Union Square after September 11
Over the course of the day of September 11, 2001, and the few days that followed it, I once more fell in love with New York City, my adopted home. I had known as soon as I had arrived on my first visit from England on December 3, 1987, and had alighted from the Carey Bus at Park Avenue South and Forty-Second Street; I had known as soon as I walked into the then dimly lit halls of the then unrenovated Grand Central Station; I had known as soon as I had smelled the gasoline and the energy—that whatever beat my heart wished to pump blood around my system to, it was the same one that pulsed through this particular city.
That evening, as my friend met me on the steps of the New York Public Library and we ascended to the viewing deck of the Empire State Building to look over the bridges, streets, and buildings festooned with lights, followed by a long walk downtown and dinner in a comedy-sketch of a restaurant in Little Italy, I knew this place was where I would end up. It seemed both familiar to me from countless movies and television shows and yet fascinatingly alien. And in this way, I became another self-proclaimed New Yorker.
Of course, falling in love with New York is nothing new, and reveling in the city’s brash, beautiful, madcap insouciance is the stuff of cliché. But it happened to me as it has happened to millions of others, and four years after my first visit I got to live the dream and move to the City permanently.
My love affair has lasted twenty years. Even the things that have soured people on New York—the exhaust and the congestion, the noise and the clutter, and the sheer pell-mell directness of the place—are still somehow endearing to me. When a car I was borrowing got towed one morning because, not owning a vehicle, I hadn’t bothered to check the street-cleaning signs, I was amazed and gratified that we could get the car back within three hours and only have to pay $150 for the privilege. When I got bitten by a dog and waited around in the emergency room for several hours to get the wound treated, I was fascinated and enthralled as individuals of every race, class, and language group (or so it seemed to me) were (eventually) treated and looked after by doctors and nurses of every race, class, and language group. When the power went out in 2002 and I joined tens of thousands of others in walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to get home, I took pleasure in the fact that it didn't matter if you lived in a penthouse or project, worked as a janitor or were a CEO, you were on that bridge, going home.
I still find the view of the City thrilling as I fly in to LaGuardia or JFK airports. I still think the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset is a work of art. It is still beautiful to me that you can live in a place and not have to own a car to get around. I find it an inspiration that in a city of enormous diversity, of great wealth and poverty, of extreme density and intense pressures, most of the time people are not mugged or killed or stopped from doing what they need, or want, to do. And I find it incredible, and incredibly satisfying, that most days everything works well—people get to work, do their jobs, and try to improve their lives; that in spite of the occasional garbage strike or subway delay, power outage or roadwork, the people of New York can and do go about their business.
This is, of course, not to say that the City does not have problems. Underinvestment in affordable housing over the last twenty years and a booming real estate market has meant that many people are being priced out of their own communities as gentrification sets in. The City has some of the highest asthma and obesity rates in the nation—with the subsequent health challenges caused by these conditions. In 2006, New York City beat Los Angeles and Chicago to the dubious honor of being the most polluted city in the nation. It does not have an effective plan on handling its waste, while its infrastructure is old and its energy supply unreliable. Several areas of the metropolis of eight million people have barely changed since the worst days of the blackout period of 1977, when New York City was synonymous with urban blight and failure, and when New York was perceived by the rest of America to be a moral and cultural cesspool.
It has not, and will never be, easy to run a city like New York, and over the course of decades, successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have had to deal with enormous problems; both Democrat and Republican administrations have had their triumphs and travails. Yet, in spite of fears that the city might go into a 1970s-style meltdown when the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles was reached in 1992, or Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was sodomized in 1997 by police officers, or African immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot nineteen times by officers in 1999, on September 11, 2001, however, New Yorkers remained calm, indeed stoic. The City, perhaps never so diverse and never so challenged in so many ways, had never seemed so united.
It was Election Day, for a new mayor and other officials. It has always struck me as a sweet irony that those who sought to destroy the idea of America on September 11, 2001, chose a day when people were exercising their democratic right—the central founding principle of this country. Perhaps, in spite of the wash of anti-governmental rhetoric that is layered over all aspects of American political culture, this sense of having a voice denied (the elections were postponed for a few weeks) fortified New Yorkers. On that day and for several days afterward, they, and the American people, finally got to see what it is they elect people for and the services for which they pay taxes, and to see it working well. The political and administrative leaders, including the police, were ubiquitous—something comforting in and of itself; they told us what they knew and resisted speculation about what they didn’t. They counseled against hatred or rushes to judgment and focused on what needed to be done and what could be implemented at that moment. They honored the dead and perfectly reflected back to us our stunned grief. Like us, they were shocked but not terrorized; they were aware that something terrible had happened, but they were not willing to apportion arbitrary blame. Like us, they knew that whatever had happened and whoever had perpetrated it shouldn’t be allowed to stir up hatred or xenophobia, and the elected officials were concerned to make sure it didn’t. They captured the mood of the time and the space and somehow didn’t freight it with more than it could handle—that it was a personal tragedy for three thousand people whom we could all relate to in some way: fire-fighters and police officers; CEOs and secretaries; visitors and immigrants both legal and illegal; cooks and janitors and other service personnel—ordinary people who had turned up to work.
In their response to what had happened in the World Trade Center, the leaders mirrored what to me was New York City’s great gift to the world. It was a place full of people from somewhere else, who had gathered to work and foster hopes together. I would find it hard to believe that the people from twenty-six nations who died in those towers that day were bound up with narrow definitions of nationalism or American exceptionalism. I am sure, like many in this city of immigrants, they had one eye on, and more than a piece of their heart still in, their homeland as they struggled to understand what it meant to be an American and to be in America.
Perhaps they believed that America’s possibilities lay most directly in the promise offered by the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor that many of them could see from their windows in the World Trade Center: a dream that knew nothing of borders or political systems, but lay simply in an escape from an arbitrary world that curtailed freedom and restricted capital and held back individual promise. Working in the World Trade Center, they were in the very symbols of a world where they could flourish unrestricted by caste, religion, ethnic group, or religion. Unfortunately, the terrorists understood this, too.
Tomorrow, Part III