Wednesday, September 11, 2019

September 11: From "Vanishing New York"

Until September 11, 2001, New York was not quite America. From its Dutch beginnings, the city existed as a space apart. Exceptionally able to tolerate, and celebrate, a multiplicity of cultures and ways of living, it had been both the gateway to America for foreign immigrants and the escape from America for those who never fell in line with the American way of normal. New York was a liminal space between inside and outside, a threshold neither here nor there but ultimately itself. It was a city that permitted transgression, the crossing of old boundaries, whether that meant a Jewish immigrant from Russia casting off her wig, or a young man from Nebraska putting his on (with false eyelashes to match).

In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto writes, “It was no coincidence that on September 11, 2001, those who wished to make a symbolic attack on the center of American power chose the World Trade Center as their target. If what made America great was its ingenious openness to different cultures, then the small triangle of land at the southern tip of Manhattan Island is the New World birthplace of that idea, the spot where it first took shape.” Its multicultural receptivity arguably made New York the most truly American city, but not the Heartland version. It was something else. As Djuna Barnes said in 1916, it was “the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.”

When Al Smith, the Italian-Irish New York governor from the Lower East Side, campaigned for U.S. president in 1928, the Heartland rose against him as a Catholic, the son of immigrants, and a New Yorker. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on the tracks when his train came to their towns, and they warned constituents to be ready for Smith’s arrival, crying “America is for Americans!” In publications, they howled about the Roman Catholic “alien hordes” that had “invaded America,” determined to destroy democracy. “Already they have captured many large cities.” And no city had been more corrupted by alien hordes than New York. From his radio pulpit, Reverend John Roach Straton denounced Smith, accusing him of everything the Protestant American Heartland believed was wrong with New York: “card-playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorce, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, modernism.”

This view of the modern city was not fringe, but the extreme expression of a common American sentiment, one that would endure for decades. In 1977’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen might have had Straton’s speech in mind when he joked, “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual, pornographers.” In New York Calling, urbanist Marshall Berman recalled the anti-New York venom that streamed from 1970s America, when politicians asked their constituents, “Should New York live or die?” And their constituents chanted, “Die! Die! Die!” The city had reached its modern-day pinnacle of exceptionalism—and delinquency. For much of the nation, and for the conservative leaders in Washington, New York was a perversion, a dirty town full of dirty people, and now it would be punished and reprogrammed.

When President Gerald Ford essentially told the city to “drop dead,” denying a federal bailout to prevent bankruptcy, a presidential spokesman likened the city to “a wayward daughter hooked on heroin.” Like a rebellious teenager kicked out of the house, the city dis-identified further from the mother country, elevating itself in the process. If America was rejecting New York, then New York would reject America. Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, "View of the World from 9th Avenue,” famously expressed the city’s sense of superiority with a map in which Manhattan is detailed, central, important, while the rest of the country, crammed between the Hudson River and Pacific Ocean, is just an insignificant sketch. In “My Lost City,” Luc Sante recalls, “in the 1970s, New York was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, very few born-again Christians who had not been sent there on a mission, no golf courses, no subdivisions. Downtown, we were proud of this, naturally.”

That vaunting pride did not endear New York to middle America. Talking to Ric Burns for his New York documentary, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable explained: "The combination of power and money and creative vitality has created a city that we New Yorkers are very chauvinistic about and rather disliked for all over the world; we're considered just not in touch with the rest of the world. Well, maybe we're not, and maybe that's a good thing, maybe the fact that we are doing all this creative work is something that is so unique, and so special, that it does make New York a city unlike any other."

As late as the 1990s, after more than a decade of City Hall working to make New York more likeable to the average American, the heart of the Heartland still wasn’t having it. New York magazine published a 1995 cover story that explained “Why America Hates New York.” In short, we were liberal, multicultural, and bereft of right-wing Christian family values. “New York is more than ever considered Sodom on the Hudson,” wrote the magazine. “More chillingly, [right-wing America’s] hatred for us is commingling with the conviction that New York is anachronistic, vestigial, and on its way to being expunged.” The Protestant American right, after disparaging the liberal city for a century, now saw a future in which New York would be overtaken by their values. “New York is a dinosaur,” Georgia politician Gordon Wysong told New York. “We’re the power now. These suburbs, built on white flight, are only going to become more conservative and more powerful. New York has been deposed.” Revenge was in the air.

The conservatives of America could see the changes coming, and they were gleeful. In the spring 1995 issue of City Journal, a publication of the neoliberal, neoconservative Manhattan Institute, David Brooks published a critique on “out-of-step New York,” scolding snobbish city folk for looking down on Middle America. “Over the longer term,” he wrote, “New Yorkers might—dare I say it?—change. New York liberalism will gradually dissolve; cultural attitudes will drift toward the mainstream.”

Looking back from a post-9/11 and post-Bloomberg position, these words offer an eerily prophetic message. But how could we ever have imagined the expunging of New York? Drift toward the mainstream? The city’s utter queerness—if we take “queer” to mean everything eccentric, suspicious, and strange—acted as a repellent that kept out the dull and unimaginative. Being hated by America was good for the city. And, ultimately, good for America. Every family needs a black sheep to keep it interesting.

And then.

On the morning after 9/11, in a cloud of dust and despair, the fractured, frightened city awoke to find itself cradled in the arms of the nation. In their murderous act of terrorism, the attackers managed to strip away New York’s grandiose exceptionalism and, humbling the city, made it accessible. Beneath the collective grief, America was enervated by the trauma, moved to a state of heightened arousal that pulled it magnetically toward Ground Zero, a smoldering hole that quickly became a tourist attraction, complete with grisly souvenirs. The attack was a colossal taking down a peg for wayward, arrogant New York. In the dark privacy of the human heart, who doesn’t feel a bit of Schadenfreude when a swaggering giant falls? Milton Glaser, creator of the “I Heart NY” logo, put it less cynically when he said of the post-9/11 city, “A powerful giant is one thing. A vulnerable giant is much more loveable.”

Into wounded, loveable, suddenly huggable New York rushed the Heartland with its homemade chicken soup for the soul. After that day, we heard the phrase “We are all New Yorkers” echoed across the country--and the globe. The statement appeared in the UK’s Guardian, France’s Le Monde, and in the program for a Carnegie Hall concert of the Berlin Philharmonic, echoing JFK’s famous “We are all Berliners” speech: ''At this terrible moment, we are the ones who say with you, 'We are all New Yorkers.’” America was attacked, but it was the city that fell to its knees. Capturing the touristic national sympathy, a cartoon in the regional newspaper Florida Today painted a suburban scene: Houses displaying American flags, one man watering his lawn in an “I Heart NY” t-shirt and Yankees cap, another pushing a lawnmower in a “Times Square” t-shirt, and a woman walking her dog with “NYC” spelled across her chest. For good measure, the dog wears one of those foam-rubber Lady Liberty crowns that tourists love. They’re waving to each other, as folks in Florida do, above the caption, “In light of recent events, we’re all New Yorkers.” It’s a supportive message that yet contains an ominous proprietary undertone. The city is ours. Here we come.

In 2004 the Republican National Convention came barging into liberal New York for the first time in history. Deep in enemy territory, with angry protestors howling at the gates, Bush supporters banged the drums of 9/11, waving the tragedy like a flag. Governor George Pataki told the delegates, “On that terrible day, a nation became a neighborhood. All Americans became New Yorkers.”

The Big Apple, the Rotten Apple, was done for. The vulnerable, diminished city became as acceptably American as apple pie. Soon after 9/11, the New York Observer announced, “The Heartland Loves New York,” claiming it had become “the most American of all cities.” A year later, The Economist called New York a “sweeter Apple” and “a nicer place” since the attacks. Sweet and nice? Those two words had never, I would wager, in the city’s long and turbulent history been seriously used to describe the unwieldy, throbbing thing that was New York. Something was changing in the civic atmosphere. While terrorism alone didn’t turn the tide of America’s sentiment toward New York, it surely accelerated a process already in place. In The City’s End, a history of America’s murderous fantasies towards New York, Max Page observed, “City leaders had made much of Manhattan safe and clean for tourists. A nation far more willing to be sympathetic to New York was fully on the city’s side after 9/11. Pity after the disaster bloomed into a surge of love for New York.”


Timothy George Hare said...

The National Press Club presentation on 9/11/2019:

Unknown said...

A few thoughts, as someone who grew up in NYC during the 1970s (born there in 1965) and departed for college upstate in 1983. Now living in DC.

1) Some of the people you quote are simply wrong. NYC in the 1970s did have golf courses and shopping malls and subdivisions. Ever heard of Forest Hills? Kings Plaza? Silver Lake?

2) Some of the people you quote ignore the fact that DC was also attacked on 9-11. NYC was not the only symbol of the US attacked on that day.

3) I am wondering if most of the so-called attitudes of "heartland" Americans (or those outside of NYC) from the 1970s (or before) can be verified by any contemporaneous polling data. Most of what you quote seems to be anecdotal rather than grounded in empirical evidence.

4) All that being said, I do agree that 9-11 was a transformative event for how people around the world perceived NYC. But your argument is somewhat reductive. There were other major factors to consider, such as demographic change, crime rates, tourism marketing, real estate investment, and on and on.

Pat said...

I agree with all this except for greyhound racing. Greyhound racing is bad. Just my two cents.

Frosty said...

I agree 9/11 was *the* event that transformed NYC into America's city. Before that NYC was not quite America, hell, not even quite NY State. But it's over-egging the pudding I think to suggest that NYC was ever some kind of exemplar of good natured tolerance. Immigrant gateway, yes, but tough and often unwelcoming, if not outright hostile at times. It was also easier to lose one's past, to reinvent oneself,and it was that possibility was part of the city's genius. I'm doubtful that aspect is still true, the very idea of the city is profoundly changed, and you can't just wing it while finding yourself here these days.

luzer said...

Amen. NYC is now one big corporate portfolio. I remember the days when we all had our regional accents. We all had our own flavor of walking and talking and wore it with pride. You stayed in your boro and knew everything about it. The food was always good because the NYer in the kitchen was proud to feed his people. The many mom and pop's and average store owners made shopping exciting. And the bookstores, God Bless those bookstores of yesteryear. The last generation of Real NYers were the party kids of the 90s. They were vibrant and original, minus Alig's murder...he was not a NYer he was a skinny boy from Indiana and actually made things too weird.... They cared not and wanted not. Clothes from Daffy's, mom spending all day at Bargain Hunters, pulling tricks on the corner store owners, a free pickle from the deli man, fresh icees....long gone are the days. Tough Real NY is dead and moved elsewhere to become head-nodding sheeple scant of authentic culture. We're being speedily replaced by know-nothings who prefer to pay full price!