In the run-up to the 10-year-anniversary of 9/11, it seems two cities have emerged in lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood.
On the one hand, there is the carnival of grief that is the 9/11 memorial project, with incessant implorations that we ‘must never forget’ and opulent monuments in painfully slow construction. On the other hand, there is the bustling, restless, bombastic New York that just gets on with it.
After a decade of wrangles over Ground Zero – for a long time it remained a gaping hole – it is still a giant construction site. But it’s now surrounded by a flourishing tragedy tourism industry. While the new towers are still under construction – only two are visible from street level – the 9/11 memorial and museum will open for business on Monday. At a memorial preview site, visitors can already purchase a range of 9/11 memorabilia and across the street, at St Paul’s Chapel, passers-by are encouraged to tie white memorial ribbons to the church railings.
But while officials have struggled to make decisions about what to do with Downtown Manhattan and are now compelling New Yorkers to be stuck in the past, New Yorkers themselves have defied predictions that the 9/11 attack would lead to a mass flight from the city or that it would leave scars that can never be healed. Today, the area surrounding Ground Zero is a bustling hubbub of commerce and gentrification, with branches of some of the middle-classes’ favourite staple chain shops moved in, including Barnes & Noble and Whole Foods. There are more hotels, businesses, shops and eateries than before 9/11 and the population has doubled in the past 10 years. Many of the new residents are young families.
Of course, New Yorkers still feel strongly about 9/11 and throughout the city countless memorial events are planned for this Sunday – from art exhibits and concerts to seminars and film screenings. It is neither surprising nor wrong that the 10-year-anniversary has been given special attention and that people want to pay their respects to the victims and the bereaved. The solidarity shown between New Yorkers on that turbulent day and in the difficult days that followed is something to be celebrated, and this week heart-warming stories of volunteer rescue missions and the generous neighbourhood spirit that prevailed have been re-told both in the press and on the streets here in New York.
There’s a difference, though, between remembering the past and living in it, between compelling people to be defined by an extreme act of violence and accepting that while some events are beyond our control how we act after they happen is up to us.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks Americans were told that the event would shape their lives forever. Ground Zero was awash with psychologists, counsellors and even ’therapy dogs’. Analysts set up crisis centres in churches, offices and at fire stations. There were predictions that hundreds and thousands of people would suffer from lasting distress after experiencing the events first-hand or even from just watching it on television.
A new report by the journal American Psychologist, however, claims that the experts’ predictions were vastly exaggerated. A co-author of the report who works at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress told the New York Times that ‘We did a case study in New York and couldn’t really tell if people had been helped by the providers – but the providers felt great about it’.
Another New York Times report highlighted how tricky, messy and even undesirable it is to cast people as sufferers of that amorphous affliction, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is more a vague term that sets every emotion and a drawback against the shadow of some past suffering than a condition with clearly-identifiable symptoms. Despite its all-encompassing nature, however, New York City’s three 9/11 health programmes have only ascribed PTSD to 10,000 servicemen and civilians. It’s a fraction of the 1,5million who were said to be in need of therapeutic intervention after 9/11. Moreover, the symptoms some of these PTSD-sufferers describe are understandable, but not insurmountable, effects of grief and shock: ‘They feel helpless, hopeless, guilty and cut off from the people who are close to them. They avoid anything that reminds them of that terrible day…’ the New York Times report explained.
While a majority of those initially cast as at-risk of long-term psychological damage have, in fact, moved on, many officials and therapy experts haven’t. Even when Osama Bin Laden was killed earlier this year, officials talked about it as an emotional victory, arguing that it provided ‘closure’ for Americans.
The much debated toing and froing and squabbles among politicians, city officials, contractors and developers about the fate of the Ground Zero site has revealed the paralysing confusion and lack of confidence and unity among the authorities. Today, there is a striking disjuncture between the messy construction site and the surrounding living, thriving city. While the city authorities have managed only to complete the memorial, the homage to the past, it hasn’t been able to shape the future. But New Yorkers, on their part, have gotten on with their lives.
Far from fleeing the city, as the fear- and trauma-mongers predicted, the Wall Street Journalreports that residents of lower Manhattan organised community groups to figure out how to rebuild their neighbourhood. Over the years young families started moving in, attracted by the rapid gentrification. The Downtown Alliance’s new State of Lower Manhattan 2011 report foundthat this part of New York City now has more than twice the amount of residents, three times as many hotels and 130 more companies than it had on 9/11. The financial sector stands for most employment in the area, but media companies, creative firms and non-profits have also begun to move in.
While it’s right to mark the 10-year-anniversary this Sunday and to honour those who died, the New Yorkers who pulled together and moved on have shown a much healthier attitude to the senseless, violent attacks of 9/11 than the powers that be: refusing to let terror define their lives. Their determination to get on with life is the greatest monument to the spirit of New York.