The Hudson Reporter, September 29, 2002
By Nancy Colasurdo
Frances Hanlon-Chavez has been a Hoboken resident since Sept. 7, 2001. One week she was in her native Scotland. The next she was watching the World Trade Center towers crumble to dust from a friend’s apartment balcony.
“It was very surreal,” she said. “It was like watching an American movie back in Scotland.”
After a year that has included not only Sept. 11 but her husband’s diagnosis of cancer and losing their home, Hanlon-Chavez has seen Hoboken’s Symposia Project and its community-building mission as a haven of sorts. Thanks to that association, she had the chance to be a part of the healing in New York City and give back at the same time.
Symposia, an organization whose vibrant center is a used bookstore at 511 Willow Ave., collaborated with the New York City Parks Department and artist Phyllis Yampolsky on the Town Hall Wall in Union Square from Sept. 7 to 12. The city sponsored the project, Yampolsky created it, and Symposia provided the volunteers to supervise it.
“Everyone has really brought their skills to the table,” said Eric Peterson, director of special events and permits for Manhattan. “None of us would have been able to pull this off without the partnership. It’s a promising partnership for the future.”
The wall – built in the Symposia bookstore and transported to Manhattan on a truck – was constructed from a wooden frame with silver insulation materials. It consisted of 700 squares, each 8 x 8 inches. People were invited to express their thoughts on brightly colored paper squares of the same size and then affix them to the wall. Tables and chairs were provided to make the setting comfortable and reflective.
As days of radiant sunshine reminiscent of Sept. 11 bathed a bustling Union Square, the multi-colored wall facing 14th Street was a brilliant sight. A close look revealed drawings of the Twin Towers, expressions of love and peace, and calls for action. There were at least a dozen languages represented, including American Sign Language. Media coverage was vast and global.
Cornel Rusu, Symposia’s project coordinator, was most struck by watching how people related to the setup.
“They come, they read what was posted by others, and then they take a piece of paper,” he said. “The most beautiful moment is when they sit with that piece of paper. They start thinking deeply into themselves and from the depths of their soul they bring out something beautiful. That is such a deep moment.”
Rusu and other Symposia volunteers first caught a glimpse of what the wall could be when they partnered with Yampolsky for Hoboken’s Art and Music Festival last May 5.
“I hope I never have to do a wall without Symposia,” said Yampolsky, whose creation has been featured in many events, including both Clinton inaugural festivals. “Symposia volunteers are efficient, responsible and generous. That’s an extraordinary combination.”
A sizable group of those Hoboken volunteers showed their altruistic side over the course of the project: Hanlon-Chavez, Doug Donkin, Darlene Cole, Victoria Fann, Miles Fann, Julian Fann, Rachel Caplan, Gianluca Bruno, Michael Stenzler, Sacha Chavez, Carmen Rusu, Sharon Melius Elder, Mark Elder, Amy O’Brien and Martha Garvey.
“It allowed me to help people share their story,” said Caplan. “We had one woman who thought the wall was not allowing for diversity of expression. I told her this was just one way to allow people to express themselves. She ended up participating and thanking us.”
Hanlon-Chavez was most cognizant of her role as listener.
“It was difficult not to feel the tension,” she said.