Mayor Bill de Blasio’s official reason for canceling the 9/11 Tribute in Light was to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19. But the likely real reason — obvious, if sad — is that the unity that the beams signal would show him up. For despite his campaign promises to weave a single story of the “tale of two cities” (one rich, one poor), he has pitted group against group and dealt unevenly with his constituents. The lights would represent what he could not achieve: a city united.
The mayor has been outmaneuvered, thank God. Whether it was through the intervention of Governor Andrew Cuomo or President Trump, or the Sergeants’ Benevolent Association’s plan to host its own memorial tribute, or the ferocity of the public outcry, it’s the result that matters. The lights will shine on 9/11.
As they should. Prior to the recent flight to the suburbs, New York was a city of over 8 million people. It can be hard even to comprehend the possibility of oneness on such a colossal scale, let alone to feel it. But that’s precisely what the beams restore to us — if only for a short while. As they project heavenward, the twin lights remind us New Yorkers of the day when, in the hour of our greatest trauma, we rediscovered that we were a people, and, at the risk of sounding hokey, that we loved one another. That discovery was made for us, though, and was transmitted to us by the bravery of others, when working-class men under the shields of the FDNY, the NYPD, and the Port Authority rushed into the flames and mounted the stairs until the towers buried them in a fiery crash.
At the time, my roommate, Richie, and I, two best friends from Long Island, were living in Astoria, Queens, and studying film at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. We woke to 21 new messages on the answering machine. “Mike, where are you?” my mom asked. “Planes have crashed into the World Trade Center. Call me back.”
We turned on the television to see the towers fall.
Wanting to be with friends and family, we got into a car and headed home. At the right hour, it would normally have taken us 45 minutes. It took us nine hours that day. Everyone was fleeing the city, in cars and on foot. I’ll never forget it — a caravan of walkers weaving through traffic on the Grand Central Parkway, far outpacing us, who, inch by inch, played the collapse of the towers silently over in our minds. We wept.
The whole city wept, too. I know because I saw it. Two days later, on September 13, my friends and I headed for Manhattan to see what we could. As we exited the Midtown Tunnel heading south, the city was ghostly white, covered in ash, with soot still swirling in the air. The ground was thick with powder, like the first hours after snowfall. The smell of smoke was heavy — and there were no cars on the streets besides ours, that I can remember.
We headed for Union Square, hoping for a crowd, and just as the sun went down, we found one. I cannot give a count, but from the uppermost end of the park at 17th Street to the lowermost at 14th, it was full of mourners, many thousands, with makeshift picture boards of the missing propped up here and there. People lingered over them, looking for loved ones or observing for the first (and last) time the faces of the lost. We wove through small candlelight memorials delicately laid upon the ground. The tearful knelt beside them, crumpled in sadness. American flags waved throughout the park.
A roar of voices suddenly filled the square, one that would repeat throughout the night: New Yorkers cheering, with every ounce of gratitude they could summon, as emergency vehicles — ambulances, fire, and police — cut across 14th Street with their lights whirring and sirens blaring, to turn south on Broadway at the foot of the park and make for Ground Zero. There they would fight the lingering blaze in the smoldering pit that was once the World Trade Center — and try, against all hope, to rescue those buried beneath.
Never in my life had I felt such sadness; nor had I experienced such unity. Everywhere you looked, total strangers were weeping together in a heap. Hearty chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” echoed in the night.
There was a microphone being passed around, and anyone was welcome to it. I remember distinctly that my friend, a Republican through and through, followed in speech a grayed Marxist, a creature of Greenwich Village if there ever was one, who wore the black and green of a man long in the struggle. They wanted the same thing, and everyone in the crowd — black, white, Hispanic, left, right — was united with them in desire. For justice. “Whoever did this,” the man yelled, clearly accustomed to the mic, “must pay!”
The crowd near the speaker, hundreds strong, cried in approval and in a wave of cheers turned to greet a fire engine as it passed through the barricades at Broadway, heading downtown. The firemen waved back, and our pride rode with them.
I wonder now who they were. Were they a ladder from Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, or did they come from Yonkers, Long Island, Westchester, or even out of state? Were they from Inwood, in the northernmost part of Manhattan, still something of a blue-collar neighborhood in those days, which lost 22 residents, one a police officer and many of them firefighters? Were they hoping to find someone in particular, someone they grew up with on the streets of New York?
I’ll never know. But I’m confident that, if it weren’t for the toughened, working-class spirit of these men — for their gritty, heroic example, which they learned the hard way — New York would have died that day. They restored to us our very life as a city, and, if only for a little while, they unearthed a sense that we were part of a beautiful and precious whole.
But that was long ago, and with all that has recently happened, it’s hard to imagine now. By the work of his own hand (in great part), de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” has splintered into 8 million pieces (well, 7 million if you discount those who have fled). Despite his constant evocation of “social justice,” he has governed pettily and unfairly. To do away with the admissions test for elite schools because they have become overpopulated with Asians; to choke the growth of public charter schools as a sop to the union, despite their overwhelming popularity with the city’s poor; to harass Orthodox Jews assembled to mourn their beloved dead as the pandemic wanes, while blessing the thousands who marched to defund the NYPD; to reject the pleas of black clergymen and their congregations by siding with gentrifying transplants to strike a billion from the police budget, knowing all the while that poor blacks will be the first in the crosshairs — is to act without love for the people of New York and to put them at war with one another. De Blasio has governed with this spirit throughout. After six-plus years of his mayoralty, New York is divided to the point of breaking. He has failed on his own terms.
And that’s regrettable to this writer, not least because I agree with the mayor’s claim that New York’s comeback was uneven. If you doubt that underneath the new brightness was hiding a rottenness, consider all that has transpired since the outbreak of COVID-19. You might blame the mayor for setting the stage for the explosion of gun violence, and he certainly deserves what he gets. But those pistols were long hidden in closets and secret stashes, waiting for a time when they could be used again. Not to excuse the violence, which is pure evil and must be stopped, but the guns are being wielded by poor hands, and almost 1.7 million New Yorkers live below the poverty line (with many more threateningly near it). Their schools are failing, their families are broken, their children are often aborted, and hope is hard to come by.
Consider, also, the flight from Manhattan. Who left? College graduates — ascendant transplants from other parts of the country — who, when things got hot, seamlessly transitioned to remote work and headed elsewhere. This is the so-called creative class, by whom we were assured for decades that the city would be saved. Who stayed? Those who, if not totally impoverished, are of the blue-collar persuasion and don’t have the means to flee. These people are from many places, including immigrants from other countries and longtime lovers of New York from other states, to whom the city will always be welcoming, especially if they come to make it a true home. But it consists mainly of native New Yorkers, numbering in the millions. This group is critical to focus on here, I believe, because if New York’s comeback only superficially affects the lives of those born and raised there, what good is it? Homegrown poverty is a problem that’s here to stay, and as we have seen, no city can survive decades of hiding it.
The merit of the mayor’s critique can also be seen in the disparate distribution of unemployment since the lockdowns. The city currently has an unemployment rate of just over 20 percent. This is astronomically high and threatens everything. But the greatest weight of the joblessness falls on communities in the outer boroughs that were never gentrified. The areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn where transplants live are seeing the lowest levels of unemployment by far.
It will be up to the mayor’s successor, elected next year, to fix this mess, and he or she will have no choice but to do the hard work of healing these divisions. There is no going back; the seams between high and low are stressed and can no longer be hidden. Corporations are in no rush to return their employees to the city, and the heavy traumas of 2020 will scare off meaningful numbers of upwardly ascendant dreamers who might otherwise have relocated to New York for work or pleasure.
I fear for the city’s future, but I still hold out for the possibility that in the long term all this is for the best — because a job well done will mean a city that’s healthier than ever before, with hope resonating from top to bottom.
The next mayor must be the kind of leader who can build a broad coalition of peoples — black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, rich, poor, working-class — willing to join their interests and harmonize them into one overarching work: to make New York a place where the poor and working-class can build families and raise them happily, peacefully, affordably, and under a bright horizon of opportunity; to make New York, in other words, a home again. This is simply what politics and communal life are for, and what the forgotten of the city truly want, because they are just like everyone else. This will be good, too, for the many New Yorkers, from wherever they hail, who do not have a family, because they will reap the rewards of a place that moves heaven and earth for the harmony and health of its children. Perhaps most critically, business-minded New Yorkers must be exhorted to tie their destinies to the people about them. We need a renewed spirit of patronage that willingly lends a hand in building up communities by establishing new institutions, constructing public infrastructure, and, most important, founding companies that place a high value on strengthening the lives and families of the New Yorkers they employ.
Meanwhile, we can trust that the Tribute in Light will shine for many years to come. May its venerable commemoration of old sacrifices inspire new sacrifices over the years ahead. God knows, the city will need them.
This article appears as “A Tribute to Unity” in the September 21, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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