Downtown New York these days is like the old East Berlin. There’s light traffic, little business, scarce restaurant food, and cops everywhere.
Make no mistake. The official closure of Manhattan Island below 14th Street is understandable and perfectly appropriate given Tuesday’s destruction of the World Trade Center by bloodthirsty, airborne terrorists. Restricting civilian vehicles from this area has left the streets wide open for police and emergency vehicles. While I support this state of affairs, it has created the most surreal conditions I have encountered in my 14 years here. My neighbors and I are living inside a Salvador Dali painting.
At this writing, local and state police have blocked Manhattan’s avenues at 14th Street. While neither concrete walls nor barbed wire block foot traffic, it is very eerie to leave the automotive traffic and open storefronts of “North New York.” At what feels like a kinder, gentler Checkpoint Charlie, uniformed police officers stop citizens and ask for photo identification. Some people have had their bags checked. Thursday night, National Guardsmen from Utica, New York in fatigues and “MP” arm bands sat in a troop transport vehicle marked “Military Police.”
South of the barricades, Manhattan is a pedestrians’ paradise. Nearly empty thoroughfares permit people to walk around largely unchallenged by car traffic. Most of the vehicles that do zoom by are police cars, fire trucks and, Thursday morning, two camouflaged military trucks and four Humvees, painted black, brown and green and filled with soldiers. Wednesday night, a GI dressed for war from head to foot jumped into the back of an ambulance, slammed the door shut behind him and dashed up Third Avenue into the evening.
The skies have been empty, save for an occasional military helicopter. More dramatic are the fighter jets that have been on patrol since shortly after Tuesday’s carnage. Their low-pitched roar is a terribly reassuring sound. Thursday morning about 2:00 AM, however, two or three fighters raced around overhead making a most fearsome sound. One of them ripped across the sky, then flicked on what looked like searchlights at the front of its fuselage. Was there hostile aircraft up above? Was the pilot about to fire air-to-air missiles? I stood on my balcony wondering what new surprise this nerve-rattling week might bring. Luckily, the pilots saw no reason to pull their triggers.
Aside from such noises, the traffic freeze has turned downtown Manhattan as quiet as a leafy suburb. In an ironic counterpoint to this week’s chaos, the last few days in New York were gorgeous. Until thunderstorms erupted early Friday, the warm sunshine, clear skies and low humidity were worthy of Malibu. Nature’s brightness essentially mocked the man-made darkness that flows in every direction.
In a sign of growing patriotism, American flags have popped up on apartment balconies, storefronts, and even draped around some people’s shoulders. Less encouraging are the “missing” signs that worried loved ones started taping onto the sides of pay phones and bus shelters. The photos and descriptions of those still at large have begun to put human faces on those who may be buried under the financial district’s rubble. Grimmest of all are the locations of where people worked. 101st floor. 105th floor. The higher someone’s office, the more one fears the worst.
Most businesses downtown have followed City Hall’s request to stay closed. Some near me have opened their doors, however. United Artists’ Union Square 14 multiplex is in operation. Better yet, it has performed a wonderful public service by offering free movie tickets and popcorn to all comers.
Pop, a typically lively restaurant on 4th Avenue, just a block and a half below the police lines, has remained open since the day the explosions occurred.
“I have no food,” general manager Tim Moore told me Tuesday evening. “My entire kitchen team is in Queens and can’t get in.” Still, he and a bartender stayed open and poured drinks for a handful of patrons.
Wednesday night, once some supplies had been delivered, he served customers who filled about a third of his establishment’s tables. “People in the area need a place to come down and share their stories with their friends and neighbors,” he said. “We’ll be here.”
Displaying the defiance that will restore New York’s glory, Tim Moore added: “It’s our city, not theirs.”