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Rebuilding New York City

In the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, New York City’s position as the center of the financial world came into question. Now, 16-years after the day that could have permanently changed the course of New York’s history, downtown Manhattan rebuilt both its buildings and status of importance. Lynne B. Sagalyn examines the economic impact of the World Trade Center’s fall and rise in the following excerpt from Power at Ground Zero.

New Yorkers everywhere found themselves at a loss for words that could capture the physical magnitude and emotional trauma of what had transpired, of what hitherto was unbelievable but replayed in continuous loops on every conceivable medium until the incredulity of what had happened became too painfully real: the giant twins, unmistakable in their towering iconic presence on the skyline, seemingly invulnerable, now lay in ruin, smoldering—a profound graveyard for some twenty-eight hundred civilians who perished inside. The losses were incalculable. Everyone seemed to be in a state of shock and disbelief.

There are moments in time when cities become natural experiments and the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York provided one of them. Did corporations and businesses need to be in New York? Was Wall Street finished as the capital of international finance? Would the immediate trauma or anxiety about possible future attacks cause city residents to leave, move to places where terrorism seemed less of a threat? Fears of firms leaving the city in a mass exodus, fears of residents fleeing, fears of tourists staying away, fears of the end of skyscraper development and, by extension, the very self of the city were paramount, and news headlines in the weeks after 9/11 messaged the doubts: “In Wounded Financial Center, Trying to Head Off Defections,” “Reaching for the Sky, and Finding a Limit; Tall Buildings Face New Doubt as Symbols of Vulnerability,” “When the Towers Collapsed, So Did Their Desire to Live Here.”

“It was a time of desperate loss, yet also a time of distinct possibility.”

Like the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center shook New Yorkers’ confidence in the future of their city. Uncertainties existed across the five boroughs and beyond. Was New York still the resilient city that had overcome so many post–World War II crises—deindustrialization, disinvestment and property abandonment, racial and ethnic change, white suburban flight, social and cultural conflict, and a near brush with bankruptcy? Based on well founded and widespread fears prevalent at the time, no one was able to say for sure that the attack would not have a lasting negative economic impact on the city and the region. The city’s sense of invulnerability had been shattered, yet as historian Mike Wallace reminded readers in a special section of the Times that appeared within a week of the attack, “that sense always rested on a truncated reading of history. While the particular form of the attack was fiendishly novel, New York, over nearly four centuries, has repeatedly been the object of murderous intentions. Through a combination of luck and power, we have escaped many of the intended blows, but not all of them, and our forebears often feared that worse might yet befall them.”

On 9/11, however, New York City’s role as a symbolic target became too painfully apparent. The fantasies of urban destruction in popular culture, Wallace wrote, had been “horribly realized.” If the illusion of invulnerability had been shattered, not so the determination to rebound and reconstruct and emerge stronger and better than ever; that too was part of New York’s cultural history, part and parcel of its grit and ambition.

It was a time of desperate loss, yet also a time of distinct possibility. Tragedy delivered an exceptional opportunity and the promise of an extraordinary amount of dollars from Washington, D.C., with which to plan and rebuild lower Manhattan, its transportation and infrastructure, office inventory, housing supply, and open space amenities to match the new needs of the twenty-first century. At the same time, rebuilding could renew the district’s historic dynamic. Reinventing itself was part of lower Manhattan’s history. And since the Port Authority won the legal challenge to its development in November 1963, the original World Trade Center had shaped that history. Thirty-eight years later, the mission to rebuild these sixteen acres, emotionally raw and newly endowed with intense sensitivity for the families of those who died there, patriotic fervor for the nation at large, and profound meaning for the city’s future, history was in the making.

Featured image credit: ” A cityscape from Liberty Island in New York City, New York” by
Michael Barera  c. 2001.  CC BY-SA 4.0 via
Wikimedia Commons.

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