!”

So went the joke that was told to me a few years ago by Abram Himmelstein at The Neighborhood Story Project, already years afterward. The punch line depended on the obviousness of nobody being able to forget, but tricked by the knock-knock formula. Today, for the first time, it felt like a lot of people have finally forgotten. Not really, of course, not when you think about it, but you have to think about it first.

Church Street after the ceremony of the reading of the names of the dead and moments of silence. September 11, 2012.

I spoke on the phone this morning to Yannicke Chupin, with whom I experienced that day together. A few days ago, she was at a formal ceremony at her university in France, and found herself wearing the same black dress that she had worn that Tuesday.

“This dress is for weddings, funerals, and 9/11,” she said, and her colleagues reacted with surprise. “Why?!?”

But they were walking, and she told them she had been in Lower Manhattan; they would hear the full story when they got to the restaurant. She confessed to me that it is a big story after all, even after telling it hundreds of times, and that she still feels the dust in her hair and on her dress whenever she relates the tale. Not something to talk about casually, strolling along the sidewalk. So they spoke of other things, and she fully meant to continue once they sat down. But it was forgotten again.

“The dress is a little shapeless now, but it’s still good.” We laughed for a moment. Then she signed off with:

“Have a good 9/11. Not too emotional but a little though.”

(You can read her remembrances from the time here. In French.)

The view from Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn. September 8, 2012.

At night the Towers of Light Memorial came on again, as they have each September. Eleven years later, it struck me that their meaning has changed. With elegant simplicity, they evoke the ghosts of the destroyed towers, but abstracted, immaterial, and infinite as they reach far higher into the sky than the buildings ever did. But now, the new #1 World Trade Center is nearing completion. Which means that there are three towers – for a brief few hours — until they turn the lights off again.

Inside the 9/11 Memorial Visitor Center: architectural model of the new World Trade Center. September 11, 2012.

Lower Manhattan today was almost entirely ordinary, more so than on any of the other anniversaries that I’ve photographed. Several people were debating at the Speakers’ Corner of Zucotti Park, reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street. Otherwise, there were none of the masses of flowers and tributes that would adorn the fence around Ground Zero, very few of the characters flouting conspiracy theories or selling T-shirts, and none of the streets were closed off for long.

My father photographed the originals under construction in 1970 from Battery Park, when they were almost finished. The same scene this perfect afternoon was as it would be during any weekday lunch hour, far away and long ago.

–Alan Chin


BagNews 9/11 Anniversary posts by Alan Chin: 2011: The 9/11 Decade: Beyond Pushpins On A Calender2010: We’re Just All(ah) Americans Here2007:  September 11, 2007

About the Photographer

Alan Chin

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. In the US, Alan has explored the South, following the historic trail of the civil rights movement and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, covered multiple presidential campaigns, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek/Daily Beast and The New York Times, a member of Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA), and an editor at You can see all Alan's posts for BagNews here.

  • John Guzik

    There is a difference between forgetting and keeping moving. Quite frankly, I didn’t lose anyone there and the war doesn’t affect me, or greater than 99% of the population, either. What about that one September 11th in the future when it is a torrential downpour and all services are cancelled? That will pretty much take whatever momentum is left out of the annual, apparently media mandated, depression, and it can’t happen too soon. 25 years from now, are we still going to read names? What about 50? At some point no one alive is going to be a witness to that day, will there still be a day of mourning? If so, why and by who?

  • Cactus

    First, Alan Chin’s photos are uniquely matched with his interesting
    commentary. I especially like the split image with his father’s photo from the
    70’s. Trees replaced by flags??

    As a left-coaster, I find it hard to understand the need for
    repeated memorializing of 9/11. At the same time, I understand that there are
    many open questions and problems yet to solve. As a country, we don’t see
    sufficient reason to provide medical care & compensation for those first
    responders who are now ill, but spend a lot of time planning and performing
    various memorials. Not to mention all the incongruous explanations for what
    really happened on that day.

    Even the Murrah building museum had scheduled events for
    9/11. By the way, do we memorialize with national hooplah the destruction of
    the Murrah building on 4/19? Why? Is it because one was done by foreign
    terrorists and the other by home grown white terrorists? Or because one
    happened in the most important city in the world and the other somewhere in the

  • Scarabus

    That top photo is terrific, but it does suggest how important context and authorship can be. Suppose the name under the image had been, say, Nan Goldin or Robert Mapplethorpe.

  • Ed

    To be fair, ~3000 people were killed at the WTC. 168 people were killed in Oklahoma City.

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