Memorials Great and Small

The 10-year anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people, is an occasion to revisit that day’s enduring and terrible place in the American consciousness. Las Vegas will mark the occasion with special events, charitable activities and discussions (see: Days of Remembrance). Like all remembrances, these events have the difficult task of taking us back to the past so that we may move forward.

One of the most anticipated moments of the national commemoration will be the opening of the National September 11 Memorial in New York. The $700 million, 8-acre memorial is a pair of sunken square fountains that match the footprints of the twin towers, surrounded by a tree-studded public park. The memorial is not only attempting to record the permanent void—physical and emotional—left by the towers’ destruction, but to also beautify a stretch of downtown Manhattan by providing a space for the life of the city to go on.

Las Vegas is home to a different memorial, commemorating a smaller tragedy. Like the 9/11 memorial, it marks an enduring civic loss—a lasting blow to our towering self-assurance. But this memorial is almost entirely unknown. It’s located at CityCenter, in the middle of a little-used pocket park nestled between Vdara and the Bellagio employee-parking garage. The park is fenced off, but the door leading in is unlocked. Inside you’ll find a single plaque with the names of the six construction workers who died building CityCenter—deaths emblematic of a local building culture that cut safety corners to get the giant megalith opened as quickly as possible. The plaque is dated December 2009, but it was installed only a few months ago.

Memorials, great and small, are always tinged with controversy. They open old wounds at the same time they attempt to heal them. They must reconcile the memorial maker’s desire for art with the community’s desire for something familiar. Is it any wonder they take so long and so often leave us unsatisfied?

One wants to criticize MGM for making such a small and unassuming plaque, especially amid the preening art and architecture of world-famous talents. And one wonders how the placement of this humble plaque could have been delayed so long when it looks like it could have been designed, fabricated and installed in a couple of days. But maybe the hoopla of the grand opening wasn’t the time for this solemn gesture. And the simplicity of the plaque may be an appropriate rebuke to the gargantuan scale that surrounds it and necessitated it.

The construction deaths are not a public tragedy on the scale of 9/11, but they should mean something to Las Vegans as we affirm a common history and culture. The men who died building CityCenter were trying to create something lasting and positive here. Both memorials speak to the fragility of the things we build and the people who build them—the fragility of all we hope will endure. Both remind us that as we look to the future—to the new dreams we hope to build—we are forever defined by what we choose to remember about the past.