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Waiting

The human capacity for remembrance is both a blessing and a curse. Eight years ago, tragic events unfolded outside my office window. And eight years later, the memory still exerts a dull pain on my soul.

But this year is also a little different. Kubler-Ross no longer applies as most of us have cycled through all the stages by now. But, with the passage of time, it is possible to start getting an historical perspective and draw parallels to other times. Doing so might remind of us of Georges Santayana’s edict:

Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.

Cruel month

September does not seem kind on New York. While most of us will spend time remember the events that, for my generation, marked the end of innocence and forced us to grow up, there have been other disasters both past and recent that have befallen Gotham.

A few generations ago, on September 16, 1920, one of the deadliest acts of terrorism on American soil targeted Wall Street: 38 people died and 400 were injured on that day, thanks in part to the poor timing of the perpetrators, who detonated their explosives shortly before the lunch hour. In the next 24 hours, in an act of defiance to the terrorists of the time, the bodies were removed, the street was cleaned up, and the stock market reopened the next day, kicking off an era of continued speculation known as the roaring twenties, a run that would end a bit over 9 years later.

The crash of 1929, which is often seen as the start of the great depression, did not actually happen in September but it is interesting to note that the beginning of the decline started in September with the stock market reaching its peak on September 3rd, 1929, followed by a 17% decline for that month. In other words, the speculative bubble brought on by increasingly complex financial instruments (margin positions came of age in the 1920s) for the time and speculation in the real estate market (the 1920s also marked the age of the skyscrapers, with such towers as the 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler building rising above the city).

Last year, in the first weeks of September, a bubble brought together by increasingly complex financial instruments (Credit Default Swaps) and increasing speculation around the real estate market, similarly brought the world economy to the brink of financial disaster. In those short weeks, the US government had to bail out Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG; Lehman Brothers went under, eventually bought out in bankruptcy court by Barclay’s. Wachovia, Merryl Lynch, and Washington Mutual all ended up being gobbled up by other banks; Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley changed their legal status to allow them better government protection; Similar economic activity quickly spread to the rest of the world, almost pushing some countries to go bankrupt (eg. Iceland).

The still on-going economic destruction arising out of that catastrophic month will continue to have a toll not necessarily calculated in human lives lost on a single day, as we did on 9/11, but it is very possible that the toll it will take on all our lives (and potentially on some lives lost) will be a strong and as long.

Parallels?

After the towers fell, on 9/11, and after the world had managed to cripple his operation, Osama Bin Laden swore to bring the US to its knees economically. And yet, it was the recklessness of our own people that almost became the tool of our own demise.

To say that 9/11 scarred us is to ignore a deeper, and somewhat more uncomfortable truth: much like the terrorist attack of 1920, the attack of 2001 did not stop us from becoming agents of our own financial demise. And while many of us will still grieve today and remember the friends and family members we have lost, the rest of the nation will look to this as an aberration, asking people why they have not moved on yet.

The answer, sadly, is that we, New Yorkers, we, the survivors of 9/11, we, the ones who lived through those horrible events and can still tell their tales, have yet to receive what we were promised. Sure, one will point to the fact that there is, finally, after 8 long years, a foundation for new buildings at ground zero, the truth is that there is still a hole in our skyline and a hole in our hearts.

We may or may not have liked the towers before 9/11 but we are still missing them. And so, as a sign of healing, the nation had promised us that it would never forget and that it would build new towers, maybe even higher and more magnificent, as a defiant sign that America does not give, America does not give-up and that terrorists may tear down our buildings but they could not tear down our optimism nor could they destroy our ability at turning adversity into triumph. The new towers rising above ground zero were supposed to be our phoenix, rising ever more beautifully out of the horrors of that day.

8 long years later, we are still waiting.

Scraping the sky

In the olden days, things were different: 90 percent the New York subway system was built, using private funds, in 4 years; the Woolworth Tower: 3 years; the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street: 2 years; and let’s not the city icon, which was built after the wall street crash.

Between its excavation starting on January 22, 1930 and ribbon cutting ceremony on May 1, 1931, the iconic Empire State Building was built in a mere 13 months, helping lift the spirits of New Yorkers as it showed that financial crashes may devastate us but that we, New Yorkers, we, symbols of American power, can still build amazing thing amazingly quickly. In a way, the Empire State helped lift the spirit of an earlier generation when it needed it most and that is what I would have liked to see happen at ground zero.

Sure, many people will say that the rules are different now, that workers’ protection and union powers slows things down. The argument might hold water if it weren’t for what happened over the rest of New York: The Time-Warner center was built in under 3 years. Same for the New York Times building; The Bank of America tower: 5 years, injuring more people in the process than were injured during the Empire State Building’s construction.

3 major skyscrapers since 9/11/2001, none of which is at ground zero. So why can’t we get a single tower over ground zero?

In 1931, a shinning beacon of hope rose above the city when the city needed it most. After eight years, WE are still waiting for ours.

In Memoriam

Carlos Dominguez, Mark Ellis, Melissa Vincent, Michael DiPasquale, Cynthia Giugliano, Jeremy Glick, David Halderman, Steve Weinberg, Gerard Jean Baptiste, Tom McCann, David Vera.

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2 Comments. Leave new

I was initially enthused by the WTC towers, being the world’s tallest buildings (for how long? I’m sure google/wikipedia will remind me;-) and being so consistent with the modern skyscraper (mies van der rohe, what hath thou wrought?)

But then I grew disillusioned with them. They were plain, soul-less, even life-less – especially when compared with the Empire State building and the Chrysler building. Sure, I’d go up to the top to see the view, but the base of the buildings was forgettable.

On our NYC visit in early Septemer 2001, we didn’t even get to the WTC.
A week later, I wished we had.

My initial 9/11 response was “let’s build exactly what was there, but a foot higher” just to show that violence achieves nothing (the extra foot was spite, I guess). Let the memorial be something else. Let the building be an attempt to return to normalcy.

I happened to be in Washington, on the mall, a few weeks later. Even in that environment I was able to get into the gallery of the Senate (remarkable, the freedom we have [had?] in this country). Around the top of the walls are friezes of legal figures. I noted the inclusion of Sulieman, and wondered how many Taliban or al Queda courts would have an American legal scholar similarly enshrined.

Sorry, I’ve drifted afield. Powerful memories will lead to that.

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