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September, 2002

New York Is In Deep Trouble And May Be Dying
By Jim Scanlon

I had been warned not to go to the World Trade Center site on the anniversary of its destruction: "The place will be a zoo" (i.e., very crowded) and it was hinted more than once that "Something might happen," but I went very early hoping to beat the crush if there was one.

All week long incessant newspapers stories and television programs created a sense of saturation, anticipation and tension that was hard to avoid or escape. On Monday 9/9, I watched "Investigative Reports: Anatomy of 9/11," the last 102 minutes of the World Trade Center, an excellent two hour presentation on the mechanics of the fall of the towers, the where and why so many people were killed. It was slow moving, methodical, factual, quietly understated and respectfully unemotional, unlike most TV.

The computer graphics were clear and helpful in understanding the catastrophe, essentially repeating the investigative reports that had appeared in the Times over the past year, although the criticisms of the communications system used by the Fire Department, the coordination between Police and Fire Departments and leadership seemed much harsher on TV than they appeared in print.

It would be difficult to list the number of memorials, events, gatherings and meetings that took place on 9/11, or shortly thereafter. The Times listed four columns of a full page of events taking place in the city, upstate NY and New Jersey and two columns sampling events in other states throughout the country. Just the number of artistic events dedicated to the fall of the towers was especially impressive and moving, showing the power of what we call art and how important it is to urban and urbane people. These will, no doubt continue as years go by.

I was wrong in my estimation that New Yorkers, being always harried and beset by the stress of urban living and used to adversity might be handling the 9/11 catastrophe with their usual wit, masochistic sarcasm, black, and or sick humor. But no, this was too much. Earlier this year, I had heard part of a comedy routine by a downtown performance artist named "Reno" on Amy Goodman's morning radio show from downtown Manhattan which seemed to support my now erroneous hypothesis. Her one woman performance "Rebel Without a Pause" played at several locations throughout Manhattan but closed early in the summer.

What I did sense was a disinclination to talk about what happened on 9/11, the intense short term fear and then the more subdued, nagging long term fear of the long term health consequences of breathing that awful dust and the economic effect on the city and the region. The city is in bad financial shape, no doubt about it.

At 6;45 on the morning of September 11th, large numbers of people were already walking north and south on Broadway, spilling into the street converging on what has come to be known as "Ground Zero." Ordinary people were not allowed within a block of the huge 16-acre empty excavation pit where the towers once stood, making it impossible for an unconnected person to see directly into the pit or to hear anything-except later when a loud, distant applause arose, and then died out.

I got off Broadway, walked north beyond the Vessey Street boundary of the "pit," then west to West Street and south to the edge of a huge crowd of mostly ordinary looking New Yorkers dressed for the hot humid weather we had been having. There were lots of flags and clothing with flag motifs. Firefighters in uniform walked south through the crowd, most from NY, but others in strikingly different uniforms from upstate NY, Oregon, Canada and other places I could not identify. A large formation of uniformed security officers from University Hospital and then other large institutions marched through, each with seemingly more officers that medium sized cities. Groups of different trade unions were present but it was hard to determine which local of what union.

By 8:46 when the ceremonies were scheduled to start I was already tired and people were still pouring into West Street, very quiet, but relaxed, chatting with one another. The sun was bright and hot and a welcomed cool breezed began to blow. The usual city traffic sounds were absent except for a military helicopter that flew at intervals up and down the Hudson, also known as the North River. It was quiet and peaceful, no words, no names, just a large quiet crowd. A young woman and an old man tried repeatedly to launch a beautiful kite with an angel hand painted on it, but since it didn't have a tail, and it kept falling, they gave up content to stand with the angel kite at their side.

The wind blew harder stirring up dust. A swirl of dust arose from the excavation pit where the memorial services were taking place. I was told later that when the dust swirled, television commentators implied that it looked like a sign from the Almighty. If the wind was a sign, it was excessive, for it tore loose several boards from the new America Online skyscraper at Columbus Circle. The boards fell and killed a pedestrian and seriously injured another. (Strangely enough, that night, when the NY Lottery number for the day was

picked, it was 911.)

When I calculated that the 102 minutes were up, I walked up West Street which was quiet and empty, except for police officers and a few workers lined up on the sidewalk chatting, obviously on the job, but paying their respects. Those working there that day must have been smothered by the dust and ash. I walked to Houston Street were things seemed to be normal until the mournful bell at Street Anthony of Padua sounded and a mass of uniformed firefighters and women with children began filing into the church.

I stopped for a latte in a small storefront cafe on McDougal Street. About six tables were filled with coffee drinkers reading newspapers and a few couples in conversation. The radio was on and names were being read: I heard five different "Lynches." The next time I noticed, the reader was at the "M"s. A strikingly beautiful, friendly young woman made my latte. She could have easily been a model. Excusing her slowness, she said it was her first day on the job. Her comments brought to mind all those workers in the Trade Center-first day on the job, on the point of retiring, taking someone's place, had a migraine that day, turned left, turned right went down instead of up-totally random life or death moves!

I thought of two personal stories as far as I knew unreported. A young woman on her first day on the job on the 20th floor of the North Tower did not know the way out . When she finally got out, the South Tower collapsed and so did she, covered with dust and ash, at the foot of the North Tower. She could not move. A large African American man must have seen she was alive and tried to rouse her but her legs wouldn't move. He asked her where she was from and she said "Staten Island." He picked her up and carried her to the Ferry Building and left here there. She doesn't know how she got home. She never got the man's name or heard of from him again.

A young man who worked in the South Tower narrowly escaped a few months before from a smoky fire in his apartment building uptown. When the announcement was made for everyone to say at their desk after the North Tower had been hit, he got up on his desk and shouted, "Based on my experience in a recent fire in my building, I advise everyone to get out of here as fast as possible. I'm going!" They all made it!

When I left the Cafe, I failed to notice what letter of the alphabet was being read.

I met a friend at his Greenwich Village apartment for lunch. He was unsuccessfully trying to avoid "The 9/11 thing" and was irritable, finding fault with everything. He wasn't looking at television at all. Walking to the East Side, he talked about his dead cat and about the kitten he had gotten to replace it. She was a lot of fun but made messes. We made an appointment for the following week for me to set up his computer so he could work at home. He called me late that night and I wondered why. Like a crack addict I suppose, he had turned on his television and for a half an hour he poured out his disgust at the coverage of 9/11 and "ridiculous" talk about "hallowed ground"! I got the impression that New Yorkers want this thing to be over.

New York is in deep trouble and may be dying. Companies scattered before 9/11 and that trend accelerated after. Large companies that do not leave are being asked to locate parts of their operation in different areas of the city served by different data and power networks. The staff of the Wall Street Journal had to be practically coerced into returning to Lower Manhattan. One company, Aon, the second largest insurance broker is relocating, but will avoid tall buildings according to the Times.

There have always been people who would not travel in airplanes, now there a lot more. There have always been people who were afraid to work in, or even visit, tall office buildings. Now there is reality to those fears, and that reality is constantly being reinforced by video images and photographic images of the towers and the victims. Hundreds of firefighters are on disability leave with respiratory problems. Thousands had "World Trade Center Cough."

New York City is not a city given to monuments, but there is enormous pressure to memorialize the Trade Center site as "hallowed ground" in some way. Some want the entire site, others want to rebuild the original towers. Others want a mix including housing and low income housing. Even the Fresh Kills Sanitary Landfill, the Staten Island Dump, the biggest dump in the history of the world where the Trade Center rubble was sifted, has been called "hallowed ground" by former Mayor Rudolph Guilliani.

Memorialization, or "turning the site into a graveyard" as a detractors called it, will not restore downtown Manhattan as a viable business area. Right now there is an excess of commercial property. To the extent that a memorial is successful in recalling 9/11 and inducing reflection in passersby, it is likely to induce other feelings in local business executives seeking office space and office workers on the 30th or 90th or 100th floor.

The aspect of the catastrophe that seems to have affected New Yorkers the most are "the jumpers," the men and women who leaped from the upper floors of the burning North Tower to a quick death. "Tumbling Woman," a bronze statue of a naked woman falling in a backward somersault, her arms flailing was veiled, covered and removed from Rockerfeller Center. The statue was intended to memorialize those who "jumped or fell" that day. It wasn't appreciated. Using the word "or fell" indicates the fear, fragility and horror induced by thoughts of jumping from high places in some people who live in a city with so many high places.

One hopes that New Yorkers can drag themselves out of the precarious situation in which the city is now stuck. After years of working without a contract, the Police got a so-so contract. The Firefighters want more pay. Some 10,000 of them demonstrated on September 16th. Cantor Fitzgerald a financial services firm, which was almost wiped out on September 11th has publicly called the US Compensation Fund "unfair'. As reported in the NY Times: "Under ...[the fund's]...projections, the family of a 30 year old broker at the firm who was earning roughly $110,000 on average over the last three years would be entitled to an award of roughly $3 million. Under the firm's formula, which uses gross income and a more bullish estimate of future earnings, the family should receive an award closer to $5 million. The award itself would not be taxed in either case."

Con-Ed, the power company that serves the city is suing the Port Authority for $314.5 million over it's having allowed Mayor Guilliani's Catastrophe Command Center to store diesel fuel at 7 World Trade Center, the forgotten third skyscraper that collapsed eight hours after the first two. The average award from the federal compensation fund is expected to be around $1.5 million. These large projected awards to family members of victims are causing grumbling which will surely increase as these family members lobby for memorials and parks over "hallowed ground" which will be seen as "un New York."

"Manhattan Is The Monument" wrote a professor of Architectural Design at the NY Institute of Technology. "In Manhattan," he says, "the real memorials are above the 100th floor. In a culture whose creed is "liberty through capital," the speculative office building is the cathedral whose size is the measure of its sanctity. The Empire State Building is our Parthenon, the Chrysler Building our Chartres."

The Twin Towers were symbols of American Capitalism which were built and maintained with public money. They were never a center for world trade but were used by the financial services industry. They appeared to be one thing and were another. They were called one thing and were another. If the history of New York is any guide, something else will take their place and while not completely forgotten, they will be forgotten.

 

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