Grieving over their losses, neighborhood residents turned a handball court into a wall of memory
Behind a fence on the corner of Avenue X and Bedford Avenue in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn stands a mural on a concrete slab. More than 77 feet long and 25 feet high, the piece stretches across the wall of a handball court in Bill Brown Memorial Park.
Painted with thick, glossy outdoor paint, it flakes off in spaces where handballs repeatedly smack. Local teenagers crowd the court during the summer months. Starting in June and building into September, dried-up bouquets and melted candles line the base of the wall.
In the center of the mural is an American flag 22-feet wide and 11 tall. To the left shines the NYPD shield. To the right hovers the emblem of the FDNY. Phrases like “God Bless America” and “In Memory Of” appear beside crosses and Stars of David. Scrawled throughout are the names of more than 270 local residents who died at the World Trade Center.
The faithful who gather at this mural every September 11 call it the “People’s Memorial” or the “Wall of Heroes.” According to Ned Berke, editor of local blog www.sheepsheadbites.com, about 100 local residents usually attend the annual memorial service and candlelight vigil.
A group of nine community volunteers, called the Brooklyn-Bedford 9/11 Memorial Committee, has spearheaded the event since February 2002. “It started out small in the community,” said one member Linda Errante, 61. “And it has developed into probably the one of the biggest memorials specifically for the people.”
“It’s not a beautiful mural,” admitted Regina Coyle, 60, a committee member whose son, James Coyle, 26, died in the towers. James Coyle was a firefighter for Ladder Company 3 in the East Village. His name gleams in blue and red on the wall. “It’s not chrome and glitter, you know,” she continued. “It’s just something from the heart.”
Painted in the lower-right corner of the wall is the signature of the memorial’s creator: “Mural by Rockin’ Ray, Requested by Jesus.” This handball court became a canvas for Rockin’ Ray Fiore, 47, a former boxer and lifelong South Brooklyn resident whom neighbors embraced as the catalyst for the tribute.
“Everybody in the neighborhood knows Ray,” said Tina Gray, 54, a Sheepshead Bay resident and memorial committee member. “If you don’t know the music, you know the car.” Fiore drives the unmistakable “Rockin’ Raymobile Part II,” an ’89 Ford Crown Victoria with bullhorns bolted to the roof. Hand-painted on the car is a medley of sports logos and cartoon characters.
The car reflects Fiore’s aesthetic—as loud as its driver. In 2001, Fiore owned the Total Package Boxing Club in Marine Park and worked as a member of Carpenters Local 926, the Brooklyn branch of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America. Without permission from the New York City authorities, he painted the mural in a marathon session from September 17 to September 23, 2001.
“Fourteen hours, six days straight,” said Fiore. “Just like God created the world in six days, I did that mural in six days.” He laughed, “And on the seventh day, I rested.” Neighbors like Justin Errante, 29, supported Fiore by pulling their cars into the court at night and turning on their high beams.
In the days following September 11, makeshift memorials sprung up across New York City. Congregations gathered at the Union Square “Wall of the Missing.” People hung painted tiles on a fence at the corner of Greenwich Avenue and 7th Avenue in the West Village. This fence became the spontaneous memorial called Tiles for America.
But, while unofficial memorials appeared citywide, few lasted to the present day. City officials replaced most with permanent installations, such as Union Square’s “Wall of Remembrance.” Even the future of Tiles for America is uncertain. In July 2011, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) presented a plan to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to incorporate Tiles for America into an emergency ventilation plant.
Yet almost a decade since the tragedy, the “Wall of Heroes” stands bright with a fresh coat of paint. Fiore and the Brooklyn-Bedford 9/11 Memorial Committee will host its 10th annual ceremony on September 11, 2011, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Strutting before the mural this July, Fiore pointed like a compass to names chipped away by handballs.
Wearing a sleeveless shirt, cutoff shorts and an American flag bandana, Fiore gestured and described how he touches up about 100 names every year and adds 10 more. “Those are my wall of angels,” he said. “They help keep me alive. I add new names and touch up the old names, so it’s like I’m keeping their souls alive.” The waiting list grows as neighbors continue to contact Fiore with names of coworkers and family members.
Fiore held the first prayer service at the handball court on October 11, 2001, driving his car into the handball court and blaring songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. “We had a prayer service here on the 11th for five straight months,” said Fiore. “Until we froze our balls off.”
With winter’s arrival, though, attendance dropped. “Then, suddenly, there was no one,” recalled Errante. “The few of us left said, ‘We can’t let this go.’ That’s how the Brooklyn-Bedford 9/11 Memorial Park committee was born.”
Each year, the memorial committee blankets Sheepshead Bay with about 800 fliers. The time (6:30 p.m.), the logo (an eagle with a teardrop) and the message remain the same. “Bring a candle,” it says. “Bring a chair. Bring your memories, thoughts and prayers.”
The two-hour ceremony is open forum, driven by participation and fueled by patriotic music. Anyone can speak at the podium. “Our little memorial gives people courage,” said Gray. “People will stand up there and actually say, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ These are people who haven’t spoken about what they’ve been feeling for nine years.”
Every year features a surprise guest. In 2006, David Cardinelli, a New York firefighter who survived the collapse of the towers, attended the ceremony. In 2009, folk singer Tom Chelston performed his single Since September. In 2010, the honor guard of the USS New York, whose hull contains steel from the World Trade Center, marched into the handball court.
“We do the grown-up stuff,” joked Gray. “Like booking guests and getting permits. Ray provides the inspiration and the painting.” The group pauses at sundown to observe the Tribute in Light beams rising from Lower Manhattan. The ceremony closes with a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.
Since 2002, when Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz attended, the memorial committee decided to close the event to politicians. Community leaders aren’t invited, with one exception: New York City Council member Lewis Fidler. “The politicians don’t matter,” said Gray. “That’s not what it’s about. Lew Fidler comes every year because he gets it. We ask him because he’s Lew.”
Fidler said he’s proud to be invited. “I attend a lot of memorials, but this one has a real grassroots feel to it,” he said. “It’s not organized by civic organizations or politicians. It’s organized by neighbors.”
According to Fiore, he put brush to paint after volunteering in “the Pit” at Ground Zero. Digging his work gloves into the rubble of the buildings on September 12, Fiore said he felt the touch of God. It’s a touch, he insists, that gave him the inspiration to paint the mural.
“I couldn’t do nothing for people that were already dead,” said Fiore, “so I had to do this.” On September 17, 2001, he loaded up on buckets of paint and headed to the handball court. It’s a mission that Fiore repeats like praying. Among the names regularly retouched is Lucy Fishman, 37, an executive secretary who worked for the Aon Corporation on the 105th floor of Tower Two.
Fishman received the same depiction as James Coyle: traced in red, printed in blue. Her sister, Mary Dwyer, 43, and mother, Mary Bracken, 69, are also members of the memorial committee. “We haven’t forgotten these people’s names on the wall,” said Dwyer, who buried the thighbone and femur of her sister. “Not hers. Not ever. As long as we have that wall, we’ll be here.”
Supporting “Mary and Mary” serves as the driving motivation for memorial committee members. Through the committee, Errante, Gray and Dwyer developed into close friends. “This is not why people should meet,” said Gray. “I would give up these friendships if it meant that Mary and Mary had Lisa back.”
On May 1, 2011, Fiore gathered at the wall with a crowd of 30. His car idled quietly. Standing in the high beams, they reflected on the death of the leader behind 9/11: Osama Bin Laden.
Fiore took up the paintbrush—guiding his hand to the center of the mural. Into the white stripes of the American flag, he scrolled: “Truly now, they can rest in peace. May 1st, 2011 – God prevails. Yes, God and goodness always win!”