Winter 2001

We hardly knew you

Street-corner merchandising tries to remember the twin towers

Those of us who were lucky enough to be away from our New York City homes on 11 September 2001 (such as Stefan Sagmeister, who collected and captioned the images on these pages, and myself) returned a few days later to a drastically altered landscape. The change wasn't just the decapitated downtown skyline or the thick acrid dust in the air, but an eerie silence, as if all the ritual daily noise of yelling, bus engines and car horns had been sucked out of the city. People were walking up and down Broadway, but no one seemed to be shopping. It was a gloomy procession.

Right in the thick of this scenario there emerged one of the weirdest manifestations of graphic design merchandising ever seen: the post-disaster souvenir T-shirt. Piled up on hastily erected trestle tables by the same itinerant salesmen and women who sell umbrellas in rainstorms and hats and gloves in winter, the twin towers T-shirts offered an instantaeous conversion of horror into a $5 piece of patriotism. A take-home tchotchke for visitors – proof, perhaps, that they’d been here during the biggest news media day in American history. And for many of us, a source of considerable bemusement.

But any initial distaste we felt at the flagrant opportunism in these garish goods swiftly turned into an odd sort of comfort. New York's famous shoestring entrepreneurism, which compels rose sellers to interrupt romantic restaurant dinners and fake video salesmen to set up shop outside Blockbuster, was back-like Bruce Willis – with a vengeance. Printers had simply returned to their silk-screens to do what they knew best: find the buck in the bang. Our city had been devastated, but its mercantile spirit was, to quote one of the T-shirts, still standing tall.