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Sept. 11: What 9-11 means to New York

By JAMES B. CHAPIN, UPI National Political Analyst   |   Sept. 6, 2002 at 6:36 PM   |   Comments

(Part of UPI's Special Package on Sept. 11)

NEW YORK (UPI) -- The most famous person on Pan Am 103, Bernt Carlsson, the UN high commissioner for Namibia, was one of my best friends.

The difference between the tragedy of Flight 103 in 1988 and the tragedy of 9-11 is that, in a strange way, residents of New York City have to mourn last year's events every day, not just once. And, even though I lost no close friends last year, that is as true for me as it is for other city residents.

Why should that be?

Although most of the discussion of 9-11 necessarily centers on the 3,000 people who died, the real reminder comes every day when one looks at the New York skyline. In Shelley's poem, when one is reminded of transience ("My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair") it is because "Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Then it was a statue in the midst of desolation; here it is desolation in the middle of bustle that calls up sad thoughts.

In a way, it is odd that such an unloved and undistinguished monument of the edifice complex of Nelson Rockefeller can be missed, but the World Trade Center was often compared to New York's buck teeth.

One glances at the skyline and finds the missing front teeth; and like someone in that condition, one keeps putting one's mental tongue in the vacancy.

In its short three-decade existence, the World Trade Center provided a counterbalance to the Empire State Building.

When Dino De Laurentis remade King Kong, he put the great ape of top of the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State building; no surprise that the remake flopped. But, unloved as it was, the WTC is missed.

The emotional significance of the New York City skyline has been explored in poem and story. Hart Crane, the high-school dropout from Cleveland, living near the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote to Waldo Frank, "I am living in the shadow of that bridge. There is all the glorious dance of the river directly beyond the back window ... the ships, the harbor, the skyline of Manhattan ... it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh ..."

Ayn Rand, the immigrant from Russia, wrote in "The Fountainhead," "I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body."

Eric Miller writes "To Rand, New York was what life was about: a purposeful pursuit. It was a place where achievement abounded."

That Manhattan skyline, then, stands for something. It stands, singularly, for man's achievement, not that of nature.

And New York City is unusual among great cities. Most great cities are, or were, the capital of bureaucratic and/or religious empires -- this applies to Baghdad, Rome, Cairo, Constantinople as well as to London, Paris, Moscow and Berlin.

The monuments of those cities are cathedrals or mosques or castles or government buildings, not commercial skyscrapers.

New York City was a capital for only a few months. Ironically, the first inaugural address in American history was delivered by George Washington, on Wall Street, three years before the beginnings of the New York Stock Exchange.

The New York accent, unlike that of most great cities, is a "prestige sink" in its own country. The political leaders of America, like Thomas Jefferson, hated cities so much that they founded a capital in the middle of a swamp to be away from them -- and the resulting city even now has an airless, one-industry town flavor to it.

Jefferson's great rival, "the bastard son of a Scots peddler," West-Indian born Alexander Hamilton, was a quintessential New Yorker. He never understood American politics, but he did New York a favor by horse-trading the nation's capital to the slave states.

Commerce and intellectual life came to New York, and came there separated from national politics, which was isolated in DC.

New York City became THE polyglot city. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out four decades ago, it was the only great city whose populatioon, as well as its elites, was polyglot (other great cities, in the last few decades, are following a pattern which is two centuries old in New York). It contained the masters of capitalism -- and the great opponents of capitalism.

As the center of diversity, before diversity was fashionable, it was hated by all in the world who sought uniformity. And many people seek uniformity.

The New York City skyline, whether seen by Crane as representing technology, by Rand as representing individualism, or by its detractors as representing commercialism, is a rebuke to homogeneity.

Taking down the skyline was a visible challenge to the authority of the city, of the defiance of the city to homogenizing dreams. It was meant as such: it was no coincidence that Osama wants to take the world back to the Ottoman Empire -- that ultimate consolidation of bureaucratic and religious power.

New York, at its best, is not about the past -- it retains less of its past than any of the other great cities of the world -- nor about the continuity of its people -- from its foundation it has been totally reshaped by five great waves of immigration, and most of the praise of the city comes from people who were not born here themselves.

In one of the last shows of "Northern Exposure," Dr. Joel Fleischman, the New Yorker exiled in Alaska, sees his dream city shimmering on the horizon -- it is New York.

The skyline is what represents New York to the world, and even more, what represents New Yorkers own dream of what the city is.

So, every day, when New Yorkers look at the skyline and its missing part, they see a dream that has been damaged. That's why New Yorkers have been gloomy.

What's the remedy?

Rudolph Giuliani, masterful in the moment of crisis, is wrong in his basic instincts about memorializing the end of the World Trade Center.

The indomitability of this unique city is shown, not by remembrance, but by action. New York should not be and cannot be focused on a single day in the past.

New York is not about the sad past, but the bountiful future. Let there be a small museum, or perhaps a plaque. And let the rest of the space go back to commerce. "Living well is the best revenge." And in this case, the best memory, too.

--

(This column is part of UPI's Special Package on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks).

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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