Raucous New York would rather forget

By ANNA ADAMS*

New York City, true to form, will not be closing for business. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg has planned a day-long remembrance designed to cater to many tastes. Dawn will break with bagpipe and drum processions leading from each borough to the World Trade Centre site. There, families of victims and heads of state from around the world will attend a rose-strewn memorial service.

At 8.46am, the time the first plane hit the first tower, the city will attempt to observe a moment of silence - which won't be easy during Manhattan's raucous, bustling morning commute.

Former mayor Rudy Giuliani will then start a recitation of the names of the 2800 people who died at the site, followed by readings of historic American texts and the lighting of an eternal flame. By the time the sun sets over the Hudson River there will be outdoor concerts all over the city.

Mr Bloomberg has been praised for the schedule's skilful blend of remembrance and recovery. But there's no doubt that many New Yorkers would rather not be reminded of that crisp autumn morning when the city was brought to its knees.

As a friend of mine said: "We've lived it, we've processed it and we don't want to go back there." He plans to try to ignore the whole thing.

Psychiatric surveys have revealed that as many as 400,000 New York City residents suffered from clinically diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder or depression after the attack, including 75,000 schoolchildren. Studies by the Red Cross indicate that these problems are persisting well into this year as New Yorkers continue to worry a great deal about further terrorism.

The archetypal hard-charging, tough-talking New Yorker is not someone you expect to find suffering from traumatic stress disorders. But it was impossible not to be significantly affected by what happened.

The island of Manhattan is small, only 20km long and 3.5km wide at its widest point, and most of its activity takes place in half that area. So when 6.5ha of the financial district was turned into a demolition site, it wrought havoc with the entire city's infrastructure.

Tens of thousands of downtown residents were either evacuated, resorting to camping on friends' floors, or left without electric power for months.

The collapse of parts of the subway and the checkpoints at the city's tunnels and bridges added hours to daily journeys. In October, just as the city started to get its nerve back, the anthrax-laced letters started turning up.

And of course there was the grief. The city was draped in it; everyone knew someone who had died: my boss' neighbour; my opposing counsel's daughter; my office mate's brother-in-law.

So it's not surprising that New Yorkers were profoundly shaken by all of this. But have they changed? Well, sort of. At the time a lot was made of New Yorkers' new sense of civic solidarity. Certainly, on September 11 itself New Yorkers exhibited a striking willingness to help each other.

The city's police and fire departments were at the apex of this, their remarkable bravery and intense fraternal loyalty propelling them to the status of heroes. For New York City, the capital of quicksilver finance and intellect, this celebration of ordinary labour was unusual.

A blossoming civic camaraderie could also be seen in the winter following September 11 as New Yorkers became increasingly conscious of their common interest in the city's wellbeing.

When Mayor Giuliani sought to stave off the collapse of the Broadway theatre district by asking the population to "go see a play", New Yorkers did, in record numbers.

But it cannot be denied that these overt expressions of solidarity are receding as the city and its citizens turn more and more to the immediate task at hand. That task is to survive the economic recession.

In the months following the attacks, many speculated that significant cultural changes were afoot in the city. Having faced death and destruction, New Yorkers appeared more contemplative. Shaking off their habitual brashness, they seemed to be looking for authenticity in relationships, in employment, even in restaurants.

The crazy years of the 1990s bull market, when Wall St churned out a dozen 20-something dotcom millionaires a week and the champagne flowed at the Bubble Lounge, seemed a long way away.

Things got more down to earth as New Yorkers turned from glitz and luxury towards the simple and familiar. Comfort food and video-renting experienced a renaissance. Hyper-chic restaurants got friendlier.

Family seemed to become more important to people and there was a mini baby boom: obstetricians reported 15 per cent increases in deliveries from June onwards.

Many argue that these shifts have been as much a reaction to New York's dramatic economic downturn as to the September 11 attacks themselves. The stockmarket was already on the skids when the hijacked jets arrived. But after September 11 they went into freefall, and stocks have now fallen 30 to 60 per cent from their 2000 highs.

This decline has been devastating, because New York's lifeblood runs through Wall St. Job losses have been particularly staggering: more than 250,000 people have filed for unemployment benefits with the city authorities since September 11.

And, of course, the attacks themselves cost a fortune: New York's direct and indirect losses have been tallied at US$83 billion ($176 billion), including property damage and lost tax revenues.

In a city such as New York, which spits out those who cannot survive, recession really bites. Pinned notices of tenants trying to escape exorbitantly expensive apartment leases abound. People are in debt. Those who were planning to retire are pushing out the date a long way.

So perhaps the ex-SoHo revellers now spending their Saturday nights ordering in Vietnamese and cosying up with a video are more concerned about being fired than a grand new psychological outlook. When the economy pulls through, they'll be right back to normal, knocking back $50 steaks with gusto and rediscovering their swagger.

And maybe that's not such a bad thing. New York would not be New York if its residents turned all soft and tender. It has always been a town of talk and flash, its chief exports finance, media and trends.

The colossal sums of money gained and lost here build the elegant skyscrapers, stock the art galleries, support the exquisite restaurants and put the shimmer in the pricey martinis - and who would have it any other way?

If New York is to recover, it will do so in the manner it has always recovered. The city has certainly had it worse: during the Great Depression of the 1930s one-third of the population was out of work.

New Yorkers will grit their teeth, persevere through the bad patch, then get right back to making money.

If need be, they'll pretend September 11 didn't happen. And I, for one, won't blame them.

* Anna Adams, a New Zealander, is a lawyer in New York.

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