This year, as every year, I pause for a personal ritual of observing where I am today compared to where I was, and where we all were, on this day in 2001. I’m a New Yorker, who lived in the city for years before the attacks, but never quite identified as a New Yorker until after that day.
And it strikes me that this year the thing I want to observe most, even to celebrate, though this hardly feels like a day for celebration, is my beloved city. I’ve said many times that New York showed its best self on its worst day, but walking around today reminded me too that this city has made an even better version of itself in the years since.
Certainly I’m conflicted about some of what America has done as a country since the attacks, despite my passionate love for my country. War, intolerance, division — these weren’t meant to be the results or the outcome of the attacks. In so many ways big and small, I grieve for some of the choices my country has made in brokenhearted, misguided response to an incomprehensible act. But my city? I couldn’t be more proud.
Because this is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City.
Over the four hundred years it’s taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there’s never been a better time to walk down the street. Crime is low, without us having sacrificed our personality or passion to get there. We’ve invested in making our sidewalks more walkable, our streets more accommodating of the bikes and buses and taxis that convey us around our town. There’s never been a more vibrant scene in the arts, music or fashion here. And in less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world.
And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks. We didn’t withdraw, we didn’t say “we can’t build bike lanes because the terrorists will use them”, we didn’t abandon our subways en masse because we feared some theoretical attack that might strike us there. It could just have easily gone the other way. Many predicted an exodus from New York City after the attacks, with our once-proud citizenry retreating to the theoretically-safer environs of smaller towns or lesser cities. It didn’t happen.
I point this out not (merely) to trot out my usual New York triumphalism, but because these attacks really did happen to New York City. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the attacks of September 11th are trotted out for political or rhetorical purposes so often that it’s easy to see them only as a symbol, instead of as the true, historical, horrific event that they were. This happened to my city, and then we chose to become a better city in the years since.
I know why, too. Because in the hearts of all of us who lived here, who were here that day, we haven’t ever, ever forgotten the sense of common purpose and common identity that bonds us. We have not conceded our public places or our shared spaces where we marry and play, eat and dance, walk and shop, or just sit quietly by ourselves. Maybe it seems like a small thing, but it’s a beautiful and meaningful and brave thing, and I am nothing but thankful for those who’ve made the choices to enable this evolution of our city. And I hope that making New York more livable for those of us who are here is an appropriate, albeit humble, tribute. Because it’s a peaceful, thoughtful, quiet, inclusive, loving, subtle, apolitical way of making lives better for those who are here, regardless of their age, identity, or culture. I can’t think of a better way to honor the lives of those we lost.
I’ve observed this anniversary on my blog each year since the day of the attacks. If you’re interested, you can read what was in my heart and on my mind every year.
In 2009, Eight Is Starting Over:
[T]his year, I am much more at peace. It may be that, finally, we’ve been called on by our leadership to mark this day by being of service to our communities, our country, and our fellow humans. I’ve been trying of late to do exactly that. And I’ve had a bit of a realization about how my own life was changed by that day.
Speaking to my mother last week, I offhandedly mentioned how almost all of my friends and acquaintances, my entire career and my accomplishments, my ambitions and hopes have all been born since September 11, 2001. If you’ll pardon the geeky reference, it’s as if my life was rebooted that day and in the short period afterwards. While I have a handful of lifelong friends with whom I’ve stayed in touch, most of the people I’m closest to are those who were with me on the day of the attacks or shortly thereafter, and the goals I have for myself are those which I formed in the next days and weeks. i don’t think it’s coincidence that I was introduced to my wife while the wreckage at the site of the towers was still smoldering, or that I resolved to have my life’s work amount to something meaningful while my beloved city was still papered with signs mourning the missing.
In 2008, Seven Is Angry:
Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don’t see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I’m not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there’s a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you’re addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother’s name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001.
In 2007, Six Is Letting Go:
On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn’t only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn’t just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we’d put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I’m most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I’d turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I’d be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.
In 2006, After Five Years, Failure:
one of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it’s become clich� now, there’s simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.
We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.
In 2005, Four Years:
I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn’t care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn’t honor the people who were actually going through the event.
In 2004, Thinking Of You:
I don’t know if it’s distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There’s a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that “this is all going to be political debates someday” and, well, someday’s already here.
In 2003, Two Years:
I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I’ve been so protective, I didn’t want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella’s Castle or something. I’m trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I’m lucky to have.
In 2002, I wrote On Being An American:
[I]n those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.
Maybe some of those people who said “today we are all New Yorkers” 9 years ago don’t feel that it’s true for them anymore; Maybe our values mean that their empathy has been tested too much for them to keep identifying with my beautiful city. If so, they’re missing a wonderful moment in the history of a great place. I love you, New York.