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The Devil and Michael Alig

Busting the King of Club Kids
By William Bastone and Jennifer Gonnerman

In the final deluded days before his arrest, Michad Alig had convinced himself that he could trade Peter Gatien’s scalp for Angel Melendez’s torso. For the 31-year-old club kid, this surely seemed like a fair barter: in the debauched demimonde he once ruled, the only thing worse than being dead is being dull. 

Holed up with his 22-year-old boyfriend in a Toms River, New Jersey, motel, Alig had become the pawn of Drug Enforcement Administration agents Man Germanowski and Bob Gagne, who were using him as an informant to fortify their drug-trafficking case against Gatien, New York’s night­club king. Simultaneously, Alig was the prey of another pair of investigators. 

Working from a secret Soho office — upstairs from an art gallery and just south of Commes des Garçons on Wooster Street — Miguel Rodriguez and Walter Alexander, investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, were preparing to nab Alig for the March murder of Melendez, a nightclub habitué and low-level drug dealer.

Played out against the backdrop of these two competing criminal probes, Alig’s frantic last weeks took on an added urgency, with him mistakenly believing that his DEA cooperation would somehow provide immunity from a homicide charge. This misguided notion probably reflects less on Alig’s grasp of the criminal justice system than it does in the accused killer’s value system.

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As he passed on damaging information about Gatien to the DEA, Alig became more certain that he would never be charged with Melendez’s murder. At one point in October — before Melendez’s body had been ID’d by the city medical examiner — Alig telephoned his friend Rachel Cain and poked fun at the homicide probe. Pretending he was Rodriguez, Alig demanded that Cain immediately come to the D.A.’s office for an interview, she told the Voice Sunday. 

Known as “Screaming Rachel,” Cain is a tireless self-promoter (she kicked off a conversation about Melendez’s murder by plugging a Geraldo appearance and her fledgling record label) who was the first Alig friend to publicly confirm that the club kid had spoken of murdering Melendez. As it turned out, Cain’s version — provided to the Voice in June — dovetailed with details of the bludgeoning and dismemberment that investigators believe occurred in Apartment 3K at the Riverbank West skyscraper on West 43rd Street.

Cain told the Voice that, during two lengthy interviews with Rodriguez, she recounted Alig’s statements about the Melendez killing. Cain’s recitation apparently was used by prosecutors last week to buttress murder charges filed against Alig and Robert Riggs, a 28-year-old club denizen known as “Freeze.”

The felony complaints open by referring to statements made by Alig days after the mid­-March slaying. The account is attributed in the complaints to a D.A.’s informant; Cain conced­ed it was a “possibility” she was the unnamed source. Cain also admitted that, like Alig, she has been cooperating with DEA agents and federal prosecutors in a continuing grand jury probe of drug activity at Gatien’s nightspots. For her help, Cain has received witness fees, per diem allowances, and a small lump-sum payment

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Alig had originally been a target of the DEA’s probe, which began about a year ago and resulted in the May indictment of Gatien and a score of other defendants on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges. Wiretap affidavits ob­tained by the Voice show that Alig, who has not been charged in the federal case, was suspected of involvement in “various schemes to distribute large amounts” of the hallucinogen Ecstasy. 

Cain apparently was not the only Alig asso­ciate to whom the club kid provided details of Melendez’s death. One Voice source recalled that a “very agitated, very upset” Alig approached him in March and asked, “Do you have a car?” The acquaintance was immediately suspicious, recalling in an interview Saturday that “I knew he didn’t want to take a ride. I know Mike. Mike’s crazy.”

The source said Alig then proceeded to describe how he and Riggs killed Melendez and how “he had a dead body in his apartment” and needed to move it. Days later, in an encounter at the Limelight nightclub, the source said Alig commented, “We got rid of the body.” Despite the charges against Alig, the source added that he was “not a bad person.” Like Cain, a reluctant witness who was doggedly pursued by Rodriguez, the Voice source never thought to contact police about Alig’s confession.

One law enforcement source said that Melendez’s body sat in Alig’s bathtub for several days before the club kid and Riggs dismembered it and stuffed it into a box. They then carried the large package downstairs, flagged down a taxicab, and headed to the Hudson River, where they dumped it. 

In the face of a murder investigation, the reluctance of Alig’s associates to assist probers vexed Rodriguez and others in the D.A.’s office, sources said. From the outset, investigators suspected that Alig’s confession was no hoax, but needed a body before they could contemplate a murder prosecution. Investigators believed they had found Melendez’s body in September when a mutilated corpse was fished out of the water off Manhattan’s northern shore.

But while that body turned out to be just another unidentified casualty, press reports at the time struck a chord with police assigned to Staten Island’s 122nd Precinct. On April 12, Detective Ralph Gengo had responded to a call at Oakwood Beach, a scruffy spit of sand just north of Great Kills Park, where locals fish for flounder and teenagers build fires on the weekend. There, a group of children had stumbled across a box containing a legless body. A subsequent autopsy by Dr. Jonathan Arden of the medical examiner’s office determined that victim had died of asphyxia after being struck three time on the head with a blunt object.

Using dental records, Staten Island police and D.A. investigators in late October identified the corpse as that of Melendez. Investigators broke the news to Melendez’s family, adding that they expected to make arrests in the case during the first week of December. The only suspects were Alig and Riggs.

Police arrested Alig in New Jersey at 3 a.m. last Thursday. They picked up Riggs later that morning and “invited him to come down and answer a few questions.” The 28-year-old could have refused, but instead rode with Rodriguez and Alexander to Wooster Street, where the D.A.’s official corruption unit is headquartered. The Soho office, which has unlisted phone numbers and is not included in a building directory, handles police corruption cases and other sensitive matters.

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As D.A. representatives pressed him for de­tails of Melendez’s disappearance, Riggs — who did not ask for a lawyer — surprised investigators by admitting his and Alig’s role in the murder. Along with a written confession, Riggs was videotaped describing the killing, the hacking off of Melendez’s legs, and the disposal of the body. In contrast, when Alig was arrested, probers were not allowed to question him about the killing since Alig had previously hired an attorney. That retainer was made in connec­tion with Alig’s cooperation with the DEA and Brooklyn federal prosecutors. 

When a Voice reporter visited Riggs Saturday at Rikers Island, he was dressed in a slate gray, short-sleeved jumpsuit with Velcro closures up the front. He wore slip-on sandals and white tube socks. Gone were the high-top Nikes, blue and green parachute pants, and shimmery parka he wore the prior day at his arraignment. Riggs refused to discuss his role in the Melendez murder, speaking only about his journey to New York from Florida 10 years ago to work as a milliner. Riggs added that he had recently been designing stage props and costumes for movies and Broadway productions. 

Alig declined Sunday to see a Voice reporter who tried to visit him at Rikers’s Anna M. Kross Center, where Riggs is also housed. While being arraigned Friday afternoon, Alig fidgeted nervously, bit his nails, and scanned the courtroom for familiar faces. As he stood in the dock, with his striped boxers peeking out from the back of his baggy, khaki-colored pants, Alig seemed to be reeling. 

He had spent the prior few months trying to salvage his career in the face of whispers that he was a murderer. At times, to escape the scrutiny and the rumors, he would head to the Garden State to be with 22-year-old Brian McCauley who sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing at the Toms River Macy’s. For Alig, the sleepy town surely must have been a comedown. It was inhabited by tunnel people, who, along with their bridge counterparts, filled up Gatien’s clubs on many of the nights Alig promoted parties. They were the ones who paid at the door and were never palmed a drink ticket. 

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Closeted in the Riverwatch Inn & Irish Pub, a few doors down from the Catholic Charities office, Alig left his room only for trips across the street to the 7-Eleven. With his canary yellow hair and effeminate manner, he quickly caught the eye of the locals. “Oh, it’s the fag!” clerk Robin Simone laughed Saturday when asked about Alig. “He was always patting his boyfriend’s butt. I thought they were gonna get it on right in here.” The Riverwatch owner also had a wisecrack ready, claiming that Alig and his young companion had stayed in “Room 69” at the 50-room motel. 

The slurs were ugly, but it was hard to feel sorry for Alig since he was the one quoted in October’s Details magazine calling Melendez a “scum-of-the-earth drug dealer,” virtually implying he got what was coming to him. But this slight was no surprise. Alig sat at the center of a firmament of cynical, low-rent “stars” whose lives usually revolved around drug use and other assorted excesses.

Until his arrest last week, Alig’s life had been filled with flashes from a camera strobe, disco balls, and spotlights. But as he was driven away from the Riverwatch early Thursday, he was illuminated by only the whirling cherry top on a Dover Township police cruiser. As the cop car headed down Water Street, the last glimpse of neon Michael Alig may see came from a Budweiser sign in the shape of a shamrock, hanging in the window of a musty Jersey dive. 

Additional reporting by J.A. Lobbia and Thomas Goetz

Inside Alig’s Brain: Drugs, Genius, Pedophilia
By Frank Owen

Add prostituting an underage runaway and having sex with minors to Michael Alig’s grow­ing list of alleged criminal activities. In the wake of the arrest of the former king of the club kids for the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez, a disturbing portrait of Alig as a predatory pedophile and sometime pimp is beginning to emerge. 

According to close friends — both current and former — in 1991 Alig dressed a homeless 12-year-old boy in drag (to look like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby) and took him to Edel­weiss, a notorious hustler joint then located on West 29th Street. Here the boy sold his backside to get food and drug money for him­self and Alig. “A menace to young boys” is how one former confidant describes Alig. Others, however, insist that any sexual activity was entirely consensual, albeit thoroughly illegal. “Michael was getting sex and money, these boys were getting the time of their young lives,” says one of Alig’s pals.

Previously, according to the same people, Alig had visited Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, where he photographed and took phone numbers from a string of East German hustlers whom he attempted to sell as houseboys to rich New York patrons. “The scheme never really got off the ground,” says one insider. “Michaell was too disorganized.”

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Alig has made a habit of flaunting the law. Whether walking through the lobby of his posh apartment building holding a crack pipe, or doing drugs in public while helping the DEA build its drug conspiracy case against his former boss Peter Gatien, or boasting to friends about murdering Melendez, Alig has long felt the rules governing the rest of society don’t apply to him. He’s so brazen he even repeated the story of the 12-year-old and the East German houseboys to numerous friends on many occasions.

Alig has openly admitted that he’s a pedophile, and used to keep a stack of kiddie porn maga­zines in his apartment. Before his arrest, he was usually seen with a posse of young boys in tow. According to writer Stephen Saban, who lives down the hall from Alig’s former pad, “He [Alig] was giving young boys [the date rape drug] Rohypnol so he could have sex with them. I would see young kids coming to his apartment all the time.” 

Not that these young hustlers and run­aways were angels, insists Saban. If Alig was an exploiter — “a get-over queen,” in Saban’s phrase — he also allowed himself to be exploit­ed. “Inevitably Michael would be so fucked up he could hardly walk, so these kids would prop him up and walk him out into the street and get into a cab with him so that they could get into the clubs for free.” 

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How did the energetic upstart who single-handedly launched his own youth sub­culture in the ’80s turn into the messed­-up sociopath and accused murderer of today? How did the twisted creativity of the original club-kid scene tip over into outright evil? 

Alig’s nightclub career began in the early ’80s, when — fresh from South Bend, Indiana — the 18-year-old started working at Danceteria as a bus boy. People remember him from those days as a nerdy but cute gay boy conventionally attired in blue jeans and white T-shirt who didn’t look old enough to be in the club in the first place. The green hair and extravagant out­fits would come later. 

The club kids were widely ridiculed as brattish outsiders by older trendies when they first appeared. The original Details magazine dis­missed Alig and his crew as “little boys in bean­ies.” Yet Alig ended up revitalizing Downtown (first at Danceteria and the Tunnel, later at Club USA and Disco 2000) at a time when the rapidly aging scene was in desperate need of an injection of young blood. 

“Michael’s genius was in recognizing that the only thing separating the fabulous person from the non fabulous person was somebody’s saying so,” says writer-filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who caught the novice Alig how to throw par­ties. “He saw that he didn’t need to work his way into the established elite of Downtown nightlife. Instead, he gathered around him a whole bunch of friends, inspired them, and transformed them visually, and created his own scene of which he was the king. Like Andy Warhol, he realized that stardom was nothing more than a fantastic act of self-invention.” 

Michael not only reinvented himself, he also made over his friends. Before he met Alig, the self-styled “Superstar DJ” Keoki was a hum­ble flight attendant at TWA. The same thing happened to Robert Riggs, who has confessed to participating with Alig in the murder of Angel. Riggs, whose nom de disco is “Freeze,” was a high-­end hat designer who dressed conservatively before falling under Alig’s charismatic spell.

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Alig had shown perverse tendencies from an early age. While other kids were content with watching horror and slasher movies, the 15-year-old Alig ordered hardcore snuff movies through the mail. But in the early ’90s, his perversity started to slip over into outright depravity as the glitzy drag queens and fashion victims that provided him with his initial following were replaced by a younger, rougher, druggier crowd. His parties became less creative and increasingly sordid. Witness the “Emergency Room” and gore parties that were so characteristic of the last days of Disco 2000. His character changed completely under the influ­ence of so many drugs — especially heroin, which he started using in the early ’90s. Alig took on the traits of a manic depressive, euphoric one minute, suicidal the next. It was also at this time that he caught hepatitis and a large tumor appeared on his upper spine — the result of years of indiscriminate drug use. He got sicker and sicker in every way — physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

“His life, especially in the last two years, has been a suicide mission,” says Gatien publicist Ron Allen, a childhood friend of Alig’s. “Even before he was arrested, he talked about suicide constantly. Everybody I know thinks Michael will take his own life rather than serve out a long jail term. Up to now, he’s always had a way out — whether another pill to pop or another party to promote. He’s cornered; I fear death is his only way out.” 

Another friend isn’t so sure: “Michael is too much of a narcissist to take his own life.” 

He may get some help, though: on Monday he was reportedly severely beaten in jail by four other inmates. ❖ 

The View From Clubland
By Michael Musto

The Michael Alig arrest hasn’t had much impact on nightlife, as it turns out, because nothing can stop a party in motion, because a lot of clubbies don’t read, and mainly because the effects of Alig’s plight had set in way before the handcuffs snapped shut.

Most club crawlers I talked to in the wake of the arrest either had no idea of recent events or were so plugged in to the situation that they barely flinched, but either way it wasn’t intruding on whatever nightly rituals are left to be scraped up in the Giuliani era. Last Friday at Twilo, where club kids use to mix liberally with the civilian crowd, the long line of revelers waiting to get in was inordinately low on vinyl, fake fur, and war paint. “The Alig situation has already had its effect for a while, and that’s why we’re seeing the crowd we’re seeing,” said doorperson Kate Harwood. “It’s a lot less colorful. Not that I was a fan of the club kid scene, because it was getting nasty already. We knew there were too many drug combinations going on.” Her co-doorperson, Lincoln Palsgrove III, agreed: Alig’s kids haven’t been a potent night force for some time. “Michael was trying to achieve Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “but it became too decadent and there was no glamour to it anymore. There was no sense of responsibility like at studio 54.”

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Over at Peter Gatien’s Tunnel, where Alig once ruled, the medium-sparkly crowd seemed oblivious to current events, though in the bathroom, a leggy, blond drag queen named Eva Love did appear mildly alarmed. “Its going to be a wake-up call on the  scene,” she said, defiantly downing a swig of Poland Spring water — a far cry from the Ecstasy-Special K combos of the Alig era. Outside, a door guard was emitting even more sobering tones. “The papers keep running that picture of Michael with Peter Gatien,” he lamented, and I understood the concern. Gatien — who’s being investigated for alleged drug trafficking at his nightspots — doesn’t want any lingering connection with the troubled club kid, even though they were bound at the hip-cool-trendoid for years. In fact, Gatien’s publicist took pains to remind me last week that the murder happened after Peter dumped Alig — though my calendar seems to note that the firing and the ru­mors all surfaced in the same few weeks.

As the breaking blind item I ran in April becomes an eye-opening reality, everyone’s putting in his two cents (except the folks at Mi­rage, where Michael threw his most recent par­ties; when I called for comment, they simply laughed hysterically). Cornered at a restaurant, club staple JoJo Americo choked on  his sand­wich, then declared, “Give him the chair!” But drag performer Lady Bunny said, “Michael al­ways gave me the feeling that he was looking out for me,” though she then claimed he did once slip her a beverage she later learned was tinged with his urine — “when he had hepatitis.”

The most typical debate had the aforementioned flack telling club observer Stephen Sa­ban, “It’s horrible what drugs did to Michael,” and Saban replying, “But it’s not the drugs. I’ve known millions of drug users who’ve never killed anyone.” Let alone cut off their legs. Alas, the Giulianis of the world would probably love us to think that nightlife is exclusively populated with druggies and killers, and that the two are inexorably intertwined. He doesn’t go out as much as I do. As longtime promoter Susanne Bartsch told me, “This has nothing to do with nightlife. [Michael’s condition] was a pattern of not liking yourself. Going to a club is not a drug addiction.” And a drug addiction can’t create barbaric impulses that aren’t there. This is an isolated incident, like the hideous eradication of Eigil Vesti after he was picked up at a club in the ’80s. The Angel saga doesn’t convince me that all club impresarios are treacherous any more than O.J. makes me run from athletes faster than I already do.

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My take on Alig was always that he was brilliant, but a potential wreck waiting to happen, that his sense of fun too often hinged on pro­voking people in ways that made them uncom­fortable and angry. At a club, he’d grab you and pull you down a stairway and into a pool. He’d stand there with a friend and openly make fun of you. But you’d forgive him because he threw wickedly amusing, exuberantly envelope­-pushing parties — because the tinge of danger could take on a liberating edge — and he could be warm and effusive too. “Michael’s a human being like everybody else,” says Kenny Kenny, Michael’s old drag doorman. “Nobody’s all good or all bad.”

The way Alig shook up bourgeois notions was a welcome kick in the butt, until he’d go too far and I’d have to start apologizing for knowing him. In an ’88 Voice cover story, I described some of his bigger outrages, like the party he threw to which only HIV-negatives were invit­ed — his idea of a joke — or his Child Pornography Ring soiree, at which people used play money to buy dates with 16-year-olds, Alig pay­ing the kids real cash to go through with it. Alig couldn’t praise the mood-altering drug Ecstasy enough, but typically told me about crack, “It’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it.” And when he started getting in touch with late-’80s activism, Alig’s ideology was, “People arc so blasé and lazy. They don’t want to go out and pillage and bum police cars anymore.” I bet he’d like to burn some police cars now.

You can chart the progression from ’86 Area to ’96 Mirage, but it was still the same Alig — except that every time he developed more presence on the scene, he’d lose touch with a few more behavioral boundaries. One of his ex-sidekicks, James St. James, recently moved to L.A. as a result of all the goings-on. “I love Michael dearly, but I can’t be around any of this,” St. James told me last week. “It’s totally destroyed my entire view of what we were doing. I thought the club kid movement was about breaking the rules and seeing how far you could push things. Now I realize that isn’t a good thing because absolute power corrupts absolutely. He had too much and thought he could get away with anything, which is not to say that he’s guilty or innocent. But it’s to say that he could get away with murder if he wanted to.”

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On the scene, club kids can’t get away with much of anything anymore. Ex-Gatien em­ployee Steve Lewis is opening a club called Life that Kenny Kenny, who’ll do the door, said will play host to an older, more modely crowd. And over at B Bar (formerly Bowery Bar), which al­ready has that crowd, the disgraced Alig is obvi­ously no longer swinging in with friends for lav­ish dinners. Did he used to pay? “Probably not too frequently — maybe in little pieces,” co-owner Eric Goode said, then philosophically added, “Life is certainly stranger than fiction.”

It’s especially bizarre if you believe the new hearsay filtering in: that Alig skipped town at one point because he was afraid Gatien would get him; that an ex of Alig’s was privy to the crime; that a girl who drove Alig cross-country after the murder could be in trouble for aiding and abetting; that Alig’s been going through withdrawal at Rikers and will be moved to a nicer joint because he’s the star witness in the case against Gatien; and that a prominent TV personality is paying Alig’s bail and legal fees. Also, though confessed cohort Robert “Freeze” Riggs (who’s suddenly a noted hat designer in the press) told the cops that Angel owed Alig rent, I hear the dealer didn’t officially live with Alig at all, he just frequently stayed over.

Amid the daisy chain of finger-pointing — Riggs ratting on Alig ratting on Gatien — speculation is so frenzied that some feel Michael may even be enjoying his public-enemy status be­cause it’s his most famous achievement yet (there are people on the scene who’d apparently kill for publicity). That’s doubtful, but in any case, the intrigue to come promises to be the sickest, most elaborate Alig party ever. Gushes St. James, “The trial will be absolutely beauti­ful, with [club regular] Amanda LaPore in a big hat and all the drag queens parading. It’ll be a fabulous image.” ❖

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Reprint: City of Ghosts

Editor’s note: The following article, by Tom Robbins and Jennifer Gonnerman, was published originally on September 19, 2001. We’re running it now to mark the fifth anniversary of New York’s saddest day.


City of Ghosts
100 Minutes of Tragedy That Will Haunt Us All
September 19, 2001
by Tom Robbins and Jennifer Gonnerman

At 9:59 on the morning of Day One, with the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower, a rain of fine gray dust began settling on lower Manhattan. It coated the streets and cars, the trapped rescue vehicles, the trees in the parks, the late summer flowers, the faces and clothes of the panicky citizens rushing for their lives; it nestled on the hats and helmets of the police and firefighters, and into the hair of the emergency medical workers.

The rain thickened 30 minutes later with the fall of the second tower, leaving a dusty carpet inches thick on the gleaming new glass financial houses in Battery Park City, on the restored fountain in front of City Hall, on the old, narrow, crooked streets of the financial district, the ones that drove Melville’s Bartleby mad with their looming high walls.

The ash could be seen rising from the angry red and yellow flames that raged high above the city after the demon airplanes struck. It was carried on billowing clouds of black smoke that rose into a bright blue sky where a faint half-moon still hung, the last emblem of the innocent night before. A steady northwest breeze steered it over the harbor, past Governor’s Island into Brooklyn and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

In the hours after the terrible cataclysm, those trodding through the lower Manhattan streets, their footsteps muffled as though in fresh snow, realized the powder that some called ash and soot was also made of something else: Concrete dust. It was the buildings themselves, pulverized by the billions of pounds of downward pressure generated by the collapse.

What had that impossible event felt like close up? “First, this tremendous wind. Then it was like you put your hand inside a sand castle; it just crumbled,” said Felix Sanchez, 46, who, with two dozen coworkers, ran 30 blocks to the site to help.

Some 425,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured into the Twin Towers as they rose in the late 1960s. Concrete formed the thick slabs dividing the 110 floors of each building and was also poured 70 feet deep into the ground to hold the mighty steel beams that supported the buildings’ vertical loads. It was enough concrete, as its builders then proudly proclaimed, to pave a five-foot-wide sidewalk all the way from Manhattan to Washington, D.C.

“The scale was cyclopean,” said Eric Darton, who wrote a critical history of the towers two years ago and watched their final chapter from the windows of his doctor’s office on Tuesday.

More than 1.2 million cubic yards of earth and rock were excavated to make way for the World Trade Center. More than 200,000 tons of steel were used, each beam weighing 52 tons. There were 43,600 narrow windows—containing 600,000 square feet of glass. When the building was completed, every inch of pane was cleaned by automatic machines that moved vertically along stainless steel tracks. There were 99 elevators, arranged by zones so that no trip took more than two minutes. Five million square feet of painted gypsum board formed interiors, along with 7 million square feet of acoustical tiles, 200,000 lighting fixtures, 40,000 doorknobs, 1200 soap dispensers.

It was so rock solid then: A pair of 1350-foot-tall monuments visible on clear days from Bear Mountain in the north to Sandy Hook in the south. They were a guide and compass for anyone lost in the city. They were the gargantuan presence against which all large things were measured. “As big as the World Trade Center” was a universal yardstick. When King Kong was remade in 1976, the gorilla’s final fatal climb was shifted from the Empire State Building to the new towers. The moviemakers constructed an immense replica of the fallen beast in the plaza, surrounded by fake rubble. Office workers staring from the 80th floor remarked how tiny the mighty Kong looked.

The Twin Towers were the first buildings to catch the rising sun, reflecting a brilliant light off their metallic finish. Israeli-born architect Eli Attia, who designed the sleek Millenium Hilton Hotel across Church Street from the Trade Center, was awakened every morning in his Brooklyn bedroom by the light. “Winter or summer, the reflected light from the towers filled our windows,” he said. Toward sunset, before the electric lights came on, from a certain angle the towers resembled a pair of mammoth trees.

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Great tragedies leave behind legions of ghosts. They are the ghosts of those who perished, who would otherwise walk the streets, ride the subways and buses, dine in restaurants, toil at their jobs, laugh aloud in movie theaters, hold their children, make love to their partners. There one minute, they are suddenly disappeared, leaving only echoes, photographs, and intangible, ever-fading memories.

Insulated from the direst natural storms, modern New York City nevertheless has had its own experience with enormous loss. At its virulent peak in 1994, AIDS-related deaths claimed more than 8300. By last year, the disease had killed 74,000. For those in the communities most affected during the epidemic’s early days—gay men, intravenous drug users—it was not uncommon for people to have attended dozens of funerals. The deluge of death was so overwhelming for many in those communities, as Guy Trebay recorded eloquently in these pages in 1995, that an army of ghosts seemed to be everywhere, haunting the survivors.

So, too, for the city’s then small Honduran community after a jealous spurned lover set fire to a crowded illegal Bronx social club called “Happy Land” in 1990, killing 87. A single DC-8 carried 50 bodies back to the island for burial. The event still haunts the city’s Honduran families, who attend an annual memorial mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Crotona Parkway and then walk to the site of the fire, where a monument has been erected.

Haunted as well are the city neighborhoods that took the brunt of the deadly crack cocaine epidemic in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the city’s murder rate crested at 2245. In the largely African American community of East New York, Brooklyn, there were 126 murders in 1993. Death came so often and so regularly in such close quarters that it was impossible to find anyone who had not suffered the violent loss of a friend or family member.

None match the vast new army of ghosts created within 100 lethal minutes between the moment the first plane struck to the collapse of the second tower on the otherwise resplendent morning of September 11.

How many died? The numbers, made purposefully vague by authorities fearful for public morale, are a moving target. On Monday, the estimate of those missing or dead stood at 5623. Gathered together, the victims would overflow the bleachers in Yankee Stadium.

But if the horrifying numbers are still imprecise, the ghosts have already assembled. They are there in the hundreds of posters created by distraught family members and friends, taped to trees, telephone booths, mailboxes, bus shelters, and vans. More than 1000 have been attached to the plywood “Wall of Prayer” at the entrance to Bellevue Hospital, just south of the grim East 30th Street offices of the city’s medical examiner, where refrigerated trucks hold corpses and body parts. An astonishing number of the posters are computer-generated snapshots: pictures from weddings, from vacation cruises, from barbecues. Some are of businessmen and women posing proudly in front of the tall buildings that have become their likely tomb. Some, of parents with their children, read “Hurry Home Daddy.”

The names are a New York symphony: Foti, Costello, Puckett, Barbella, Luparello, Morris, Faragher, Zinzi, Smith, Kumar, Ramos, Supinski, Bergstein, Barnes, Cho, Callahan, DeSantis, Wong, Dedvukaj, Villanueva, Cahill, Traina, Zeng. Even Rockefeller.

Likewise, the colors of the faces range from pale to dark, with every shade in between. Did the attackers imagine their victims? Did they picture the heathens they sought to punish as one class, one race, one color? If so, they failed miserably. The roster of the dead and the missing is inexorably democratic: There are investment bankers, secretaries, electricians, janitors, cops, firemen, photographers, delivery workers, bond brokers, cooks, waiters, dishwashers, lawyers, painters, and accountants.

The hijackers, who were in their twenties and thirties, apparently did have one thing in common with many of their victims: youth. “I had a very young staff,” said Howard Lutnick, chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading company, as he tearfully described losing more than 600 of his employees.

Turn back the clock, omit those dreadful minutes, and what would everyone be doing? What would be happening in these towers and streets minus the deadly debris, crushing rubble, and the bleak gray carpet?

We know that Eliezer Jimenez, 38, would be cooking at Windows on the World, the famous restaurant where tables were arranged to afford a glorious view for all diners. That bond broker Jason Defazio, 29, might be opening the pictures from his wedding three months ago after getting a seat on the express bus from Staten Island to his job at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of Tower One. That Christopher Duffy, all of 23 years old, would be anticipating a Saturday night beer at Tin Lizzie’s on Second Avenue with his fellow Villanova graduates after he finished work at Keefe Bruyette & Woods. That Elizabeth Holmes, 42, of Harlem, her long braids swinging, would be coming up from the IRT and starting her day with a cup of tea at her desk.

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We know that the saloon next to Windows on the World, modestly dubbed The Greatest Bar on Earth, would be gearing up for Mambo night or Funk night or Swing night, anticipating the usual throng of Wall Street workers and city employees, all dressed for the occasion in “cocktail casual.”

We know that Borders Books & Music at 5 World Trade Center, overlooking Vesey Street, would be preparing to host that week’s guest author, browsers moving through its aisles. That the aroma from the Krispy Kreme store next door would be seducing many through its doors. We know that the concourse below the towers—the city’s largest indoor mall—would be filled with people, many of them from among the 50,000 daily commuters exiting the subways, or rising on a massive bank of escalators from the New Jersey PATH trains. We know that the city’s shrewdest clothing shoppers would be eagerly pawing through the racks of Century 21 across Church Street in the old bank building, where Polo shirts or, on occasion, a Galliano gown, were savagely reduced from their original prices.

We know that people would still be talking about the series of outdoor summer concerts on the plaza, where musicians John Gorka, Mark Lindsay, Savoy Brown, and the David Cedeno Orchestra all provided free entertainment under the stars. Visitors would still flock to the windswept five-acre plaza, named after Port Authority leader and Trade Center pioneer Austin J. Tobin. Believe it or not, designers had St. Mark’s Square in Venice in mind when they laid it out, encircling it with a huge Gothic arcade.

How could it all disappear so quickly? In the wake of the 1993 bombing, after the terrorists’ plainspoken ringleader, Ramzi Yousef, told federal agents his goal had been to destroy the buildings, experts said this proved that the Trade Center itself, by reason of design, was virtually impregnable from that type of assault.

It was different from other buildings. For almost 100 years, conventional skyscrapers were built with interior columns supporting the building’s weight, while the outer walls were merely window dressing. The Trade Center’s builders rejected that approach, using the exterior walls themselves as the load-bearing structure. “The World Trade Center buildings represent a new era,” wrote officials of Tishman Construction, who managed the project. “They are the buildings of the oncoming 21st Century.”


Aside from earthquakes or floods, it’s unlikely that any modern urban calamity has been personally witnessed by as many people. Businessmen in midtown high-rises and schoolchildren in Brooklyn all stared with disbelieving eyes at the first, appalling, gaping hole in the South Tower, then at the mad, low descent of Flight 175 across the Hudson into the second building, and finally as both landmarks vanished before their eyes. It was a view that spurred many to valor.

Felix Sanchez, a member of District Council 9 of the Painters Union and an ex-Marine who served in Beirut, saw it clearly from the building at 85 West 15th Street, where he was painting a patio. By the time he and his coworkers arrived, the second plane had struck the north tower. A frantic cop yelled, “Give us a hand,” and Sanchez and his companions charged inside, where they began helping an emergency crew from Saint Vincents Hospital. A few minutes later, he heard someone yell that the structure was falling. Then smoke and dust blackened everything. “I couldn’t see anything, none of us could,” Sanchez said later as he looked at the wreckage. “I just know most of the others were no longer behind me when I got out.”

In Borough Park, Brooklyn, a volunteer emergency medical worker named Bernard Gipps jumped into a Hatzolah Ambulance as soon as the news of the first attack spread. Its siren screaming, the ambulance raced up the Prospect Expressway and through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which deposited the crew directly under the raging fires.

“We got there and we saw two gaping holes; there were people jumping and bodies everywhere,” said Gipps. His crew watched in horror as a body falling from the tower’s upper floors slammed into a helmet-wearing firefighter, killing both instantly. Another fireman was killed by falling debris before he even had a chance to get out of his truck. When the first tower fell, the volunteers ran for their lives, heading west across Battery Park City to the river. Several escaped by jumping onto ferries that took them to Hoboken.

Steve Sullivan, 56, was eight years retired already from the New York City Fire Department when the news reached him at home in Staten Island. He tried to drive across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, heading for Greenwich Village to team up with his old crew, Engine Company 24 and Ladder 5, where he had worked for 13 years. Unable to get across the bridge, he drove to a Staten Island firehouse whose members commandeered a city bus down to the St. George terminal, where they hopped the last ferry to lower Manhattan.

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“We got as far as the Statue of Liberty, and we saw the second tower collapse,” said Sullivan. “We had the radio on and we heard the calls. They were trapped in their rigs. They couldn’t get the doors of their trucks open. And you hear it on the radio and there is nothing to do. They are screaming, ‘I can’t breathe. Help me. I can’t breathe.’ And you can’t do anything.”

Once the ferry docked, Sullivan and the other firefighters rushed to the scene, but the worst had already happened. “We found Chief Feehan, a super guy, as good as they get,” said Sullivan two days later, his voice cracking as he sat, still wearing his gear, on a low brick wall in the sun outside the station house on Sixth Avenue and King Street. “We found Chief Ganci. We took them out gently. You’d find an arm in a glove with a fireman’s cuff on it. A backpack. You put the arm and the backpack on the side and keep looking.” The wind would blow, covering the bodies with dust, making them less recognizable. “They were like jello people, no hair. It makes it a little easier somehow.”

“That’s John,” he said, showing a visitor a picture on the bulletin board upstairs in the firehouse of a tall man with a drooping handlebar moustache and a wide grin. “He’s waiting for us to find him down there.”

In 1994, a terrible fire killed three members of the crew at Ladder 5, including its captain, John Drennan. Those appalling casualties drew donations and sympathy from all over the city. As of last week, the firehouse was missing at least eight members in the Trade Center collapse. Their fire truck was destroyed as well, the one with the huge gold number 5, the same one that inspired painter Charles Demuth and poet William Carlos Williams to write about its “wheels rumbling through the dark city.” The firefighters plucked the big gold numeral off the destroyed ladder truck and placed it on the hood of a battered gray pickup missing its windshield. “We use that now,” said Sullivan.

Headed back to the disaster site to dig some more, Sullivan said: “There are red suspenders and puppy dogs and cats in trees and all that stuff, and then sometimes the shit hits the fan and it gets very real.”


On Wednesday, the day after the collapse, a young couple from North Carolina named Tori Branch and Mark Rushing are trying to make their way back to the apartment they had fled on South End Avenue in Battery Park City. On West Street, near Stuyvesant High School, they talk their way past a cop wearing a Suffolk County shoulder patch, then a National Guardsman. Their shoes send up clouds of gray dust as they walk through the park along the river. Everywhere there is the litter of millions of pieces of paper, the burst files of a thousand destroyed offices: graphs with numbers, charts covered in Chinese lettering, pink buy and sell forms from brokerage houses, stern-sounding official letters from federal agencies.

Tori and Mark moved to the city in December from Raleigh. “We just wanted to be in New York,” said Tori. Mark found a job with an investment firm. Tori planned on attending New York University. They had been concerned about finding an apartment, but the first real estate broker they visited steered them to the high-rise building at 200 Gateway Plaza. Directly out the window, to their delight, was one of the treasures they’d sought in their move north: the Twin Towers. “We love it,” said Mark, like most people in the city, still using the present tense about the monolith. “The World Trade Center is such a magnificent building, just to think that people could design and achieve something like that. It’s inspiring.”

There is little doubt the city will commence the job of rebuilding, filling in the view again across from their apartment. This time, like Nehemiah, the Old Testament king who rebuilt the destroyed walls of Jerusalem, workers will hold “a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.”


Additional reporting: Toni Schlesinger, Emma Nwegbo, James Wong, Carla Spartos

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Readers Responded:
Letters from 9-11

Personal Effects

I have just read “City of Ghosts” [September 25] by Tom Robbins and Jennifer Gonnerman. Although I wish that circumstances had never required such an article to be written, it was an extremely well-done piece that really helped me, a non-New Yorker, understand more of the personal side of the tragedy. In all of the television news and endless replaying of the attacks, it is all too easy to forget the smaller things, that the victims were real people just like us—they read books, they ate doughnuts, they had families and friends. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

Matthew Reames
Roanoke, Virginia

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Voice’s Jennifer Gonnerman Named Finalist for National Book Award

Village Voice staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman’s book, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction yesterday.

Life on the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent 16 years in prison under New York’s controversial Rockefeller drug laws, and the challenges she faced re-entering the free world.

The other nonfiction nominees were Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age; David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing; Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; and the 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

lifeontheoutside.com

Life on the Outside at nationalbook.org

Review of Life on the Outside by Mark Holcomb in The Village Voice

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Lost Time

The appalling statistics of America’s incarceration industry are a staple of prison nonfiction, and Jennifer Gonnerman’s bracingly compassionate, quietly outraged Life on the Outside is no exception. As she clearly understands, such numbers retain their power to shock no matter how many times you read them: over 2 million people currently serving time; a sixfold increase in the number of convicts since 1970; a federal prison system that, as of 2003, operates at 133 percent capacity; over 600,000 people released from prisons each year; and so on.

Powerful as they are, these figures can’t convey the inconceivable disruption of human life that they represent, and Gonnerman wisely dispenses with them early on. Rather than framing her account—a long overdue expansion/summation of her work for the Voice—as a dry, clinical study, she literally fleshes out the stats by focusing on the experiences of a single New York City ex-con named Elaine Bartlett. The results illuminate what most prison books only hint at: the character-depleting effects of confinement, the frustrating continuation of its injustices once a convict is sprung, and the tenuous resilience of the criminal justice system’s castoffs.

The book opens with Bartlett’s release from Bedford Hills maximum security prison, where she served 16 years for selling a small amount of cocaine (her first offense) to a professional police stoolie in Albany. From there, the book backtracks to Elaine’s unsettled childhood in heroin-infested 1960s Harlem, where she was equally coddled and abused by her troubled mother; to her peripatetic stabs at domesticity and eventual motherhood; to her ill-advised moneymaking venture upstate, the punishment of which was exacerbated by New York’s Rockefeller drug laws—the grievously unbalanced policies largely responsible for the numbers listed above.

While her stint in Bedford Hills (a Westchester County facility that, ironically, had a real estate link to the Rockefeller family) is chock-full of deprivation and tedium, Elaine’s post-prison existence is even more harrowing. After a promising start, she must endure power-mad parole officers, uncaring landlords and employers, the understandable resentment of her children, and her own rage and depression at having forfeited more than a decade of her life. She quells some of this anger by becoming a tireless anti-Rockefeller-laws activist, but, as the book’s ambivalent conclusion reveals, nothing can compensate for her loss.

This vacuum haunts Life on the Outside, and Gonnerman’s austere prose and taut, crystal-clear reasoning belie an obvious respect for Bartlett’s stubborn ability to maintain a level of dignity in the face of the systemic and intrinsic odds against her:

“Coming home from prison is about learning to control your temper without using your fists. It’s about finding a place to sleep. It’s about remembering how to feed yourself. . . . It’s about trying to earn respect from the children you abandoned.”

It’s impossible not to share the author’s respect and wider sense of tragedy, but if there’s a quibble to be made, it’s that Bartlett is presented as an uncharacteristic casualty of the prison system. She’s female and reasonably educated, and was granted clemency rather than paroled or put away for life. She also possesses formidable personal courage. Only a heartless martinet would begrudge her these admittedly narrow advantages, but it leads one to wonder what becomes of the thousands of cons and ex-cons who lack them. It’s to Gonnerman’s credit that her book surreptitiously raises this question, and there’s ample reason to hope she’ll answer it in future projects.

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Going After Globalization

Globalization is a spongy word, bandied about until it has become as familiar as a bad pop song, and yet its many interpretations illustrate the way issues of wealth and poverty are understood throughout the world. At a symposium, “Feminisms and Globalization: Women 2000,” that accompanied Beijing+5, women leaders from around the world tried to make sense of globalization’s implications for women, seeking not only to understand it, but to fight its harmful effects.

The symposium (sponsored by CUNY’s Center for the Study of Women in Society, the Japan Preparatory Committee, and the National Council for Research on Women) was held at the CUNY Graduate Center before a crowd of 250. Charlotte Bunch, founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, offered one definition: “By globalization I mean the economy linked at the global level, the movement of capital and goods across borders.” But such neutral language can obscure what globalization actually means to people in the developing world. In the view of Rose Lugemba, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor and Youth Development in Tanzania, “Globalization means opening the economy to unequal competition before we have built the capacity to handle it. It means people come in and till our virgin land and exploit our natural resources.” Rosina Wiltshire of the United Nations Development Program amplified that, saying, “Capital is globalized, but not peace; power is globalized, but not the interests of the poor.”

The panelists discussed the ways globalization has aggravated inequalities for women—widening the gaps between women and men and between poor women and prosperous ones. Women make up 45 percent of the global workforce and account for 70 percent of the population living in poverty. Many women’s advocates contend that some of these disparities are exacerbated by the lowering of national trade barriers, as dictated by the World Trade Organization, and the tight strictures placed upon developing economies by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In Tanzania, Lugemba points out, the IMF and WTO have aimed to reduce government spending through “cost sharing”—a policy that has unraveled the government-supported social-safety net that once allowed all citizens relatively equal access to medicine, water, and schooling. Because the cost of health care now must be “shared”

by the poor, many Tanzanians must forgo basic medical needs such as immunization, meaning that more children die before adolescence and fewer women are treated for AIDS. A seemingly small expense such as fees for school textbooks and uniforms can mean that poor students—and girls, in particular, according to Lugemba—are denied a basic education.

Although globalization has created new economic opportunities for educated professional women, it hasn’t necessarily given women more power. Women have gained a 30 percent share of parliamentary seats in seven European countries and in South Africa. However, as Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, reminded the audience: “Women make up 12 percent of the U.S. Congress, but none holds a committee chair or key leadership position.”

The American formula for economic “success” is being adopted around the globe, but some feminists question whether it is the right model. The Center for Policy Alternatives points out that women in the U.S. still earn only 74 cents on the dollar paid to men (African American women earn 63 cents and Hispanic women earn 56). U.S. women also work long hours away from home and family—63 percent of women with children under age six are in the labor force, often with little domestic support. As Brigitte Young, a professor of political economy in Germany, said: “The one positive thing to come from the 20th century was a ‘social Europe’ that has protected women’s rights. We have rights for women in the labor force and a 36-hour workweek, but in order to compete, especially with the U.S., we must weaken the very social programs that have protected us.”

In a global economy, how can women protect gains and improve their economic prospects for the next generation? Women at the symposium agreed on some key measures, including securing access to and funding for girls’ education and monitoring the impact of taxation on women. They also agreed that women’s advocates must be economically literate so as to help make a place for women at the negotiating table; must create the means for global communication (Web sites, for example), so women can organize across borders (see “Rewiring the World“); and must demystify and deconstruct global institutions such as the World Bank, WTO, and IMF. This last strategy is crucial: As power shifts from national governments to international corporations, women’s groups have a new target. Historically feminists have lobbied congressional representatives and members of parliament. Now they must also pressure CEOs, boards of directors, and billionaire stockholders to ensure that corporations are accountable to women.



ADDITIONAL VOICE COVERAGE OF THE BEIJING+5 CONFERENCE:

Beating the Backlash by Jennifer Gonnerman

A U.S. Negotiator Details the Fight to Expand Feminist Gains at the UN’s Special Session on Women

A Girl’s World by Sharon Lerner

Young Tackle Issues From Playing Fields To Sexual Atrocities

Rewiring the World by Meg Murphy

Technology Sparks Debate at Beijing+5

Worldwide Women by Jennifer Gonnerman

Beijing+5 Looks at the Global State of Women’s Rights

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A Girl’s World

Prishani Naidoo, a 23-year-old South African, is worried about virginity testing. The practice is keeping sexually active girls out of high school in some rural areas in her country, but “nobody seems to be talking about it,” says Naidoo, sitting outside one of the many UN meeting rooms where last week’s Beijing+5 conference discussions on youth took place.

Just feet away, Abeer Musleh, a Palestinian, is railing against the restrictions on females in public spaces. At 24, Musleh is still forbidden to travel in the street alone at night. “If my cousin comes, I can go out with him, and he can go out by himself even though he is much younger,” says Musleh. Young girls “want to go out in the street and have entertainment after school,” she says, “but they are not allowed like the boys.”

Vivien Labaton, of the Third Wave Foundation, which introduces feminism to youth, works with relatively privileged Americans. If she is broaching the subject of feminism for the first time, Labaton might ask whether a girl has ever struggled with an eating disorder, whether she is treated the same as the boys in her family, whether she finds boys get more time on the playing field. “Then I say that their problems are not coincidental,” explains Labaton. “They’re all grounded in the same issues.”

The idea that gender discrimination also unites young women and teens across international borders has brought hundreds of young women to the world conference to update the work begun five years ago when the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women met in Beijing. That any discussion is happening at all across such vast social differences is sometimes startling. The six events hosted by the commission’s official Youth Caucus are held in English, a second or third language for most of the panelists from 19 countries.

But if participants come from strikingly varied cultures, they can often agree on the worst injustices facing girls worldwide, beginning even before girlhood, with the selective abortion of female fetuses and killing of infant girls. (Without any intervention, slightly more girls are born than boys; in India, there are now 927 females for every 1000 males.) Across the globe, young girls are more likely to be physically neglected than boys; in the Punjab, girls between two and four are twice as likely to die from childhood diseases; Bangladeshi girls are three times more likely to be undernourished than boys. In many of the poorest parts of the world, girls have no hope of attending school. Overall, only 46 percent of girls attend high school in developing countries.

Often these forces conspire to rob girls of any kind of childhood. A recent study of children in Mali, West Africa, found only one girl in a rural area attending school. Another 184, who ranged in age from eight to 15, had left to work in nearby towns. Early marriage, increasingly identified as a problem by international women’s rights advocates, is standard in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with as many as 88 percent of girls pushed into marriage before they hit 18 in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. A few marry as young as seven or eight and are betrothed even before they are born. For the youngest, the most gruesome consequence of early marriage is vesico-vaginal fistula, a tear in the wall between the vagina and the bladder caused by the pressure pregnancy puts on narrow, girlish hips. The constant dribble of urine that results can become grounds for divorce and social ostracism.

The fistula phenomenon, which fills an entire hospital in Ethiopia to capacity with girls awaiting surgery, is virtually unheard of in much of the world. Video accounts of the hospitalized girls both transfix young delegates and move them to action; a contingent is fighting for language within the Beijing+5 consensus document that would define sexual violence within marriage as a violation of human rights.

Selma Gasi, a Bosnian who just turned 20, is hoping to inspire the delegation to address sexual atrocities in war. Gasi describes the brutal murder of another Bosnian her age. Soldiers cut open her pregnant belly to settle a bet about the gender of the baby she was carrying, Gasi tells a horrified international audience. She instructs them to close their eyes and imagine their own bellies being cut open.

If Gasi can teach some conference-goers by transporting them from their relatively cushioned lives to war-torn Bosnia, she is getting something from them in return. “Here people are aware of how good they are,” says Gasi. “They are not afraid. At the meetings, a lot of girls from America are just asking questions, like one question a million times, asking until they understand. At first, I’m not sure I was supposed to ask. I was embarrassed. But I learned a lot how good I am.”


ADDITIONAL VOICE COVERAGE OF THE BEIJING+5 CONFERENCE:

Beating the Backlash by Jennifer Gonnerman
A U.S. Negotiator Details the Fight to Expand Feminist Gains at the UN’s Special Session on Women

Going After Globalization by Lenora Todaro
Feminists Trade Strategies for a Woman-Friendly World Economy

Rewiring the World by Meg Murphy
Technology Sparks Debate at Beijing+5

Worldwide Women by Jennifer Gonnerman
Beijing+5 Looks at the Global State of Women’s Rights

Categories
NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Rewiring the World

A west African woman in traditional headdress embraces a businessman from an American technology company backing female entrepreneurs in Cameroon. An Arab activist wonders aloud how women in Iran can get access to the internet under a fundamentalist regime that considers women’s use of bicycles suspect.

These scenes from the United Nations’ Beijing+5 conference on women last week signal feminists’ growing, if reluctant, attention to the technological revolution. Five years ago, at the women’s conference in Beijing, technology didn’t make the agenda. This time around, informal panel discussions, organized by groups like the Association for Women in Science, drew modest crowds.

“I am hoping we’ve raised these issues to a level so that in 2005 there will be a separate area of concern for science and technology,” says Catherine Didion, director of AWIS. “But we are not waiting five years. Women have a window of maybe two or three years to secure a place in this revolution. The challenge is that there are some women who aren’t that comfortable with technology, and now they have to put out a cry. That’s a hard sell.”

This conference began the job of convincing them, offering discussions that ranged from women’s role in the new economy to ways technology can help the world’s poorest women get small bank loans. The common question: How can women take advantage of technology?

The answers were as diverse as the countries. Farmers in East Africa use village computer centers to check the price of tomatoes in the city, avoiding unfair markups from the middlemen who drive the produce into town. Rural basket weavers in India are using the Web to develop a North American market.

Private-sector investment will be key in getting women hooked into the new economy. Cameron Chell, CEO of chell.com, announced Wednesday that he’s donated $40,000 to an association for the support of female entrepreneurs in West Africa. Chell says he is using this relationship as a case study, hoping to prove that investing in Internet access for the millions of potential users in Africa is profitable.

Marilyn Carr, of the UN Development Fund for Women, says these private-public collaborations must be part of the solution, especially in poor countries. Carr says the best way to make new technology affordable in the third world is to make it popular in rich places like North America. As solar panels come into vogue on the West Coast, prices drop, and villages in the third world benefit. Next, she says, handheld water filters should be marketed to wealthy sailboat racers so islanders in Fiji can get healthy drinking water.

Carr says women need to play a part in shaping the gadgets and software of the future. These discussions were a start, she says, since it’s essential that women strategize and gain access to technology, though this game of catch-up isn’t enough.

Shirley Malcolm, director of the education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agrees. “What’s inside these panels? Are they talking about the use of tools or the design of tools? . . . We torque our own needs to whatever construct is available, as opposed to demanding it be different or, as female engineers, making it different.”

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, reminded a half-filled auditorium that when new agricultural technologies were introduced in the third world, 95 percent of the benefits were reaped by men. “Don’t kid yourselves,” he said. “The new technologies are an opportunity, but they are also a threat. What happened to rural women may happen again.”

Gracia Hillman, president and CEO of Worldspace Foundation, a nonprofit bringing technology to developing nations, says women are more savvy about technology than they were five years ago, at the first conference. Still, she argues, the women’s movement must balance this emphasis on access to technology with a strategy to get women in positions of power as innovators.

“I think the biggest digital divide is, Who are the people doing the creating and the programming?” she says. “That’s huge and must be addressed.”


ADDITIONAL VOICE COVERAGE OF THE BEIJING+5 CONFERENCE:

Beating the Backlash by Jennifer Gonnerman
A U.S. Negotiator Details the Fight to Expand Feminist Gains at the UN’s Special Session on Women

Going After Globalization by Lenora Todaro
Feminists Trade Strategies for a Woman-Friendly World Economy

A Girl’s World by Sharon Lerner
Young Tackle Issues From Playing Fields To Sexual Atrocities

Worldwide Women by Jennifer Gonnerman
Beijing+5 Looks at the Global State of Women’s Rights