NEW YORK – New York is a city that forgets quickly. Teeming with ambition, its denizens are focused on getting ahead. And what’s striking today is how remote the disaster of September 11, 2001, now is for most New Yorkers.
Since the attack, the city has endured two dramatic economic cycles. More than other American cities, New York’s population is always churning. According to the City Department of Planning’s most recent estimates (from June 2009), the city attracted 647,000 immigrants over the last decade, mainly from Latin America and Asia.
For most new New Yorkers, the attack on the World Trade Center and the image of the gargantuan towers, which for a generation imposed itself over the lower Manhattan skyline, is something distant. That is difficult for those of us who lived here before the attacks to comprehend; but that psychological distance will become only more pronounced as time passes.
Prior to 9/11, the greatest disaster in the city’s history was the death of more than 1,000 people after the steamboat the General Slocum caught fire and sank in New York's East River on June 15, 1904. Most of the victims were German immigrants, mainly women and children, on their way to a picnic. They were members of a church that stands blocks from the apartment where I grew up. Like all of my neighborhood friends, however, I never heard about the General Slocum disaster when I was a child.
With the fallen Twin Towers, however, we are dealing with more than just the inevitable fading of memories and migration patterns. In just ten years, the neighborhood surrounding the World Trade Center site has been radically transformed. Roughly 100,000 people lost their jobs in the area following the attacks, including many of the 50,000 who worked in the Trade Center itself. Several other large commercial buildings surrounding the Twin Towers were also destroyed.
Many older office buildings in the area were unable to retain tenants, who decided to move away from the ubiquitous scenes of destruction. Landlords chose to convert these offices to residences, and now about 40,000 people live in lower Manhattan, double the number before 9/11.
After eight years of deadlock and inaction, two huge office towers are rising on the Ground Zero site. The magazine publisher Condé Nast has announced that it will move 5,000 workers into the 1,776-foot-tall One World Trade Center in 2014, shortly after its completion. A memorial that features two huge square reflecting pools in the actual footprint of the towers will open to the public on the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
While some will be stirred by the redeveloped Ground Zero, others will find the fountains oppressive and exhausting, and the new glass towers cold and soulless. But inflated architectural ambitions and commercial rapaciousness are a part of New York City, and it would have been naive to have imagined that the redevelopment wouldn’t reflect this.
Last year, faced with a controversy that dominated national headlines and inflamed outsiders, locals reacted sensibly and with equanimity. In May 2010, the community board, which is made up of area residents, voted 29-to-1 in favor of a plan to build a 13-story mosque and community center just two blocks from Ground Zero. Questions about the mosque lingered for months afterward, with small demonstrations at the proposed site organized by people who had no connection to the neighborhood. Despite efforts by tabloid media to incite conflict, most New Yorkers ignored the dispute.
In marked contrast to the city, the country as a whole, ten years after 9/11, finds itself deeply mired in the fallout from the attacks. The current political deadlock and recriminations in Washington are rooted in the shortsighted, impulsive, and emotional decisions that followed the first attack on the American mainland since the War of 1812.
The 16-acre Ground Zero redevelopment site was for eight years also a victim of deadlock, remaining an ugly pit in the ground as disputes between various stakeholders with competing interests froze development. The looming tenth anniversary concentrated minds. Compromises were made and the work of building took precedence. It was time to move forward.
One can only hope that America’s national political leaders, looking ahead, will perform more rationally than they have over the past ten years. Among New York City’s great virtues is its constant reinvention. New Yorkers have never allowed themselves to be prisoners of the past. All Americans would do well to follow their example.