Ray Nagin, defending New Orleans and himself, said that New York hasn’t been able to fill a hole in the ground. He’s right. Five years after 9/11, we’ve hardly poked above sea level. It would have been better, as the urbanist William Tucker said, to just let Larry Silverstein, owner of the former Trade Towers, put up whatever he wanted. At least we’d have something. Instead, the rebuilding of Ground Zero became a classic, late-bureaucratic New York City event — a scrum between “the public” (actually small interest groups) and pixilated officialdom (represented in this case by too many of the 9/11 families, who morphed from the heirs of heroes into self-centered complainers, and our lazy, irresponsible governor, George Pataki). Their mutual headlock justifies Newt Gingrich’s attack on the rigidity and incompetence of American public institutions. Donald Rumsfeld tried to transform the Pentagon. Who will transform civilian life?
But maybe that is a very un-New York way to look at things. Rebuilding Ground Zero is a business proposition, but it is also an act of remembrance. The eloquent public statement, however, is just not the sort of thing New York is particularly good at. In colonial times, it was Boston and Philadelphia that were new Jerusalems; during the founding period, Boston had the massacre, and Philadelphia had the Liberty Bell. New York’s contribution to our national traumas and inspirations has been oblique: During the Revolution, it was occupied; during the Civil War, it rioted. The old Dutch trading post has always been about getting here, getting and spending, getting ahead. Our answer to Ground Zero is everywhere else.
Michael Bloomberg, for all his flaws, has kept crime down. He has also eased restrictions on building. That and the radioactive national real-estate market (only just cooling) have marked the city with construction sites, and everything that comes with them: board fences, diverted traffic, equipment like monstrous insects, the ghosts of small former buildings left as profiles on the sides of those still standing. There is loss amid the gain — Variety Photo Plays, an ancient movie house, then a porno house, then a legitimate theater, was torn down, gouged out, and replaced by the skeleton of a looming tower of NYU-land, south of East 14th Street. A charming futuristic little store designed by Morris Lapidus, the shaman of Miami Beach dream hotels, suffered the same fate. But many bleak parking lots, and stretches of rubble formerly good only for ailanthus, are also sprouting stone and glass.
Waiting to use and occupy these building are the people. Manhattan is becoming a preserve of the rich — so goes the wail of the not-rich, which rose to triple forte when Met Life, the insurance company, announced plans to sell Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, 80 acres of rent-stabilized housing — the real-estate equivalent of the Oklahoma land rush. And to a great extent, the richification of Manhattan is real. It doesn’t look real at noon, though, when workers, vendors, truck drivers, farmers, sunbathers and kids fill Union Square, the agora and transit hub of my neighborhood. As Dr. Johnson said, he who is tired of Union Square is tired of life.
And this was the spot, five years ago, where dazed New Yorkers argued, prayed, lit votives. All that paraphernalia is long gone. So, in any obvious way, is the patriotism. Blue Manhattan has reverted to its traditional politics. Only bronze, mounted George Washington remains, alert for the next attack. No matter. The mere swirl is worth ten speeches by President Bush (and I admire his speeches). New York is the urban face of what they hate, and we defend. We will bury them. More important, we will live.
– Richard Brookhiser is an NR senior editor.