New Yorkers have been thinking for days about where they were on a single day in particular: Sept. 11, 2001. Of course, it doesn’t take the prompting of a milestone anniversary to go back to that terrible place — the trading of 9/11 stories has become a distinct part of the American experience.
When those horrific 102 minutes were over and we had lost almost 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center, it was impossible to think there would again be a calm moment of reflection like this one, almost 10 years later — for it seemed we were barreling into a terrifying “new normal,” as the phrase of the day went. Certainly more terror was at hand — New York would be the new Tel Aviv, it was easy, if rash, to surmise.
Today, we can reflect on 9/11 in a city that has not been attacked again, in a region that has flourished in ways we could not have imagined at 10:28 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when the second tower collapsed. Today, the skyline is being transformed by the successors to the Twin Towers, and we are paying tribute to the 2,753 lives we lost in a stirring memorial it seemed would never get built. People are actually choosing to live in the shadow of the new World Trade Center, and downtown, it seems, is the place to live ... you’d think Peter Stuyvesant and his Dutch brethren were back in City Hall.
It has taken a lot for us as a city to get here. For those first years after 9/11, it was impossible not to think about a new attack. We could seemingly cut the undercurrent of dread with a knife. We looked around as we hurried through Grand Central Terminal, or sized up the majesty of the Empire State Building, and we felt in our gut how vulnerable these seemingly indestructible edifices were, and by extension, how vulnerable we were.
That is, perhaps, the most salient thing that 9/11 left us with: It made us see the fragility and the beauty in everything (and everyone) around us, including ourselves. Of course, we have regressed, but this unique perspective 9/11 gave us is one we should strive to embrace every day, without the prodding of a catastrophe. It is worthy of keeping in mind as we honor the dead on Sunday. What better tribute is there, after all, than to be our best selves, appreciating the people around us? And how wonderful it is to live as appreciative urbanists as well, treasuring our beautiful city and its one-of-a-kind landmarks, streets, parks and vistas. Cherish them, because we err to take them for granted.
We’ve made that mistake before.
Rolando Pujol is a managing editor at amNY. Follow him on Twitter @RolandoPujol.