How the September 11 Attacks Made Me Rediscover New York
In 2001, Manhattan was still new to me. I first began exploring it one year earlier as a high school student on the Upper East Side, and until then, Manhattan was a place for Broadway shows, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Museum of Television and Radio.
Then, when I was 14, I was tasked with mastering the subway, which led me to learn about transfers–the painstaking half-run/half-walk from one subway to the next. No matter how fast or slow I traveled, I always experienced a sinking feeling that I’d just missed the train. Instead, I often chose to take the long route, walking twenty blocks to the E or the F. That’s how I began to discover the city.
I am from Queens, technically part of the city but definitely no Manhattan. Manhattan is completely walkable and constantly changing, with a new energy and feel every few blocks. A Manhattanite friend once told me to meet her on 96th and Lexington, just where the Upper East Side becomes East Harlem, so that she could lead me down a handful of Manhattan’s many microcosms. She wove us through old-money Park Avenue through corporate midtown to the bright lights of touristy Times Square to trendy Union Square to Little Italy and then Chinatown–all within a few hours.
After the September 11th attacks, Manhattan became a totally different place. For at least a month afterward, it was a ghost town.
On the streets of Manhattan, I could blast my music in my ears and walk the streets untouched, all the while surrounded by thousands of people. I could find whatever I was looking for, or nothing at all. It was energizing and overwhelming and calming all at once. Manhattan was not a friendly place–I could fall flat on my face and no one would help me up–but coming from a suburban part of Queens, I relished the anonymity.
After the September 11th attacks, Manhattan became a totally different place. For at least a month afterward, it was a ghost town. People standing on the subway platform eyed each other suspiciously. More than once, I switched train cars, unnerved by someone who looked strange. For a while, I took the express bus to Queens instead, thinking that it would be safer to be above ground. Every New Yorker felt the fear of sudden death at some point.
But at the same time, world weary New Yorkers became deeply patriotic. Everyone, I along with them, wore USA regalia—pins that said, “United We Stand” and FDNY t-shirts. One day, I got on the wrong bus home in Queens and the driver decided to drop me off right outside my house. My mother was confused, and asked me if a new bus stop had popped up next to our living room window.
In today’s Manhattan, the post 9/11 patriotic fervor is no more.
Each year afterward, I would try to observe 9/11. There were two years when I went down to Ground Zero, stared at the empty pit where the Twin Towers had stood and read the notes from family members to their lost loved ones.
But life goes on, pain subsides, and things revert to what they once were. In today’s Manhattan, the post 9/11 patriotic fervor is no more. Once again, crowds hurry down the street, and there’s nothing I love more than grabbing a cup of coffee and feeling the rush as people move past me, never once acknowledging my existence.
But ask a New Yorker about September 11th and suddenly, she will slow down, look you in the eye, and tell you how it changed her and her city forever.