Tragedy close to home always seems to spur the same response: “I can’t believe it happened here.”
On May 25, 2017, a crazed man on a light rail train in Portland, Oregon — my hometown — began screaming at two teenage girls. They were both people of color and one was wearing a hijab, and his violent insults focused on their race and religion. It was rush hour and the train was crowded with commuters. When three men came to the defense of the girls, the screaming man pulled a knife and, in the ensuing altercation, stabbed all three men. When the doors opened at the next stop, the assailant rushed off, the girls were shaken but unharmed, one of the protectors was seriously wounded, and the other two were hemorrhaging blood. One died at the scene and the other died shortly thereafter. The entire thing happened in the three minute ride between 14th Street and the Hollywood Transit Center.
It was instantly sensational national news, touching as it did on so many incendiary areas of the public discourse — racial tension, hate crime, violence. It was the lead story on the national nightly news shows. It warranted Breaking News pop-ups on phones across the land.
But here in Portland it wasn’t “sensational.” It was a punch in the gut. We were all just speechless. It happened half a mile from my home. I can’t believe it happened here.
The trajectory of this sort of tragedy is so often the same. The event itself is a sudden vertical spike of horror, action and adrenaline — like a sharp intake of breath. From there, the process of making sense of it, reconciling it, and ultimately weaving it into the tapestry of our lives, is like a long, slow exhale that can take months or years to return us to balance. The media blares the news during that first sharp intake. Culture takes hold immediately afterwards, and guides us along that long exhale toward understanding.
I observed this firsthand after the Portland tragedy. The national spotlight lasted a few days, and then the news moved on to the next “sensation.” Meanwhile, here in my neighborhood, as the news vans left, the long shallow curve was just beginning, and culture took center stage.
The Hollywood Transit Center in Portland is where the tragedy itself ended. This is where the assailant fled from the train and was apprehended, where the first responders responded, and where the heroes died.
Hollywood Transit Center, Portland, Oregon. All photos in this article by Andrew Recinos
The Transit Center isn’t much to look at. There isn’t even a building. A study in utility, it consists of an open air bus turn-around, an unloved patch of grass, and a large, gray concrete wall, stairway, and switchback ramp up to the light rail stop.
And yet, within a day of the killings, it became a shrine. The stark concrete wall became a huge chalkboard canvas for the raw, emotional words of regular Portlanders, grieving for the heroes and offering support for the two girls. May we all walk in your courage — Thank You. Love Wins. City of Roses — you are the brightest. Quickly drawn hearts and peace symbols. At the base of the wall, people had placed flowers, signs, and pages of words. People were drawn there just to stand and reflect. It was all spontaneous.
Written remembrances, flowers and mementos left after the tragedy at the Hollywood Transit Center
Two days later, hundreds of us gathered on the Transit Center’s lonely patch of grass to remember the dead. There was no formal program, just a solemn collection of speeches, poems, songs, and shared silence. I later learned that the serene-looking woman in a flowing gown standing quietly toward the center of the circle was the mother of one of the dead men.
This sort of spontaneous outpouring in the immediate wake of tragedy is not unique. It reminded me of walking past the impromptu shrines outside of the fire stations of New York City in the days after 9/11. Or seeing pictures of the flowers outside Buckingham Palace after the death of Princess Diana. These are our initial attempts to memorialize the dead and show support and empathy for the survivors. An attempt to do something. To me, this is the first role culture plays in the aftermath of a tragedy: it is an Outpouring. We are overcome, and we naturally reach out to familiar cultural forms for comfort — simple acts of art, words, music or movement. Gestures of Outpouring are simple, genuine, and often painfully personal. Outpouring is a nascent attempt for us to make sense of it all, but is so bound up in sheer emotion and shock, that there is no real synthesis or meaning yet.
The American poet Walt Whitman deeply loved President Abraham Lincoln, and like so much of the country, was devastated when Lincoln was assassinated. It took four days for the usually verbose Whitman to even put pen to paper, and at that point his first lines of verse were pure Outpouring. Not yet the subtle words of this timeless writer, it was simply an appeal to remember the wartime leader:
As they invault the coffin there;
Sing — as they close the doors of earth upon him — one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.
— Walt Whitman, from Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day
Like the chalk words on the wall of the Transit Center, Whitman’s first lines were pure emotion.
We don’t know when arts and culture officially “began”, but I have to believe that among the first roles of culture was in response to tragedy. Archeologists find carved drawings and primitive sculptures alongside skeletons encased in tombs, for instance. Perhaps Outpouring after tragedy is in fact where culture itself began. We can’t know. But without a doubt, there is a line of Outpouring from tribute images carved in a tomb, to Whitman’s first words after the death of Lincoln, to handmade posters outside a New York fire station, to chalk scrawled on the wall of a Portland Transit Center.
As the weeks went by after the Portland tragedy, rain washed away the chalk, sanitation workers removed the posters, and the flowers were composted (this is still Portland, after all).
That long exhale continued, and the culture after the tragedy became more deliberate and less raw. Over time we entered what felt like a new stage — Outpouring became Synthesis. Inspired by the community that came together after the tragedy, the Portland transit agency (TriMet) commissioned a mural to replace the chalk art, poems, and flowers. A team of artists, writers, and community members collaborated to reimagine the stark concrete of the Transit Center and brought forth a work that synthesizes many emotions of this tragedy. The resulting images and words honor the dead, celebrate a variety of races and religions, and serve as a beacon of peace. They fill the concrete with a blaze of color, a multi-lingual poem of renewal, a retelling of some of the original chalk messages, and the final words of the men who died.
A permanent Synthesis of an original chalk Outpouring message
Final words of Ricky Best
Final words of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche
The Transit Center mural was dedicated a year after the murders. Born out of a senseless tragedy, this is a work of beauty and serenity, seen by thousands of commuters every day. While that first lightning strike of negativity had the most concentrated power, the long arc that came after — first Outpouring, then Synthesis — represents a far more positive power over time. It was created by many people, and will touch the lives of hundreds of thousands with a message of beauty and hope. That is the role of culture. You can learn more about the mural and its artists here.
It took Walt Whitman months to synthesize Lincoln’s death. But in time he was able to find the words and imagery. In his elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” he notes the time of year of the assassination as the time when the lilacs bloom each spring at his home. He then goes further to compare the tall, gentle President he loved, to those very lilacs:
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d pailings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love
— Walt Whitman, from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
In that long exhale, the raw Outpouring slowly evolves into the cooler and more profound Synthesis. The grass-roots art and culture of chalk and hand-made signs, becomes the lasting cultural remembrance of murals, monuments, and elegies.
Given enough time, the long exhale after tragedy sometimes has an unexpected final breath, transforming a profoundly negative act into an enduring work of beauty. To me this is the final gift that culture can create out of tragedy — from Outpouring to Synthesis to Metamorphosis.
Four score and one year after Lincoln’s assassination, in 1946, a new requiem by the German composer Paul Hindemith was premiered in New York City. It was called “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and took its text from the Whitman poem. It had been commissioned to remember another fallen wartime President — Franklin Roosevelt, who had died the year before.
Consider this work: the assassination of the Civil War President led to an elegiac poem by an American humanist, which eighty years later was set to music by a German composer to memorialize the death of our World War II President. Reviewing the premiere, the Washington Post reviewer said: “I doubt if we shall ever mourn Abraham Lincoln’s untimely death more eloquently than in the words of Walt Whitman set to the music of Paul Hindemith; it is a work of genius, and the presence of the genius presiding over its performance brought us splendor and profound and moving glory.” (And if you haven’t experienced this work, I highly recommend it – it really is sublime).
Whether it is a requiem for two dead presidents spanning 80 years, the horror of 9/11 sparking the beautiful show Come from Away, or a famous duel in Weehawken, NJ metamorphosing into Hamilton — ultimately Metamorphosis can be a final act of culture after a tragedy. It may take years, decades or centuries, if it happens at all. But when it does, it is the final reminder of our capacity as humans to find enduring beauty, meaning, and comfort out of even the most despicable of acts. That is the role of culture.
Choose Love: The reverse side of the Hollywood Transit Center mural, which faces out to the rest of Portland and is visible to light rail riders from all over the city as they pass by