Ghost City of Missing New Yorkers Haunts Living

Gennie has blonde hair and squints a little when she unleashes her toothy smile.

Mario is tall and has a neatly trimmed goatee and a big grin.

Mark has a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and wears delicate wire-rimmed glasses.

They and thousands of others like them are the residents of the other city of New York, the ghost city of the dead and missing who have become as familiar to most people here as their own neighbors. City residents can see them several times a day through the photographs their loved ones have plastered on walls from Brooklyn to Jersey City, N.J.

"I see people I would've wanted to get to know, get a beer with," New Yorker Adam Kimowitz, 25, said. "There's a Jewish guy who is holding up a beer and with his arm around his girlfriend. I could've been friends with that guy."

Kimowitz was standing by the Armory, the original site where relatives of the victims of the World Trade Center gathered to await word on their missing friends, lovers, relatives. Late last week, the only person who came looking for a family member was a woman who ran away sobbing from the tomblike building.

But what are still there are the signs of those who had vanished — thousands of them, as low as knee level and as high as a tall man can reach, completely covering the front and sides of the Armory like feathers on a chicken. The signs bear names and nicknames, ages, heights and weights, descriptions of tattoos and scars, even favorite hobbies.

"This is the first spontaneously created monument I've seen," writer Michael Schreiber, 26, said.

"The whole city has become a living memorial," Kimowitz said.

And there are the photographs. Rains late in the week washed away much of the ink dedicated to memorized measurements and birth dates, but the pictures remained.

Instead of the simple, everyday photographs experts advise people to use in missing-persons cases, most are pictures of people in celebration, at the high points of their lives. Many are smiling at parties, holding champagne or a celebratory beer. Not a few are getting married. Others are cradling their wives or boyfriends or newborn babies, remembered publicly for their private moments.

Over the last two weeks days, New York's famously impersonal residents have gotten to know their fellow New Yorkers — complete strangers — more intimately than they know their own co-workers.

Outside Bellevue Hospital on the east side of Manhattan, hospital workers have to walk by a wall of phantoms every day as they enter and leave their jobs.

"It was heartbreaking coming to work the first day," 32-year-old pediatric dentist Untray Brown said, contemplating the wall before heading on his way back to his home in Harlem. "It's not a great way to start off the day. I don't know any of them, but there are a few pictures that just stand out, like that girl ..."

Brown began scanning the photos for a familiar face, then spotted a shy smile surrounded by brown curls on a pillar overlooking First Avenue.

"There. That's her," he said. "Her name is Kit."

Across the street, fruit vendor Mull Hassan, 39, said he'd seen signs like these many times before — in his homeland, Afghanistan.

"They're regular people," he said. "They're people like me and you, people who work and laugh and talk with each other outside on a rainy day."

In Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park, the photographs were mounted on the chain-link fence around the victory arch dedicated to the nation's first president. A little boy being tugged along by his mother looked at the friendly pictures fondly.

"Mommy, I wish my picture could be up there," he said.

"Don't ever say that," she said, horrified, pulling him away. "Never, ever, ever."

Further uptown, at Union Square, Brooklynite Efron Cherry looked at the pleading photographs and signs among the vast array of candles and flowers. Grief-racked onlookers stared at the memorial in a daze, and a vacant-looking teenager slowly banged a drum on which he'd written a plea against war.

"I'm not mourning for the deceased," Cherry said. "I'm mourning for everybody else."