Memorial Doubles as Forum on Tragedy ; A Popular New York Park Overflows with Mourners and a Range of Opinions on Retaliation

Article excerpt

Before last Tuesday, Union Square was known for its chic restaurants and weekend farmer's market, its small green park a popular haven for skateboarders and activists, students and families.

Now, it has become the city's primary spot for mourning.

Over the past week, the downtown square has been transformed into an impromptu memorial. Located on 14th Street, Union Square was for several days the southernmost point on the island that civilians were allowed to go, while the area below remained blocked off by police. Literally thousands of New Yorkers have flocked here with flowers and candles, some scribbling their thoughts on the pavement in chalk.

For days, what was most striking was the stillness - huge crowds of people sitting in silence or shuffling quietly past the various homemade tributes.

But lately, a growing clamor of voices has penetrated some of that quiet. As shell-shocked New Yorkers start to consider what lies ahead, Union Square has also become a spot for passionate - often painful - debate.

While the square's visitors are united in their grief, they express a full range of opinions and emotions when discussing how the United States should respond to last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It's a debate undoubtedly occurring throughout the country - indeed the world - but with particular intensity here, about a mile from where the two towers once stood.

Like the Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park, Union Square has long attracted its share of street philosophers and political activists. Home to Tammany Hall, the famous headquarters of the Democratic Party during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the square was often the site of labor protests. In more recent years, its proximity to New York University has made it home to political demonstrations of all sorts.

But never has it seen such a steady flow of people, from every corner of the city and beyond. Under a statue of George Washington on horseback lie hundreds of candles, cards, and flowers, as well as various signs that plead for peace.

When an older man - wearing a denim vest and an American-flag bandanna - starts sounding bellicose themes, Heidi Fledderjohn quickly asks those standing around her, "Does anyone know the words to 'Amazing Grace?' " A small group starts singing, attempting to drown the man out, though they trail off after the first verse, unable to remember the rest of the song.

"I think people are here because they're really afraid of what's going to happen next," says Ms. …