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NYSUT.org | New York Teacher | Archive | September 11

November 7, 2001
The campus at Ground Zero: CUNY college reopens with persistent questions


View of Ground Zero from BMCC. 40K jpg.
From the window of a Borough of Manhattan Community College classroom, students can see trucks carrying debris from the World Trade Center to barges. Miller Photography.

Seventeen thousand students had no idea what to expect when the Borough of Manhattan Community College reopened Oct. 1, 19 days after the World Trade Center was destroyed only blocks away.

The closest subway stations were closed. Neighborhood traffic was still restricted. Hundreds of students were to be relocated from the 40 classrooms lost when Trade Center Building 7 fell on Fiterman Hall. That morning, students walked the still quaint, but now malodorous and dusty, sidewalks of TriBeCa. They had more questions than answers - primarily, where do we go?

Staff and student volunteers reached out to bring them all in.

At subway stops and street corners, Professional Staff Congress members carried signs that said "Welcome back to BMCC" and handed out brochures telling students how to negotiate safety checkpoints, how to get into the campus through a back entrance where modular classrooms had been built to accommodate relocations, and how the schedule would make up for three weeks of lost class time.

PSC is the New York State United Teachers affiliate representing instructional faculty at the City University of New York.

"I was extremely nervous about coming back," said Anne Friedman of BMCC, PSC vice president for community colleges. "It wasn't until I got back in the classroom that day that I had any idea who would be there."

Of 17,200 enrolled students, approximately 600 didn't return, said Jane Young, PSC chapter chairwoman. Faculty tracked the missing, and found many sad stories. Friedman located a "star" student who had gone home to Trinidad; he was all right, but dropped out after losing three brothers and an aunt in the attacks.

For the most part, Friedman said, "my students wanted to come back. For many of them, this is the most secure, stable part of their lives."

Write it all out

Many faculty members devoted the first day of classes to discussing and writing about experiences. This community had not been together to share them since that day of ultimate horror.

"I decided to have students write, because they didn't seem ready to talk about it," said Bill Friedheim, PSC chapter vice chairman. After the writing exercise, people opened up.

Many students had seen people jumping from burning buildings. Young had people writing and reading aloud essays. Several students had to leave the room and come back after composing themselves.

One day of discussing it was a catharsis, Friedheim said. "But students didn't want to discuss this endlessly," he said. "They wanted to get back into a routine."

One girl in Young's English class became agitated by the end of the first session. "I don't want to talk about this anymore," Young recalled her saying. "Do we have to talk about it all semester?"

Nobody hangs out

Recovering from the trauma was only a beginning. The smell and dirt from clean-up operations at the WTC site can make the campus and its neighborhood uncomfortable.

"There's a psychological problem in this building," said Young. "People are very, very worried about the air inside and outside. Along with all the uncertainties, people are scared to come here and to be here."

Friedheim said, "Faculty and students are complaining of headaches and a sick feeling. Not a lot, but more than usual. People are edgy. They are in and out of the building, they leave when they're done. This is an interesting neighborhood, a great place to hang out, but nobody hangs out anymore."

Official sources have pronounced the air safe in the neighborhood. But the acrid stench varies daily, from bad to worse. "People say, 'They tell me it's safe, but I don't feel safe,'" said Joan Greenbaum, who co-chairs the PSC Health and Safety Committee.

Questions about the environment outnumber answers, but PSC health officials have isolated one problem: All the debris from the WTC is loaded onto trucks - much of it still smoldering so hot that a load reportedly ignited a tarp covering it - and transported up West Street to be loaded on barges in the Hudson River. The wreckage, repeatedly sprayed with water, contains nothing recognizable as building materials - only twisted metal and indeterminate piles of dust. Visible from classroom windows, it is a constant reminder of the scale of the travesty.

The immense barge port is across the street from BMCC's main building and a dozen modular classrooms assembled along West Street to replace rooms lost at Fiterman.

The trailers are fine, said Kate Walter, an adjunct instructor, but faculty and students must walk along a deck built on West Street to enter or exit the rooms. Even though they have their own ventilation systems, "the dust seeps inside.

"Picture this scene: streams of dump trucks arrive, bringing rubble from the site. The debris is noisily dumped or hoisted by cranes onto barges. The dumping causes great clouds of potentially toxic dust to fill the air; plus, the trucks and cranes are continuously belching diesel fumes," said Walter. "I have no prior respiratory problems, yet when I'm in the trailer, I go home with a headache, scratchy throat and stuffed nasal passages."

Greenbaum said the union, along with parents of students attending schools near Ground Zero, wants the city to move the barge port. Her committee has arranged for health agencies to meet with BMCC faculty for training and discussions on the environmental problems.

The most ominous cloud darkening the campus may be the threat of a 15 percent budget cut from City Hall. All city agencies - save police, fire and the board of education - face the cuts in response to the cost of the disaster. The city provides approximately one-third of the funding for CUNY's six community colleges.

"At a time when our community colleges are more important than ever, when they will be critical to the resurgence of the city, we cannot sustain a 15 percent cut that would undermine our students' chances of an education," said PSC President Barbara Bowen.

Traditionally, in tough economic times, people turn to CUNY colleges to improve their standing in the job market, said Young. The college must be poised to respond.

"The city said 'education' was supposed to be safe from the cuts," said Young. "But we are education."

- Ned R. Hoskin


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