Memorial doubles as forum on tragedy

A popular New York park overflows with mourners and a range of opinions on retaliation.

Before last Tuesday, Union Square was known for its chic restaurants and weekend farmer's market, its small green park a popular haven for skateboarders and activists, students and families.

Now, it has become the city's primary spot for mourning.

Over the past week, the downtown square has been transformed into an impromptu memorial. Located on 14th Street, Union Square was for several days the southernmost point on the island that civilians were allowed to go, while the area below remained blocked off by police. Literally thousands of New Yorkers have flocked here with flowers and candles, some scribbling their thoughts on the pavement in chalk.

For days, what was most striking was the stillness - huge crowds of people sitting in silence or shuffling quietly past the various homemade tributes.

But lately, a growing clamor of voices has penetrated some of that quiet. As shell-shocked New Yorkers start to consider what lies ahead, Union Square has also become a spot for passionate - often painful - debate.

While the square's visitors are united in their grief, they express a full range of opinions and emotions when discussing how the United States should respond to last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It's a debate undoubtedly occurring throughout the country - indeed the world - but with particular intensity here, about a mile from where the two towers once stood.

Like the Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park, Union Square has long attracted its share of street philosophers and political activists. Home to Tammany Hall, the famous headquarters of the Democratic Party during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the square was often the site of labor protests. In more recent years, its proximity to New York University has made it home to political demonstrations of all sorts.

But never has it seen such a steady flow of people, from every corner of the city and beyond. Under a statue of George Washington on horseback lie hundreds of candles, cards, and flowers, as well as various signs that plead for peace.

When an older man - wearing a denim vest and an American-flag bandanna - starts sounding bellicose themes, Heidi Fledderjohn quickly asks those standing around her, "Does anyone know the words to 'Amazing Grace?' " A small group starts singing, attempting to drown the man out, though they trail off after the first verse, unable to remember the rest of the song.

"I think people are here because they're really afraid of what's going to happen next," says Ms. Fledderjohn, a therapist who lives down the street. She and her husband have come to the square several times over the past few days, because, she says, "it's human nature to want to gather."

Yet, despite the many calls for peace, a significant number of New Yorkers want retaliation. A crowd gathers around two men heatedly debating the merits of a bombing campaign.

"There's only one way to stop them: Make them dead," says the first.

"It's not going to be just them - it's going to be us," retorts the second.

"But we are not safe now," interjects Ann Heatherington, before walking off in frustration.

"I'm a peace-loving person. I'm a compassionate person. But I think there's a point where compassion has to end," says Ms. Heatherington, a conference organizer who had several clients in the World Trade Center. "The fact that the terrorists have infiltrated this country and lived on it - eaten our pizza, shopped at our Wal-Marts - that they could attack us from within, makes me so furious."

Glancing at the two men as they continue their debate, she calls peace a "nice idea," but says that she finds insisting on nonretaliation unfair to the many families of victims that are walking around with pictures of loved ones. Still, she adds, "Let's not forget that what we're here to protect is his ability to stand there and express his opinion."

Though Union Square has been physically transformed by all the tokens of grief, even here, there are signs of life returning to normal. At the far end of the square, the farmers' market has returned.

Greg Rexhouse sells peaches, plums, and apples, as he has every Saturday for the past 20 years - though he says he can see the impact of the attacks in his customers' eyes. "It's very noticeable," he says.

As a longtime observer of the square's activity, its various demonstrations and marches, its economic ups and downs, Mr. Rexhouse admits he's never seen anything like this.

When he first began bringing fruit from his orchard in Dutchess County into the city to sell in Union Square, his father had some reservations.

"He said, 'That's the place where all the communists used to go,' " Rexhouse recalls, smiling. "But it's changed over time." He pauses, then adds quietly: "This will change it, too."

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