Hello and welcome to another of my occasional interviews with artists and writers around the world and I am delighted to welcome the writer Susan C Fox from Washington DC, author of “As The Dust Settles – Finding Life at Ground Zero”.
RealChrisSparkle: Welcome Susan! Please, to start us off, give us a bit of an outline of what your book is all about. The aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York, right?
Susan C Fox: Hi Chris. Yes, it is a book about the recovery after 9/11 in the neighborhood of ground zero, which the affected area surrounding the former World Trade Center site was called. In August of 2002, my husband and I moved to the area and after living there for several months I felt obliged to begin writing about the area and seeking out residents and later businesses to find out how they were doing as it was a very difficult area to live. I interviewed residents, businesses and people who worked in the area to discuss not simply the event of 9/11, but more so the implications it had on their lives and how they were dealing with their own recoveries.
RCS: It must have been a really strange place to live at that time. Why did you decide to move to the area in the first place?
SCF: Initially, I think I was curious about the neighborhood and thought that moving there may be a way of assisting in some way. Later, the decision became a financial one. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) was created to begin the rebuilding process and offered anyone willing to move there a monthly grant of $500 for the first two years. Given the cost of moving to NYC, which requires not only the first month’s rent and deposit (which is another month’s rent), you also had to pay the last months rent. At the time, our financial situation was a big concern and this was a way of moving without putting us in a worse financial situation.
RCS: It’s interesting that there was a financial incentive to move there, as I discovered from reading your book (which I found absolutely fascinating!) that a number of the local residents and businesses really suffered financially as a result of the terror attacks. How did the state go about helping the residents and businesses financially?
SCF: The grants that the LMDC, which was a government organization, not only provided them for new residents, but also to retain previous tenants. They also offered funds to the businesses as well. There were also charities, Safe Horizons, The Red Cross and the like, that assisted residents by reimbursing them for food costs, in some cases, medical treatments, psychological counseling, and banks offered loans at a lower rate. However, what I later discovered, many of the people living closest to ground zero had a difficult time getting assistance. For the businesses, the amount of money received depended on how long the businesses were established which for new businesses affected was for some ruin and others simply disastrous.
RCS: Yes for those people, they really suffered twice, didn’t they – as if the destruction of their buildings and neighbourhood wasn’t enough. Their financial ruin is something that wouldn’t have occurred to me. How do you think overall that the authorities coped with the situation? Did they manage it as well as could be expected, or do you think they let some people down?
SCF: I think many people were let down. What I found most interesting was that the anger many people had in my neighborhood was directed at the government, rather than the terrorist. And although there was that, the people who experienced the attacks first hand were the people least looking for retaliation. I think the EPA should have done something immediately and the contaminated buildings should have been brought down after the “pile” (the remains of the towers) was removed. All in all, it was a terribly difficult situation, but it was not organized in a way that was logical. I think initially it was simply a matter of a rescue effort, and then it was a matter of removing the debris and getting the area cleaned. But after things settled a bit, I think organization was lacking and their was not a central focus on the future of the neighborhood.
RCS: That is fascinating – that the people who were affected first hand were the least retaliative; I guess they were just relieved to be alive. And you touch on another subject here that I don’t think many people in the UK at least were really aware of – the contamination. Basically, the area was strewn with poisoned dust, is that right? That must have given rise to many health scares.
SCF: Incredibly so. When the owners of the Deutsche Bank finally sold the building to the LMDC, which was several years later, a report surfaced regarding the kinds and amounts of chemicals in that building and it was staggering. Much of the danger was already known to medical professionals especially those attending to the rescue workers, but little was done and people had returned to the area and lived there for several years. Most of the air testing was done three years after the attacks, so it was too little too late. Outside of the contamination, there was also the problem of rodent infestation and very little mention of the amount or level of human remains that were all over the area. For the people cleaning out their apartments and businesses, this was also a problem.
RCS: There’s an almost pathetic photograph in the book of someone’s otherwise elegant living room covered with grime, which really brings home a sense of how personally the contamination invaded people’s lives. Is the area generally safe now?
SCF: That’s a great question. I should think generally, as a whole, it is safe. However, I would also add that for many of the residential buildings it is questionable, as they were not properly tested. Much of the dust may have gone below the floors, between walls, etc. and in some cases there are buildings that remain untouched. They were empty on September 11, 2001 and remain so. Those buildings, I would assume contain all of the dust and debris from that period. Unless the buildings’ interior structure (behind the walls, ceiling and floors) are tested, there is really no way of knowing.
RCS: That is a pretty scary situation. Does that add to a general unease for the current residents, or are they just putting it out of their collective minds?
SCF: I think, in the end, one must move forward. Part of the difficulty for the residents, workers, and businesses has been the ability to move forward and continue with their lives even after three or four years. The construction process has been just as painful for them. Many people left the area for different reasons. Those who have stayed, they have to live with this question everyday. For some, they lived and worked in the debris cleaning out their own homes without any assistance for close to nine months. They lived with the contamination, as did the rescue workers. In the end, many of them realize they have been exposed and will deal with the consequences. For those who are new to the area, I am not sure it is an issue.
RCS: Can I ask you about the people that you interviewed for the book? How many people did you actually speak to, and how did you go about finding people to interview?
SCF: I interviewed nearly 140 people, some on the record, some off. My first interview was in May of 2003 and my last was November of 2004. So I spent almost 18 months interviewing people. Some people I found through friends and acquaintances, others I read about in the papers and wanted to learn more from them as many of their interviews were really piecemeal So I cold called people and stopped into businesses. Some people gave me referrals and contacted their friends, and as I moved further into my research I found others in government agencies and the like. I have to admit I was quite nervous cold calling people, but overall the reception I got was amazing and so many people wanted to talk on so many different levels and for so many different reasons.
RCS: That is a huge number – you undertook a really comprehensive survey. I can imagine that the cold calling was a bit nerve-wracking, but it’s interesting that people were willing to talk so readily. Do you think you almost provided a counselling service to them?
SCF: In some cases, I think so. Overall I think 85-90% of the people I asked to speak to agreed. I really became emotionally connected to these people. It is hard to walk into someone’s home without knowing them and ask them to trust me and tell me about the worst day in their lives. The more I found out, the more respect and admiration I had for all of them, and the more I knew I needed to get the book out. After a year and a half, I eventually was burned out, and needed to take a bit of a reprieve from the book. Unfortunately, four of the people I interviewed passed away before the book was published and that is in itself difficult.
RCS: I was wondering if you had become personal friends with any of them as a result – although maybe friends isn’t the right word? Preparing the book, and then publishing it – albeit after your necessary break away from it – must have become almost like a personal mission for you. Did you feel as though you were allowing these people to have a voice, so that their story can be understood by a wider audience?
SCF: I have become friends with many of them, and two of the people who died, I felt very close to. It really was a personal mission, initially the need to write the book came from within. I found it to be such a difficult place to live and I just kept thinking, how are the people doing who were here on that terrible day? How are they surviving? So it began from my own needs, and then it evolved into the need to tell the story of this community. I felt they were underrepresented and they had so much to tell. In the end, I think that by living there and living with all of the daily pressures I was able to experience something that another writer, who didn’t live there may not have. But I also think, that by not being there on 9/11, I had a bit of a distance and yet I also experienced the attack on my own city of DC. In other words, I had a vantage point of understanding and at the same time distance. I think this helped with trust and my commitment to the area and community. At the same time, my distance from the event itself, allowed me to do the interviews and write the book.
RCS: For my part, I think you’ve absolutely achieved that – you are able to bring these individuals’ experiences to the reader and get quite intimately involved with each story – they’re all different in their own ways – but in a structural way, you somehow remain dispassionate and non-judgmental, which really allows the reader to focus on the people themselves. On a personal level – if I may be so bold – did it make you think differently about your own life?
SCF: Thanks Chris that is kind of you — there are some things that I wish I could have included, but my main goal of the book was to stay back from the personal stories and experiences and allow people to speak. I struggled with this at times, not in the way of critique, but adding perhaps more of a theoretical perspective. In the end, I chose not to. My experiences upon moving to NYC were so interesting and so many different things happened on different levels on a daily basis that I was frequently emotionally moved and continuously working through these moments. I felt that I was being thrown into something in such a way that it has to be told. Once you add the community into the fold, I thought it could be a different kind of book.
The whole experience, professionally and personally has changed me. I was not used to this kind of writing be it sociological or journalistic and it began out of the need to do it. I think in the end, it has had to change me, but it is difficult to say how as it has been unfolding for sometime and I’m getting older. Although, the whole experience at times was very difficult I wouldn’t change it. I never thought I could fall in love with a community and neighborhood as much as I have and I guess with any love affair you have to take the good with the bad. I have always been somewhat on the periphery of communities that I have been involved with, and I can say that has really changed. I know my neighbors now and get involved with their lives and they with mine. In the end, they may be the people you have to rely on and that may need you.
RCS: They say every book changes the world, but you don’t always think that applies to its author. Thanks for that thoughtful reply. From my own experience, I know that life is very different in a village from in a large town (having lived in both) and that community spirit varies widely from place to place. But you can have that closeness even within a large and ostensibly faceless community and it sounds like that’s something that will stay with you for good! So, having written this book, do you have the urge to write another?
SCF: Indeed, there are many villages in large cities and at the same time you have your anonymity as well. Yes, I do have some things in mind, a bit more academic. But at present, with a two and a three and a half year old, I think I will have to hold off on that for a bit. I am teaching and hope that a book can come out of the research I have been doing and perhaps it all stems from my experiences with the book in some ways. I teach art students, and one of my courses “the psychology of creativity” is a hit with the students, so hopefully I can write a book on creativity and how it relates to the psychology of the individual and their need to create.
RCS: Your course sounds fascinating! And yes I can well imagine that having two youngsters is not entirely conducive to spending hours researching at the computer. Good luck with your new book as and when you get the opportunity! Thank you again Susan for your time speaking to me today and very best wishes for the future.
SCF: Thanks Chris. It has been an absolute pleasure!
And if you want to buy “As the Dust Settles” it’s available from Amazon here.
Photos copyright of Susan C Fox with the exception of the black and white photograph of the apartment living room, copyright Cheryl Dunn.