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Five Flags Over Broadway

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I didn't go to Ground Zero.

Scores of people eyed hundreds of tributes fastened to the walls of the firehouse on a warm November evening in Manhattan. The lump in my throat and the tears in my eyes as I stood in the crowd outside the station told me I couldn't take seeing the actual place where it happened – at least not yet.

This is my town, the place where I was born and where I grew up. Yet like many natives I knew the Towers mostly from the outside. I had been inside maybe once or twice, covering a press conference as a young reporter, or gawking at the view from above.

But then I've been to the Statue of Liberty and to the top of the Empire State Building exactly once as well, and they've been around a lot longer than the World Trade Center's tragically foreshortened quarter century.

You miss most what you no longer have.

The bustle and noise of midtown are still there, I found, though many will say everything is muted, that New Yorkers behave as if emerging from a malaise, a sickness or a terrible dream. Yet the two nights that Judy and I spent in the Apple – so I could cover a photography trade show and gather other related material – were the two nights that the Yankees, playing at home in the Bronx, pulled out come-from-behind wins over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series. For a time, the buzz on the street, in the bar at Hurley's, at the Ritz Deli on the east side, and on the subway, was comforting and familiar: that, with three wins now to Arizona's two, the Yanks were going to do it again – four in a row, five Series wins out of the last six, the dynasty continuing.

Everything normal.

But even if the Yankees fell three outs short in the thrilling heartbreaker of Game 7, these guys provided their fellow New Yorkers with a measure of comfort, pride and joy at an awful, awful time. You knew that to watch this team at this moment was to experience something special and powerful and poignant no matter who got to wear the ring.

Glad I was there for some of it.

Going to New York – going home – was different this year. This was going from one terrorist target to another. And even if there was little real danger, there was always anxiety. Who knows when, if ever, that will end?

The train trip up from D.C.'s Union Station to Manhattan's Penn Station was nothing special. We were 23 minutes late arriving due to signal problems, but Judy and I had no pressing schedule to meet. Just go up the escalator, grab a cab and go to the hotel.

But the cabs at the normally crowded cabstand had been replaced by a slew of squad cars. Nearby was what looked like an endless line of riders for a few lonely taxis across the street. Still, what seemed to be our introduction to post-terror New York vanished as soon as we walked up the street and grabbed a passing cab with the ease of a bear snagging a trout in a stream.

Take that, Osama.

In previous years, my wife would marvel at my ability to navigate the subway, so wretched is my sense of direction at home, especially behind the wheel. The fact that I also am a pathfinder when we walk around car-free Venice, even at night, convinces her that I have a kind of innate New Yorker's radar born of living on concrete and walking everywhere or taking public transportation.

The pungent smell of the IRT and IND locals was a throwback to my youth – as was the loud screech of the wheels. If I felt any post-Sept. 11 fear about boarding a train, it was superceded by having to dope out New York's token-free farecard system without looking like a tourist.

I left New York in 1967 to join the New York Daily News Washington Bureau, but returned often enough during those first years away to watch the city plunge toward bankruptcy and decay in the '70s. I never liked graffiti and liked it less when it obscured whole subway cars. There's hardly any of that anymore – the subways are, dare I say it, almost clean, the cars themselves spotless. Liberals used to love to say this was all part of Rudy Giuliani's archconservative agenda, to improve the quality of life on the backs of the under-appreciated graffiti artists and squeegee men.

Don't hear much of that now.

Like most everyone else in the country, New Yorkers wear their patriotism these days on their sleeves, on their hats, on their pants, on their buildings. It became a challenge, during our Thursday to Saturday sojourn, to see how many variations I could photograph. It began Thursday evening, walking away from the Photo Expo at the Javits Center, and ended at the Museum of Modern Art shortly before we came home.

Even the hot dog stands wore flags. And Jasper Johns provided an unexpected patriotic tableau. Before the battery in my PowerShot gave up, I had made dozens of pictures. I took several at Broadway's Engine Company 54, where the somber yet friendly mien of the surviving firefighters combined with the almost-festive look of the many heartfelt tributes on the walls gave the whole thing the unsettling air of an open-house-cum-wake.

It was at Times Square, though, where I made my favorite shot. There, at the crossroads of the world, I saw a light pole festooned with a hanging flag banner and two smaller flags waving in the breeze. Then I saw the two other flags in the background and set to work, forgetting about everything but making a picture.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
A tribute-decked Statue of Liberty stands outside Engine Co. 54 near Broadway. The company suffered grievous losses in the Trade Center attacks.

©Frank Van Riper
Even the hotdog stands wore flags. These, being put to bed in their garage, made their own traffic jam on an already crowded New York street.

©Frank Van Riper
Jasper Johns's iconic painting of the American Flag drew its share of admirers at the Museum of Modern Art—and provided a backdrop for a photograph.

©Frank Van Riper
Five Flags Over Broadway. Times Square is always electric. The patriotic overlay only added to its visual excitement.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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Unintended Consequences

Copyright Infringement: Protecting What Is Yours

Healing Through Art and Memory

Greatness = Being Good Consistently

'In Response to Place' - A Diverse Dozen