Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company   

The New York Times

 

 

September 16, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

 

 

After Shining Decade, City Dwellers Reassess Face of Their Reality

By ADAM NAGOURNEY

 

 

Everything seemed to be going right.

 

The economy in New York City was holding on, defying, at least for the moment, the downturn in the rest of the nation, not to mention Wall Street. The real estate market was prospering. The candidates for mayor could barely find an issue or raise a crowd in this confident and contented city, while a poll published one month ago found that fully two-thirds of New Yorkers expected life to be as good or better in the years ahead.

 

And the Yankees were rolling toward the World Series again.

 

The extent of the physical damage caused by the twin-jet assault on the World Trade Center on Tuesday, not to mention the death toll, has become abundantly clear over the past few days. But the damage caused to the self-esteem of a city that has been riding an eight-year high - a jagged legacy of this terrorist attack - is only beginning to come into focus.

 

There were voices of civic pride across New York as last week drew to a close, speaking of the volunteers along West Street handing out bottled water to firefighters, and the cheering crowds that hoisted candles at the trucks of relief workers passing on Avenue of the Americas. But this has become a moment for reassessing New York by New Yorkers who, understandably after this bright light of a decade, may have forgotten that this is a city of severe ups and severe downs, usually caused by forces beyond its control.

 

"I've lived to be 60 years old, and I've lived in New York for the past 46 years, and I never thought I'd come to see the day in New York when we were threatened with an attack," said Anna L. Hepburn, a paralegal who lives in Harlem.

 

"I'm concerned for the city," said Gary Foster, a 42-year-old public relations official at a biotechnology firm at Rockefeller Center. "I was already concerned with the potential of a severe economic downturn and was waiting for the impact to be felt by the city. I'm sure we will be going through a phase here where we will be inconvenienced. As for the long term, I'm just hoping that this city does not change radically."

 

Perhaps not radically. But by any measure, this has knocked the wind out of a brash city in ways that became evident even before the first sun set on the rubble of the World Trade Center. One hour after the second tower tumbled, unnerved passers-by just south of Houston Street scattered as a police bomb squad towed away a large panel truck that had been abandoned on King Street, a street of row houses on the edge of Soho.

 

After that, in first the hours and then the days ahead, every parked, abandoned truck loomed as a potential bomb. The buzz of low-flying military jets or police helicopters inevitably drew anxious glances from pedestrians, replaying in their minds the brutal memory of airplanes smacking into buildings. The wail of sirens was no longer the white noise that provided a hectic backdrop to life in a lively city. Instead, it became a reason to stop, listen and watch.

 

The subways, in their growing dysfunctionality, offered a daily, crowded reminder of the anxiety that has settled over New York. On a jostling shoulder-to-shoulder A train the other morning, a young mother, coiled and tense, admonished her young son, who had slipped two feet away to stand by the door. "I want to be able to see you," she said, the edge in her voice capturing the expression on everyone's face in the silent car.

 

In TriBeCa, Heather Higgins, the president of a public policy foundation and the mother of three young children, said that what took place just blocks south of her home was shocking but was in some ways a cost of living in a city as proud and high-profile as this one. "In portions of the world where there are floods and hurricanes, people continue to live there," she said. "They understand that calamities happen, but life goes on."

 

"As a lifelong New Yorker, I'm unshaken in my commitment to live here," she continued. "We always knew that a terrorist threat existed, and if there was a place that would be desirable to attack in the United States, New York would probably be Location No. 1 and Location No. 2. If you're not willing to live with those risks, I don't know why you would live in New York."

 

As it turned out, at the same moment she was making that argument, the police were detaining 10 people at New York airports and investigating whether they were part of the bombing plot.

 

The men were freed the next day, but in this environment, is it any wonder that a bomb scare at Grand Central Terminal, once an event that most people would have shrugged off, produced such a spasm of anxiety across New York? Or that Mr. Foster now has to display his employee ID card whenever he enters an elevator at Rockefeller Center? Or that so many New Yorkers spoke about avoiding the Empire State Building, or Pennsylvania Station, or Bloomingdale's, or riding a subway that might take them under the East River or over the Manhattan Bridge?

 

It is sometimes difficult to remember, in these days of safe streets and a thriving economy, the days when crime was a constant companion in New York. These days, more than a few New Yorkers are wondering if a fear of terrorism will take the place that crime once occupied in the consciousness of this city.

 

"I was thinking I don't want to come into the subway at 8:45, because there was something magical about the 8:45 number," said Jonathan Klonsky, an owner of Something Digital, a World Wide Web design firm based in Brooklyn, as he recalled the way he felt the day after the attack on the Twin Towers. Claire Wachtel, an executive editor at William Morrow & Company, said her 15-year-old daughter had informed her that she would no longer ride the subway at all.

 

A New York University graduate student, Dan Link, 29, who grew up in Rochester and was drawn to New York by what he described as its energy and intelligence, said that when he got an e-mail message from a friend the other day asking if he was "around," he assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that he was about to learn that a friend had perished.

 

"You want to know how my perception of New York has changed?" Mr. Link asked from his home in Brooklyn, where ash from the crumbling center floated across the river and coated his flower boxes. "There's an example."

 

This is more than a matter of the city's view of itself. New Yorkers, it would seem, remain as self-congratulatory and chauvinistic as ever, and understandably proud of how they have absorbed and responded to this crisis. But at the same time, many of them, including those who were drawn here from across the country, wonder how this city will be able to retain that allure that transformed it, in less than a decade, from a symbol of failed urban policy to a place that people sought to visit and to make a home.

 

"I think a lot of those people who came here because they felt that living in New York is as safe as living in any other city, they're not going to come anymore," said Donald Suggs, 40, a Saint Louis native who works at a housing transition facility for people who are H.I.V. positive and who has lived in New York for 15 years. Mr. Suggs laughed. "But you know what?" he said. "That's fine!"

 

The view among New Yorkers varies from borough to borough, neighborhood to neighborhood and even block to block. Mark Glaze, 30, a lawyer, found the streets bustling when he stepped out of his apartment on East 12th Street on Thursday evening. "I ate out tonight," Mr. Glaze said. "Obviously, this is what people are talking about, but there is not a siege mentality. People are still eating ice cream."

 

But the mood is quite different to the south and the west of Manhattan, where the reminders of tragedy are impossible to avoid: the sour smell of smoke, the unsettling silence on streets closed to all but but official traffic, the shuttered store fronts, the police officers demanding residency credentials every few blocks. The newspaper vendors standing in front of empty racks, and, at night, the white glow of klieg lights illuminating the smoky patch of sky where the Twin Towers once stood. It is much harder to find places selling ice cream in this part of town.

 

Yet through it all, there remains a spirit of confidence and hope - that while life in New York is not going to be in this decade what it was in the last 1990s, this might, nonetheless, make New York a stronger city. "I think New York will rebuild," said Paul R. Beirne, a money manager. "I think the economy will be able to absorb this, both here locally as well as nationally. And you know, it certainly makes me nervous, and a little scared, but there's a resilience. I'm optimistic."

 

Carl Redding, the owner of Amy Ruth's, a restaurant in Harlem, offered a more pragmatic, and in many ways New York, point of view. "We have to go ahead and live our lives," Mr. Redding said. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen."