To the Terraces! A New Yorker’s Letter to Parisians

The Freedom Tower, the sleeker replacement for the blocky old Twin Towers, lit up in the colors of the French flag. Photo by Muhsin Ozdemir

Dear Parisians,

We, too, had to will ourselves to go out, and to walk the streets holding our breath. We took precautions that seem theatrical now. I admit to bringing home a giant roll of gray duct tape (to seal the windows, in case we were doused with poison gas). My doctor gamely wrote us prescriptions for Cipro, the anthrax antidote. If people said I was overreacting, I’d tell them about our neighbor’s crazy family. They mailed him an inflatable raft, suggesting that, if we were attacked again, he could blow it up and float down the Hudson River to safety.

“Don’t be an idiot,” said my husband, even as ash rained over our neighborhood, and jets flew overhead, scouting for plotters. He had perspective: in Turkey, he’d lived through a decade of street riots, and two military coups.

Friends and acquaintances weighed life-changing moves, and some acted on them. A man who had once worked at Aon, a company on 102nd floor that lost 176 people, persuaded his reluctant family to move to the New Jersey suburbs. A wealthy couple we knew abandoned the $1 million condo they’d just bought, a few blocks from the Towers, and moved full time into their summer home, a hundred miles away in rural Eastern Long Island.

But one close friend who had escaped, shoeless, from the 35th floor, and had made it home on roller skates, stayed. Within days she’d resumed her old activities, of bike riding and going to restaurants with friends. At a time when it was relatively new, she’d adapted easily to working from home, and was unfazed by the idea of working for an operation that now existed mainly in cyberspace.

“I saw that I didn’t need any of the things I lost to keep functioning,” she reflected.

The attacks I’d watched from my roof launched a geopolitical conflagration: retaliatory assaults on two countries, and more than a decade of painful and inconclusive war. But as New Yorkers our keenest pains were the intimate ones: I remember consoling a friend who’d lost her cousin, a flight attendant on one of the doomed planes; and embracing a colleague who’d nearly died under the rubble (and who afterward turned to food and travel journalism, vowing never to cover tragedy again). We mourned the loss of the shops and cafes we’d patronized, in the concourse underneath the Towers. Soon Lower Manhattan was filled with curiosity seekers, but, as one avoids neighborhoods enjoyed with former lovers, New Yorkers mostly refused to go down there at all.

A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, we marched in New York’s annual Halloween Parade — even though we made a tempting terrorist target. Pictured: revelers in the 2011 parade. Photo by Chris Goldberg.

Six weeks later, my resilient friend and I put on our carnival masks, and danced to the steel drum bands in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. What an excellent target we made! This popular New York cultural event draws huge and boisterous crowds, with every costume an opportunity to hide. The organizers had defiantly refused to cancel, though the participants engaged in plenty of gallows humor. Copious terrorist jokes were told — hell, quite a few people dressed as terrorists — yet we rushed nervously through the event, walking an abbreviated route and then skedaddling home, as if fulfilling an honorable but unwelcome obligation.

Night after night my neighbors and I gathered on the Brooklyn Heights promenade, a cobblestoned walkway at the river’s edge that overlooks the Manhattan skyline. We could see the smoldering gap where the Towers had been, and we laid our flowers and candles there, in homage to the 2,977 murder victims. Every year, on the anniversary, we gather there still, gazing at ghostly blue twin beams our Municipal Art Society projects into the sky. The passage of 14 years hasn’t muted the memory.

The new Freedom Tower fills the gap now, after years of argument over what and how to build there. Though it’s hipper and sleeker, it hasn’t usurped the psychic place of the blocky old Towers, somehow. Of course we lit up the new tower in the colors of the French flag — which are quite similar to the colors of the American flag — both in sympathy, and to remind the world of our link. Not many of us have made it to the new 9/11 memorial yet. It seems meant for tourists — and anyway, why would we be eager to relive that horror? Nor do we need to be reminded.

A tiled replica of Picasso’s “Guernica” is displayed prominently in the Spanish town, keeping memories of the 1937 Nazi bombing cruelly fresh. Photo by Rachael Guzick.

No one who has lived through a terrorist attack ever forgets it. I took my students to Guernica last year, the old Basque town flattened, with Franco’s complicity, by the Nazi Luftwaffe in 1937. The Nazis likewise chose a moment calculated to inflict maximum death: the weekly market day, when shoppers from the outlying districts thronged the town center. Basque leaders initially claimed that more than 1,600 people — a third of Guernica’s population then — had been massacred. It must have felt like that to them, though most historians now put the death toll at less than 300. Today Guernica is held up as the first modern case of intentional murderous targeting of civilians. The trauma hasn’t dissipated: a few years ago, an 84-year-old survivor told the BBC that the images of the collapsing Towers had reminded him of that calamitous day. He’d been 14.

Guernica felt to me like an ordinary Spanish provincial town. We saw friends drinking together in the tapas bars, and old guys lounging main square. But we found these descendents surprisingly reluctant to talk. Probably they’re tired of reliving the trauma, though, horribly, the huge Peace Museum they built dooms them to doing just that. The museum is partly responsible for the town’s prosperity, along with the famous Guernica Tree, a symbolic oak that survived the assault, and the tile replica of the Picasso painting that turned Guernica into a global symbol for injustice. It was the weirdest feeling, walking those streets. Though prosperous, and grown to three times its former size, Guernica somehow still felt mournful: desolate, and sparsely settled.

Old men in Guernica’s town square are reluctant to talk about the legacy of the Nazi bombings, though the town seems condemned to relive them, through attractions like the Peace Museum and the Guernica Tree. Photo by Mary D’Ambrosio

Though New Yorkers couldn’t connect over #jesuisenterrasse or #porteouverte, in those pre-social media days, we too made our small gestures to try to protect the city that had given us so much — our powerful city that seemed suddenly defenseless.

My personal terrasse was to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. Military guards had been posted at every entrance, and periodically hundreds of walkers were hustled off, when false alarms suggested something nefarious was afoot.

In my mind I was crossing that bridge the way a victim would confront a bully, determined to be victimized no more: as if to say, damn you, I will stand my ground. Still, I’d frequently close my eyes, on the now much emptier paths, and imagine the whole thing crumbling into the river — plunging straight down, just as the Towers had.

As a mental defense against bullies, I walked regularly over the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Muhsin Ozdemir.

Years later a surveillance video surfaced, with a report saying it had been shot to case the bridge as a terrorist target. It was easy to guess why: the Brooklyn Bridge is not only our most beautiful and beloved monument, but comes with a fame-enhancing story. Its determined immigrant engineer-builder made it three times stronger than it needed to be, and gave his life for it. After he could work no more, his wife stepped in, and finished the bridge for him. Al Qaeda 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was said to have ordered an operative to “destroy the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting the suspension cables.” It would take just 15 minutes of cutting at the weakest points to bring down the whole bridge, the U.S. authorities determined. So those areas had been locked, and guarded round the clock.

Had I known those details, would I have avoided the bridge? I like to think I wouldn’t have. We were as devastated as you must be now. But we who stayed also found defiance theraputic: to go to the café and the concert; to ride the subway anyway; to keep reporting to work in our high towers, were ways to stay sane. Fourteen years on, we’re still a little on edge (wondering, during the first moment of every power outage or unexpected fireworks show: “Is this an attack?”). We’ve forgotten nothing. And though you are unlikely to heal or forget, either, you too will feel better for having stood up for your wonderful city.

On the Brooklyn Heights promenade, beside the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Muhsin Ozdemir.

Mary D’Ambrosio is an assistant professor of professional journalism practice at Rutgers University, and the founding editor of Big World Magazine.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.