Fast as time seems to pass for me these days, 2001 now feels far away. I met my amazing wife nine years ago, moved to the apartment I live in today a few months later, got married in 2008. I’ve changed jobs four times in the last ten years, was hit by a car once, and mourned the death of each of my grandparents. All of this happened after September 11th, 2001. At the time, I had just moved to Williamsburg to live near my best friends (who are still my best friends), had taken a new job at a record store, and was starting “from scratch”. I was reading a lot of what I’d call “grassroots view of the coming revolution” literature, bemoaning the insipid reign of George W. Bush, and playing records to very small crowds. In January of 2001, on a whim, I took the last elevator of the night to the top of the World Trade Center—the only time I ever went. The view from up there was different than any other I’d ever seen of New York—vast and anonymous—but not nearly as amazing as I had anticipated; I felt like I had seen it before. I’ve visited the top of the Empire State Building, too, and have no interest in going back. It’s unlikely that, even if the towers were still standing, I would take the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center again. I simply took it for granted. In 2001, I was twenty-seven. I am thirty-seven today.
Commercial leases in New York typically last ten years. That means that most of the businesses I visited in the weeks after September 11th, 2001 are probably closed. That record store I worked for on Orchard Street, in the Lower East Side, closed in 2006 (about the time almost every record store in New York went out of business), and all of the businesses around it are gone, but new boutiques and restaurants have opened in the blocks south of Stanton, replacing the old fur and leather stores that I remember from my first weeks in New York after college. Williamsburg, too, has changed. Though it feels the same on Bedford Avenue, almost every storefront has turned over in the intervening years, and the East River waterfront has transformed entirely, with tall, glassy residential buildings built on the decrepit empty lots that neighbored the river a decade ago.
In Williamsburg, San Marco Pizzeria is one business that has definitely exceeded its ten-year lease. They opened before I moved to Brooklyn, and they’re still in business today, but I’ve only eaten there once; even in shock, I had to eat lunch. I had a sausage roll and one slice of pizza with about twelve other strangers that day, and we watched the television hung in the corner the entire time. For a day that I spent—for the most part—outside of my apartment, I watched a lot of TV on September 11th. When the towers started to fall, I was eight feet from a window with a view of the buildings—still billowing black smoke—watching CNN. As it happened, then, I saw the South tower begin to crumble on a television set. The rest I saw, holding my breath, from a fire escape: the enormous flood of dust rising from lower Manhattan; the emergency vehicles speeding towards the bridge; the crowd on the street in front of my building, screaming as two F-16s dove into the city to patrol the airspace, too late. Still, I learned about the few reported casualties, the planes in Washington, D.C., and the crash in Pennsylvania on cable news, and came to listen to endless conjecture blaring out of the set at the pizzeria that afternoon. That’s one thing that has changed in the intervening decade; if the city were attacked today, I’d probably spend the day watching Twitter, which means I’d have to make a more concerted effort to eat lunch. That said, there’s still a television at the San Marco Pizzeria; I see it whenever I pass.
I did spend a few hours away from the TV on the Brooklyn waterfront that evening, watching the line of ambulances on the FDR Drive from across the river. It was twilight, and I was thinking about how many offices once stayed lit all night in the World Trade Center, and how each of those lights would have been a person working. I tried to reconcile the loss of the buildings with the idea that all the people who worked there might have died, and how the lights of the ambulances and police cruisers stood in for those lit windows and the people behind them. When I wrote an email to my friends and family that night, I made a reference to “twelve casualties” of the attacks, orders of magnitude less than the actual number of people we’d only slowly come to learn had died. The next morning, I rode my bicycle into the city and stood across from the Armory on Lexington and 26th, where hundreds of missing-person flyers had been taped up on the wall; it was the only time I cried that week. For me, September 11th was about buildings, but September 12th was about people: missing, dead, surviving, frightened, stunned, lonely, white, black, and brown.
Everything was suddenly broken. My friends didn’t trust the government, America didn’t trust Muslims, and even the air was said to be poisoned. Conspiracies on all sides sprouted like weeds. The situation for Muslims and people of color got far worse in the months after September, and I’d venture to say the ensuing national race divide is still not thoroughly bridged. But in New York City it was more or less mended a long time ago, which pretty much describes most things about this city and its capacity to recover. The anonymous interpersonal relationships of New Yorkers of all kinds rebounded quickly, as they had to; the city is too crowded to heal slowly, and it seems like New York felt normal long before the rest of the country did.
That said, I won’t pretend that the city is necessarily a better place for the scar it bears, and there are things that I don’t like about New York circa 2011 as compared to New York circa 2001, but 9/11 doesn’t really figure into that. The complexity of my relationship to the city I live in today is probably the same, historically, as that of any thirty-seven-year-old New Yorker in history. It’s not the same place, and I’m not the same person. The shock of a naked skyline took a good year to digest (with annual reminders from two enormous upward-facing lamps every September), but I don’t wake up every morning reflecting on an increased national paranoia and the loss of my civil rights. New York is a city I love to love, and have for over fifteen years. That it occasionally seems infested with jerks and bad drivers is a passing inconvenience, a product of my age and experience—but there is no entrenched “post-9/11 malaise”. New York is still a home to a great many young artists, good music, amazing public spaces, and tasty food, and at the very bottom of the city, there is a building going up, in which someday I hope to take the elevator.
The memorial articles and posts I’ve read today all seem to share two things: The residual pain and shock as we’re reminded of what we felt ten years ago, and a subtle sense of awe that so much time has passed. September 11th has become a milestone by which we check our progress as citizens, and I believe we pass muster. As milestones go, it’s important, but the third anniversary of my wedding to Laurea arrives in exactly one month, and that’s a milestone I’m so grateful to be able to mark. To me, the point of remembering September 11th is not just to mourn the event itself, but to celebrate the millions of achievements, good deeds, small businesses, marriages, and children that have emerged from the dust. I know I didn’t see things that way ten years ago today, but I’m glad that we can tell that story now.