THE BLOG
11/10/2006 10:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Only One Scar of 9/11 Has Failed to Heal

New York -- So what happened? In October 2001, a month after 9/11, the New York City
comptroller's office produced a report sunk in doom. It was the answer to
Osama
bin Laden's prayer, portaying a city devastated not by the collapse of the
twin
towers but by the resulting hysteria. Companies would flee. Thousands of
jobs
would be lost and billions in income would disappear. Forget heroic
resilience,
this was panic.

The loss of buildings was assessed at $34 billion, of which only half was
insured. Beyond that was an "ongoing" impact of up to $60 billion.
Manhattan
was already suffering a recession and now even companies inclined to stay
"will
in future avoid concentrating employees in one area." Pundits were
concerned
that the new generation of high, lightweight glass buildings would have to
be
so strengthened as to be uneconomic. Tourists would shun a city with so
many
iconic targets.

The truth is that governments, even New York ones, do not understand
cities.
They are the unruly teenagers of the modern state. One survey after another
has
shown that the impact of 9/11 on New York has been negligible. Tourists
briefly
punished the city for its suffering by staying away but the place soon
returned
to normal. The Wall Street area near the World Trade Centre had been in
fast
decline, with office vacancies running at a dreadful 30 per cent in the
1990s.
But drastic action by Mayor Giuliani through tax abatement and rezoning for
housing had reversed this and the 9/11 did not affect this. The only firm
to
leave New York was the cigarette company, Philip Morris, fleeing to the
tobacco-friendly south. Visitors poured downtown to see the site and a boom
occurred in yuppie riverside apartments near ground zero.

New York was blessed with two mayors well suited to the moment. Rudolph
Giuliani steadied the ship when Washington was taking to the hills. Michael
Bloomberg, coming to office soon afterwards, rectified New York's ever
critical
finances. The city in 1975 had faced bankruptcy and still lurches in that
direction. Wall Street moaned incessantly against high taxes and
over-regulation, which it says have led to New York this year losing
financial
pre-eminence to London. Yet some survival instinct always pulls cities back
from the precipice.

I lived in New York for six months as a child and must have visited it
almost
every year since. I have been seduced by it and experienced its rage,
watched
it stamp its foot, howl with pain, brag, fight and express pride and joy.
After
the horrors of the 1970s and the resulting crime wave I did join those who
wondered if, like some ancient Sumerian city, it would finally turn up its
toes
and die.

But New York never cut its umbilical chord, new immigration. As fast as
white
citizens fled the crime and squalor, newcomers arrived. A declining
population
in the 1980s has for the first time topped 8m, an astonishing third born
overseas (and a third of a million Britons). Conventional wisdom attributes
much of this to the conquest of crime and the recovery of the city's
self-esteem. Credit for this is disputed, but the fact is that in the early
1990s Mayor Dimkins recruiting a police force double the size of London's
and
told them to get out of their cars and walk the streets. The impact was
instant
and remarkable.

In 1990 New Yorkers were killing as many of their fellow citizens each year
as
died in 9/11. The number was halved and then halved again, to 550 today.
Crime
is still falling annually even after Bloomberg cut the police by 20 per
cent to
save money. New York's portrayal in fiction has changed from the grim
introversion of Death Wish and Bonfire of the Vanities to the casual
exoticism
of Friends and Sex in the City.

Much of the credit for this goes to the micro-renaissance of
neighbourhoods.
Block associations and business improvement districts run their own
cleansing,
organise their policing and levy their own taxes. They monitor crime and
oversee that most creative New York obsession, urban colonisation (or
gentrification).

Over the years I have watched Greenwich move to Gramercy then to Soho then
to
Tribeca and now to the Lower East Side, not to mention Brooklyn, Harlem and
Williamsburg. The thesis of the urbanologist, Richard Florida, that renewal
follows an influx of artists, gays, bohemians and ethnic minorities may be
questionable elsewhere but it applies in New York.

The writer, E.B.White, divined half a century ago that New York's survival
lay
in its magnetism for ambition. It was a place "of strangers who have pulled
up
stakes somewhere and come to town". There they are offered "the gift of
loneliness, the gift of privacy" but with a generous hand and a dose of
luck.
London and New York are the gilded Siamese twins of urban glory. I have
preferred London for its gentleness, against New York's harsh geometry and
its
canyons of the mind and spirit. Yet New York offers what London never does,
always a warm handshake. A passing couple this week saw me reading White's
New
York essay in a sidewalk café in Soho and stopped immediately to discuss it
with me. It seemed the most natural thing to do.

Like White I believe New York's survival lies in what it never admits, in
historicism, in "the unexpungeable odour of the long past the vibrations of
great times and tall deeds and queer people." It is the most truly
old-fashioned city in the world. On each visit I find it like Proust's
Albertine, unrecognisable not because it has changed but because it has not
changed as in the mind it should.

The taxis still look like imports from Congo Brazzaville, as do the
pot-holed
streets. Faded advertisements and rickety fire-escapes cloak street
facades.
School buses and fire engines have stepped from a 1950s movie, as have the
soap
ads on television.

The city still has trade unions and a mafia running garbage disposal.
Elevators
still have manual operators. Parking meters are antique. Newspapers such as
the
New York Times and Wall Street Journal look as if they have just been
peeled
from a museum wall: I expect to read in them of the Titanic or the Great
Crash.
As for the new skyscrapers, these banal characterless boxes, so unlike the
greats of Empire State and Chrysler, are transients from Mars. As the doyen
of
New York critics, Ada Louise Huxtable, predicted of the twin towers back in
1970, they would prove "the biggest tombstones in the world".

Only one scar of 9/11 has failed to heal, the site itself. It is a literal
and
metaphorical bomb crater, a battleground across which architects, planners,
financiers and politicians continue to fight to no conclusion. Ground zero
is
not a monument to terrorism but to the inadequacy of government.

New York is not surprised. George Bush and Tony Blair had their reasons for
regarding 9/11 as a monstrous assault on western civilisation from which
only
they could offer salvation. To most New Yorkers of my acquaintance it was a
nasty accident at Fulton and Church when sadly a lot of people died. But
that
was five years ago.