How 9/11 helped shape New York City for the better

The New York 9/11 terrorist attack site view on Sept. 12, 2001 from the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus camera on NASA's Landsat 8. Click to see original. H/t Gizmodo

Nearly 3,000 people are said to have died 10 years ago in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, perhaps more if some first responder deaths are to be included.

That is brutal and sobering and tragic and heartbreaking.

TL;DR — Why I believe the pain of 9/11 helped shape NYC for the better.

  • A long history exists between pain and strength.
  • After 9/11, Americans embraced New York City as patriot territory.
  • After the attacks, an even stronger NYC identity has developed.
  • Following that day, NYC is now protected by more of a veil of patriotism than it perhaps has ever had.
  • Why I wrote this: To argue that a dramatic shift in our national perspectives on NYC changed after 9/11 and it has largely benefited the city.

I grew up in northwest New Jersey, a rural enclave in the New York City region. Like many others there, my parents were from the city and arrived an hour west chasing suburban sprawl. Much of my family still lives in and around that city. They worked in and around the Twin Towers. A couple times a year, my parents would take my sister and me to Manhattan for nice dinners with family; I always wanted to play sandlot baseball or get lost in the woods instead.

I was a sophomore in high school sitting in English class that September Tuesday, but I don’t want to rehash my story. Plenty are doing that and, quite frankly, they are doing a better job of it than I can. Moreover, many people with whom I was in class had parents or other close family working there or near to the buildings. I didn’t, after some confirmation, so my personal story isn’t compelling.

Instead, I want to suggest what might be considered a rather unsettling thought, but I think it’s an important one.

That the most costly, most visual portion of the Sept. 11 attacks in lower Manhattan have, looking back at the last 10 years, been good for New York City.

People died. Real people. At a different time, my uncles, or cousin or sister could have very likely been in that number. Philosophy isn’t developed enough for us to understand why not. Very little is ever worth death. But, I believe, these attacks have propelled New York City to first city status among the few generations of Americans alive for 9/11 in a way that nothing else ever could.

I am not a resident of New York City. Never have been. The city was around me — literally and by means of familial roots, but, no, I wasn’t there that morning and know little of that moment. My arguments here rely most heavily on outside perception, so having roots and family there, but being distant enough to evaluate that perception is a strength, I believe.

Now let me tell you why the idea that something so painful could be beneficial is not only plausible, it is clear.

CONTEXT AND COMPARISONS

First, let me say something that should not be controversial.

The modern, cultural concept of the nation state is built on the back of the dead. Horrible, violent attacks, battles, wars and killings, over time, create broad identity, encourage camaraderie and establish an enemy around whom to rally.

Following the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 2,300 people were killed. By most accounts, the attack by the Japanese dragged our young power into what would come to be known as World War II,  where some 418,000 Americans died and, I think most historians would agree, how the United States developed the industrial efficiencies, economic size and military might that made it one of the most dominant nations in the history of the world.

More recently and perhaps more relevant, the Arab Spring, bloodier and more successful in some places than others, is the foundation on which some of those nation states will modernize and identify. It took great pain. For contrast, the Republic of Iraq has, too, suffered, but after a long, hard American presence, the question of who is the enemy, who is the hero and what the rallying cry should be has become much more muddled, keeping Iraq from finding its own George Washington.

Pain strengthens best when it’s relatively short, acutely dramatic and horrifyingly dynamic enough as to be be worth fighting against returning to.

Surely, Sept. 11 created a clearer national identity and grounds for which all political factions could agree. Following those quick, visual and painful attacks, Americans found an enemy, a rallying cry and a slew of, for a time, heroes: President Bush, Rudy Giuliani and, of course, every first responder. But, 10 years later, that national identity is largely gone, save for a few memorials that took place this week.

The real winner with true staying power has been New York City.

‘WE ARE ALL NEW YORKERS’

Pasadena Star News photo of Pasadena, Calif. resident John McDannel, who has lobbied for a 9/11 tribue highway. Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz

I listen to country music.

It’s my favorite genre for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that I think it’s music that represents the values and spirit of a bigger chunk of Americans than most of us realize.

If you want to get a good sense of how country music — and I’d argue much of the country — felt about New York City before Sept. 11, look no further than the 1970 hit from country legend Buck Owens called “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Damn Town).” It’s worth listening to, watch it below on an appearance of Hee-Haw, or just check out the lyrics, full of NYC bashing, including “Talk about a bummer it’s the biggest one around/Sodom and Gommorah was tame to what I found.”

For other references to NYC, rare in country but almost always negative, look at the classic anthem from Hank Williams Jr. called ‘A Country Boy Can Survive,‘ in which the city is described as a distant place where his friend was murdered, or see his retrospective ‘Dixie on My Mind,’ where the Big Apple is called nothing but ‘a hassle’.

Perhaps, though, there is no better case study in the genre’s changing view of New York than the folksy Georgia legend Alan Jackson, long credited for maintaining his roots, at the expense of broader commercial success.

In his 1994 hit ‘Gone Country,’ which still get radio airplay, the verses profile three genre outsiders, including a New York folk singer, who, with with failing careers, flock to country. Jackson has said the song is a celebration of the genre expanding, but the popular read of a track sung (though not written) by an artist known for authenticity has always suggested that there’s some subtext, particularly when he sings of the greed: “He says ‘I don’t believe in money, but a man could make him a killin’/Cause some of that stuff don’t sound much different than Dylan.”

Seven years later, Jackson debuted at the November 2001 Country Music Awards a song he wrote called ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,’ which became perhaps the best known 9/11 dedication track. Despite a South Park jab, it was easily the most broadly successful song of his long career.

It set off a flurry of other country songs referencing New York City, first in the spirit of 9/11 and then simply highlighting a place that was now a part of Americana again. Those terrible attacks made Middle America reassess New York City, and they seemed to like what they found.

The classic example is the May 2002 smash hit ‘Country of the Red,White and Blue‘ from Toby Keith. But there are plenty more: the controversial October 2001 track ‘This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag‘ from the Charlie Daniels Band, Aaron Tippin’s 2002 ‘Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly,’ with references to NYC, Darryl Worley‘s 2003 9/11 remembrance hit ‘Have You Forgotten,’ Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 2004 ‘Grand Central’ song, ‘Hole in the World‘ from the Eagles and “My Blue Manhattan” from alt-country star Ryan Adams, among others.

In short, I have heard endlessly more New York references in songs during the past 10 years than I know of or could find in the previous 60 years. I think that’s representative of Americans the country over.

(I’ll admit here that the biggest hole in my argument is ‘Only in America,’ the Brooks and Dunn hit that came out the summer before the 9/11 attacks and describes a school bus driver hauling a load of kids with ‘the sun coming up over New York City.’ I call it an exception.)

It’s no secret that throughout the 20th century, New York City flourished culturally enough that other genres have long and widely devoted many a song to the place, so it’s almost an aside that a new wave of pride in the city followed those attacks in other genres too, from general anthems to very specific tributes to the attacks, like ‘Open Letter to NYC‘ from the Beastie Boys and ‘Believe‘ from Yellowcard, ‘My City of Ruins’ from Bruce Springsteen and others. Similarly, New York City has long been a favorite settings of American cinema, but 9/11 brought about an entire other plot for the city of writers — altogether our popular culture shifted.

I can’t find an older study to compare, unfortunately, but a 2002 survey summary read: “New Yorkers are still more positive about their neighbors and their city than they were in the early 1990s. Nationally, opinion about New York City is just as positive. 83% of Americans have a good image of New York City,” presumably a sizable uptick from before the attacks.

In the mid-1990s, the New York City Police Foundation had been doing a tidy business selling licensed merchandise with its brand, when, as the foundation says on its website, “following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the market for NYPD merchandise surged as members of the public looked for ways to demonstrate their support for the NYPD.”

The Park51, or so called ‘Ground Zero mosque,’ controversy became a national rallying cry: how could a Muslim facility be installed so close to the smoldering grounds of where so many Americans were killed at the hands of an extremist sect of that religion so often misunderstood in our country? The outcry came nationally, notably from conservative Fox News commentators, to protect the supposed sanctity of what had become an American place of mourning, among the most modernly patriotic corners of the entire country.

Of course, New York City was surely always an attraction and place of romance, but, still, for much of the country, it was a place against which we defined ourselves: as being anything but New York City, a place of distaste and home to the elite others who tried to tell us what to think, what we should believe and what we should know (not that all that hate is gone). It was where national media and celebrities played; distant from how the rest of us lived.

Sept. 11 changed all of that, suddenly, swiftly and rather universally. Now, suddenly and almost shockingly, every September, we are told that we are all New Yorkers.

THE PATRIOTIC VEIL

Now, our entire national relationship with New York, I believe, is one incapable of accepting any criticism at all. It’s a half step less heretical than bashing the American flag itself.

In a 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, music legend Modonna said New York was fading — though, yes, speaking of songs, she has a track called ‘I Love New York.’ She was roundly ridiculed, even though the question had been asked before and would be asked again and again, enough that the very question itself was cast aside as being old hat.

Celebrities don’t much criticize New York anymore.

Instead, the dominant theory is that New York is so culturally significant that, well, Lady Gaga calls it the husband she never married, when thinking of the emotion 9/11 stirred inside of her. More viscerally, the 1970s era statewide advertising campaign ‘I <3 NY‘ has been taken to its greatest heights: those shirts now seemingly holding the improbable duality of being both patriotic and stylish.

I’m willing to bet the European travelers who won’t go home from their American tour without one of those shirts became particularly interested following the 9/11 attacks.

More broadly, international tourism to NYC took a tumble after the towers fell, but those numbers surged again in 2004 and are still flourishing. American travel to NYC grew in 2002 and jumped in 2003, increasing steadily from there.

There was a sudden jolt of interest in coming back to the city. In perfect timing, following the painful 1970s — with crime and bankruptcy, filth and poverty — the city had been booming for a variety of reasons.

People came for the historical significance and stayed when they found a suddenly prosperous mega city, surely one of the world’s most culturally meaningful.

A NEW SENSE OF BEING A NEW YORKER

Cities tend to have a lot of pride by default.

They hold dense, less educated masses to promote the passions of geography. There are region-specific cultural norms and institutions to identify by and, in a country of relatively short history, they tend to offer our deepest roots.

This particular sentiment will fade particularly quickly as years pass, with an influx of new faces (and a new lower Manhattan), but, still, today, 9/11 is a prism through which the modern New Yorker can identify. It is a common ground, a common source, a common attack that can bond those who are separated by other issues of turmoil. If you think people of the 1960s rallied around “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” you must be able to imagine the cache that the 9/11 question has for a single city seemingly under attack.

When Madonna made that seeming swipe at New York — no matter how true I might think it is — the sense of outrage came from a half-decade old crystallized New York identity built upon an already healthy established sense of self (always helped by the national media that take on New York as their voice, for example, the Weekend Update crew on Saturday Night Live, poked fun at Madonna)

New Yorkers were always proud, made prouder still by being the national voice box and then suddenly empowered and connected through a horrific attack on their sense of freedom.

In such a city of strength, there was never any doubt it would come back. In that 2002 survey, “more than six in ten think the people of New York reacted better to the attacks than people in other big cities would have.”

That’s how you build a nation state.

WHY NEW YORK CITY BENEFITED SO MUCH

I wasn’t alive following the Pearl Harbor bombing, so I don’t have a great sense if those attacks coincided with a sudden rise in interest and pride in Hawaii. I doubt it.

New York City’s domestic reputation benefited so much by those terrible attacks because (a) it had been previously so reviled by much of the country, (b) it had really become a much safer, cleaner, more welcoming place in the 1980s and 1990s and 9/11 was a chance to show that off and (c) the national media are based there so the locality bias that comes with that made this tragedy endlessly more pressing.

Now, though Wall Street has hurt the case (though perhaps less than you think) and the national media are always easy targets for bias, NYC in the past decade has become the backdrop for all the most patriotic perspective, and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has brought about iPad apps and commemoration events far from the carnage, with the city playing a leading role. As 9/11 deservedly makes its way into our nation’s history books, our children will be reminded of the brave Americans fighting for our way of life in lower Manhattan.

We just might start to forget that, as Woody Allen’s character in his 1977 classic ‘Annie Hall’ puts it, at one time, you might have said: “Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”

Deaths are never to be celebrated or characterized as beneficial. But they can mark a deep change in course that we should recognize.

What I set out to do here was suggest that we should realize what a dramatic shift in perception has happened regarding our country’s largest city and argue that we ought to parse what is important and what is excessive in that occurrence.

It is surely my hope, like it is yours, that Americans, particularly civilians, never die, certainly not in such horrific, senseless, random violence on that grand scale. But perhaps it is worth noting that most strong identifiable communities of humans are strengthened by attack, as, I believe, New York City was following the 9/11 attacks.

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