Activists take down 9/11 tiles to block Albany move
BY SOPHIA ROSENBAUM | Two Greenwich Village community activists recently removed iconic tiles from one of the city’s first 9/11 memorials, foiling official plans to store them at an Albany museum. Now the director of a leading ceramics organization that was working on the Albany plan is charging that the two activists have “gone rogue.”
“We will not let the tiles go to Albany where they can never be found,” said Andretti Mullens, who has been working with Dusty Berke to keep the memorial in Greenwich Village. “We’ve been investing too much time and money into this project to have the rug pulled out from under us.”
The memorial, known as Tiles for America, filled a chain-link fence at the intersection of Seventh Ave. South and Greenwich Ave. for the past 11 years, displaying hundreds of hand-painted ceramic tiles painted locally and also sent by people worldwide in the aftermath of the terror attacks.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the corner property, was set to break ground on a four-year vent construction project in Mulry Square on Mon., Sept. 17. The tiles were supposed to be removed that day and sent to the New York State Museum in Albany with intentions to later integrate some of them into the vent structure.
But three days before the construction crew arrived, Mullens and Berke took down the memorial and put the tiles in Berke’s home with hopes of soon displaying them in a nearby Greenwich Ave. building. The surprise tile takedown rankled Dena Pearlman, executive director of the Contemporary Ceramics Society Association, who said she worked with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s Office on the museum’s plan for the tiles.
“The whole thing is that we want them to succeed, but they’re just going about it the wrong way,” Pearlman said of Berke and Mullens. “They’ve gone rogue.”
Berke has acted as the site’s self-appointed curator for the past year. She worked with the community to save the memorial during Tropical Storm Irene last year, and said she believes she is the rightful owner of the tiles.
“I’m one of the good guys,” Berke said. “I’m just somebody who’s trying to save the memorial. We’re not thieves and bandits.”
What’s unclear is exactly who owns the tiles, which filled the lot’s fence at Mulry Square’s southeastern corner in the days after the terror attacks. A letter addressed to Berke from the C.C.S.A. dated Aug. 17, 2012, suggested that she was the rightful owner, even though the ceramics society wouldn’t seem to be able to confer ownership.
“In our opinion, the best way to care for and preserve the memorial is to give the responsibility to the people who are in the local community,” the letter said. “These are the people who have truly cared for the tiles on a day-to-day basis, and have acted as stewards for this memorial on their own accord.”
Berke and Mullens have been working since August to raise money for their newly formed Tiles for America Preservation Society, and to find a West Village location to exhibit the tiles. As of last Friday, their crowd-sourcing site had collected $143 of its $911,000 goal. Berke and Mullens are hoping to strike a deal with Sasha Muniak, the owner of Gusto restaurant, to display the tiles in a small building he owns next door to Gusto, at 62 Greenwich Ave. Muniak could not be reached for comment.
Mulry Square, on which St. Vincent’s Hospital was located, became one of the city’s emotional epicenters after the attacks, and the spontaneous memorial quickly grew, drawing contributions from far beyond New York.
Ceramist Lorrie Veasey, who started the memorial by creating the first tile on Sept. 12, 2001, said that while she is happy people care deeply about the site, she never expected it to be a permanent memorial.
“It shows physically the passage of time from 9/11 onward — tiles chip, crack, break, fall away,” she said. “I never made the site to stand forever or to be protected by others. In my mind, its inevitable fate should have been to crumble and erode.”
According to a spokesperson, Speaker Quinn’s Office is working behind the scenes to resolve the dispute and locate a temporary venue to display the tiles.