New York's 9/11, and not letting go

Great cities are like the sea. They swallow their dead.

New York has absorbed many horrors through its history, but most traces of them have long since been allowed to vanish.

There was once a place called Five Points, where murderous gangs reigned. You couldn't even find it on a map now. The factory building where young women leapt to their deaths to escape the inferno consuming the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. is a university office. The 1,021 souls who burned in 20 minutes aboard the General Slocum in the East River 107 years ago are remembered by New Yorkers, if at all, because they account for the worst loss of life before Sept. 11, 2001.

New York strides relentlessly forward - a great place if they ever get it done, as the editor of the Commercial Advertiser put it in 1828. Tragedies are history to throw off, a roadblock to progress.

But this time, so far, New Yorkers feel differently. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, New York's prevailing mood is to resist the city's natural tides of forgetting, of moving on.

Not letting go permeates the city these days. In large ways and small, New Yorkers still are trying to refill the empty sky that Bruce Springsteen mourned.

The words permanent and New York do not sit naturally together. They are almost contradictions. But New Yorkers do seem to be yearning for lasting, if not permanent, connections to their loss.

To experience 9/11 as New Yorkers did, and still are, it helps to realize there were really two 9/11s. There was a global event, seen live on television everywhere. America was attacked, as will be repeated endlessly Sunday.

But it was New York that suffered the grievous wound (Many New Yorkers barely recognize the smoldering Pentagon and the wreckage in Shanksville.).  The New York experience of 9/11 was very personal, traumatic and individually horrifying. If we did not lose a close friend or family member, we knew someone who did.

New Yorkers plunging from the towers were not icons of a tragedy. Other New Yorkers watched them fall, disbelieving. Then, later, with the acrid smell in their nostrils, the living searched for their own spouses, parents, children.

"The centers of hundreds upon hundreds of webs of family, friends, work had been torn out," Amy Waldman of Brooklyn writes in her new novel, "The Submission," as she portrays the myriad ways the destruction of the twin towers shuddered through the fabric of the city.

Whether they found who they were searching for that day or not, everyone was afraid, everyone was touched. For a long time even simple things, like the beautiful fall sky, could trigger the chill of recalling the fear.

When the unfamiliar, an earthquake, shook the city the other day, the first thought most New Yorkers had was that another attack was under way. A third of New Yorkers tell the Marist Institutes poll takers that even now, 10 years later, they feel their lives changed forever.

New Yorkers lost colleagues and loved ones. But they lost something else that day, too: the towers themselves.

"There are going to be a whole generation of people growing up and people who never visited New York who will have no conception whatsoever of how big the towers were - how beautiful they were and how iconic they were, how many different vantage points there were where you could see them," says Brian August, who can see that empty space where the towers should be from his roof in Brooklyn.

They weren't graceful or elegant, like the Woolworth or Chrysler buildings. Instead of sweeping upward, they bullied their way into the city skyline. But they were their generation's reaffirmation that here, as Russell Shorto wrote of the Dutch settlement where it began, was The Island at the Center of the World.

The towers were an expression, in aluminum, glass and steel, of that Dutch idea that this was a city where commerce and exchange were more important than nationality or armies. They were, after all, The World Trade Center. So their destruction, as was intended, challenged the faith of New Yorkers in the founding idea of New York itself.

In 1973, this reporter went to his first full-time job, on Cortlandt Street, which deadheaded right into the then newly finished towers. From Cortlandt Street, the towers filled the vista. It was the year of the Watergate hearings. At the office, television blared the latest revelations.

That summer it seemed the American system of government would fall at any moment and the towers would last forever. It turned out the other way around. The American system, for all its struggles, has proven remarkably resilient yet again.

But when the towers fell, something of New York's vision of itself tumbled with them. And New Yorkers have spent 10 years refilling the empty spaces left by the attack.

For Brian August, the effort is literal. He has designed an app to do it. When you hold your mobile phone up toward lower Manhattan, his app imposes an image of the vanished towers on the present scene.

"These lost views conjure vivid memories in much the same way as hearing a favorite song from the past," he explains of his project, which he calls 110stories. " 'Seeing' the towers come to life through your iPhone will transport you back in time. 110 Stories lets each of us show and tell our personal stories and share them with the world."

Hundreds of New Yorkers have donated money so he can complete his project.

This is something new for New Yorkers. In a town that has plowed under cemeteries and repurposed the scenes of dance hall arsons and fatal factory fires, a piece of New York's prime asset, real estate, is now reconsecrated in the mind of the city as hallowed ground.

Not all of ground zero, of course. That would be too un-New York like. After 10 years of squabbling in the most New York of ways, the site of devastation will be shared by a memorial to the dead, a museum, a commuter hub and new commercial towers, one that will soar higher than the trade towers.

Contradictory? Not here. The essence of being a New Yorker, this event has dramatized, is conceding only so much to tragedy. We won't forget, New Yorkers seem to be saying, but we won't bend, either.

For example, even as they say life has been changed, New Yorkers show little sign of making concessions to the possibility that the fire next time could be even worse, according to research at Columbia University. They haven't turned down a corner office on a high floor or done much else to prepare, said Professor Irwin Redlener, director of the university's National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He worries this is a grave mistake.

Whatever else you think of the redevelopment of ground zero, it captures the contradictory impulses of New Yorkers. The new 1 World Trade Center is an act of defiance, taller than the originals. At the same time the memorial at its feet, an unaccustomed act of memory, will be far larger than anything else of the sort in New York, certainly more impressive than the fountain in a neighborhood park honoring the dead of the General Slocum or the plaque on the side of the Triangle Shirtwaist building.

A city, of course, is not monuments or buildings, as Jane Jacobs reminded us. It is people and the communities they make. Some fled New York (no one is quite sure how many left for good after the attack). But others, hundreds of thousands of them, came from all around the world in the years after 9/11.

The ultimate triumph of New York is not the memorial or the museum or the new Freedom Tower. It is the resurgence of life in the streets around ground zero. More people live there today than did on Sept. 10, 2001. They are the closest thing the city will ever have to permanence.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Michael Oreskes is senior managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press. He worked for Dow Jones & Co. in lower Manhattan in the early 1970s, just after the opening of the World Trade Center down the block.


Tomorrow: The collective Sept. 11 experience.