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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from New York

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, August 30, 2002

From the Field
Simon Houpt Simon


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Images from New York

The "Tribute in Light" memorial consisted of two shafts of light to represent the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York on March 11, 2002, the six month anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Photo: Stan Honda/AFP

A man walks down a street at Ground Zero in New York after recovery and cleanup.
Photo: AP file

At the Barnes & Noble bookstore a few blocks from my apartment on the Upper West Side, September 11 is a dud.

There's a special display set up at the front of the store which is groaning with the burden of anniversary-themed books: the New York Times collection of obituaries Portraits of Grief; coffee table picture books from the editors at Reuters newswire and LIFE magazine (The American Spirit); the script for the post-9/11 play The Guys; and Never Forget: An Oral History of September 11, 2001, which is edited, somewhat bizarrely, by a former gossip columnist for the Daily News.

People are browsing, but nobody seems to be buying.

Network TV producers and my editors may not want to hear this, but New York City is tired of Sept. 11. It's dreading the anniversary. Yes, many of the friends and family members of World Trade Center victims view the anniversary and its planned rituals as an opportunity for closure. But a majority of the people I've talked to want to stick their head in a hole until Sept. 12 so they can avoid the inevitable deluge of TV, radio, and newspaper coverage.

Here's the issue: In the rest of America, in Canada, and in some other places around the world, people may feel a need to reconnect with the horror of that day. But New Yorkers have no such need. That connection hasn't been severed since 8:48 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. That day has been an ever-present fact of life for almost a year now, driving the news agenda, leading most local newscasts and landing on the front page of the newspapers practically every day. Apparently, folks in the U.S. heartland can't get enough of this stuff - maybe they're the ones buying those anniversary books - but people here are exhausted by it.

The guys at my local firehouse have told me quietly that they kind of wish that people would stop visiting and praising them for Sept. 11. Yes, it's nice to be appreciated. But they spend so much time dwelling on the deaths of their colleagues - after all, that's what visitors want to talk about - that sometimes it's hard to focus on the present, on the couple of dozen calls they still go out on every day.

That uncomfortable tension is playing out on a huge scale down at Ground Zero, where thousands of tourists continue to flock while New Yorkers push resentfully past them. Last fall, I wrote a piece for The Globe's Focus section about the earliest pilgrims who came to the site when it was still largely blocked off from view. At that time, shops around the site were still shuttered, covered with the chalky grey dust from the twin towers. An acrid stench occasionally wafted through the area. Those who came were emotionally raw and deeply vulnerable. They were there to pay their respects, hoping a visit would help them to stop thinking about what had happened. Even then, many New Yorkers avoided the site. They were already vulnerable enough.

Since then, of course, Ground Zero has become a carnival of sorts, just another stop on the list of places to visit along with Planet Hollywood and the Statue of Liberty. According to city officials, an average of 30,000 people each day visited the site in July, taking photos, snapping up souvenirs and horsing around like they were on vacation - which, of course, they were. City officials and police officers whisper about how much it hurts them to see the lack of decorum on display at a place where more then 2800 people died.

But the visitors can't entirely be blamed them for their insensitivity. All signs of death and destruction have been wiped from the site since the end of May. Now, it's just a massive pit awaiting construction. On the floor of the site, seven storeys below street level, all is orderly and calm. Workers are replacing a transportation hub, which should re-open next year, but no other rebuilding will start for at least another year.

To most New Yorkers, that pit remains an open wound on the city's face. Its naked intimacy is embarrassing. New York has never been comfortable in the role of victim, and it's jarring to see others take pity on the city.

It's also jarring to see the way some New Yorkers are playing up the city's victimhood for personal and professional gain.

Earlier this month Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax Films, which is based in Tribeca only a few blocks from Ground Zero, said he thought it would be a good idea for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to move all or part of next year's Oscar telecast to New York. Apparently, the extensive nods to the city at this year's Oscars - Woody Allen's surprise appearance, the montage of New York moments on film, Whoopi Goldberg's doff of the hat to the NYPD and FDNY - weren't enough.

Already, New York is bracing itself for Sept. 5, when Times Square is going to be jammed with people celebrating the NFL season's official Kickoff with a rock and roll show with Jon Bon Jovi, Enrique Iglesias, Alicia Keys and others. NFL officials say the concert is going to, "celebrate the resilient spirit of New York and America." (Not to mention the NFL owners' bank accounts.) The next day, Sept. 6, the city is going to host an extraordinary joint session of the U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, New York's Governor George Pataki and the city's Mayor Michael Bloomberg said recently they were angling to bring both the Republican and Democratic national conventions to the city in 2004.

All of this means that it came as no surprise this week to see New York emerge as one of two finalists, with San Francisco, in a preliminary competition to be nominated by the U.S. Olympic Committee to host the 2012 Summer Games. Less than a week after the attacks last year, someone with friends on the New York bid committee told me that Sept. 11 would be a big lever that would help with lobbying.

Sure enough, immediately after the announcement on Tuesday, a CNN reporter caught people in Times Square agreeing that, oh yes, the decision was a great boost to the city's flagging morale. (Of course, the fact that they were in Times Square suggests that they weren't New Yorkers at all, but tourists willing to say anything to get on CNN.)

New York is a city of immigrant strivers, people drawn here because they want to test themselves against what they perceive to be the best in the world - in finance, media, the arts, fashion, real estate. They're used to being hated by the rest of the country. If they wanted people to feel sorry for them, they'd live in Buffalo.

Last October, the satirical newspaper The Onion - which had moved its editorial operations from Wisconsin to New York only a few months before the disaster - waved at the city's odd, uncertain new status with the headline, "Rest of country temporarily feels deep affection for New York." Now, the city can't wait for Sept. 11, 2002 to pass into history. Maybe then things will get back to normal and everyone else will hate it again. That would be nice.

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