Skip to main content

Old Glory In New York City

September 2020

The Stars and Stripes take to the streets

Everyone knows New Yorkers love New York, but perhaps it’s not as well known that New Yorkers love America. Wherever you go in Manhattan, you can see the Stars and Stripes: in the storewindow displays on Fifth Avenue, rumbling by on subway cars, draped from fire escapes, on everything from baseball caps to rhinestone pins, and even in graffiti. The red, white, and blue blossomed suddenly in New York, as throughout the nation, in those shell-shocked days and weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when we turned instinctively to the flag for strength and reassurance and when a grieving nation overwhelmed the city with affection and support. Although three years have passed, the photographs I took just recently bear witness that New Yorkers return the sentiment.

This project began, like so many things, very simply. An avid photographer and a member of a political club, I offered to help find an image, to illustrate the club’s Web site. On my daily rounds I began jotting down every place where an American flag appeared in a setting characteristic of New York. Then, over a weekend this January, I snapped some 1OO photos. As I looked over the marshaling of flags in their varied manifestations, including some impressive murals in and around my neighborhood of Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, I came to a startling realization: New Yorkers are very patriotic. The flags had been there for a long time, but like most people, I hadn’t been seeing them anymore, their familiar presence in the city synonymous with September 11. And as I’ve continued the project, I’ve often gotten puzzled looks from passersby who wonder why I’m so fascinated by a brick wall, for instance, or a newsstand. It’s been an interesting experience. As I’ve improved my photography skills, I’ve had the chance to meet an amazing variety of my fellow New Yorkers whom I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Just about everyone I’ve asked to photograph has been friendly. People gamely pause for the 10 seconds or so it takes to snap their pictures, and sometimes I get into conversations with them about why they wear some piece of clothing embellished with the flag.

I can’t count how many times things have fallen into place in ways I could never have anticipated. At Ground Zero one day I was taking pictures of a banner with a logo of a flag and two towers when I spotted a ladder leaning against the fence that separated visitors from the area where the two towers had stood. Wouldn’t it be perfect, I thought, if I could get the ladder with the banner in the background? A moment later a man entered my viewfinder and—oh, joy!—made his way to the fence, gripped it, and lifted himself up ,on his toes to get a better look. I got my shot. It didn’t turn out to be a beautiful picture, but I’m fond of it because it symbolizes the aspiration my city and my country inspires in our citizens.

Now that I’ve been at this for half a year, I find that the sheer number of flags and the sincere feeling their display conveys reflect a patriotism that has deepened since September 11. The little flags remind me of the freedoms we enjoy in this country, freedoms my own parents sought when they came here from South Korea almost 35 years ago. Like so many immigrants before them and since, they believed—and still believe—that America is the freest and greatest land on earth.

—Jeanette Baik

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support this 70-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.