Five Years Later

Tourists flock to the World Trade Center site, but for New Yorkers, 9/11 is history.

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Much more important to the future of the city, race has faded as a daily, ugly irritation. It has not disappeared; New York is, after all, an American city. But the rhetoric has cooled. Few people, black or white, now insist that race is a single explanation for all of society's ills. One reason is obvious: on September 11, people of all races died. But the endless conflicts of race were also eased by the performance of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was elected after September 11 (when Rudolph Giuliani could not run again because of term limits). Giuliani's confrontational style was replaced by Bloomberg's good manners and insistence on intelligent compromise. The Bloomberg approach recognized that not all problems were nails to be hit with hammers. The approach worked.

There are some enduring problems. Most New Yorkers have lost interest in the vehement, crabbed argument over the nature of a memorial to those who died on September 11. That argument has now lasted a year longer than it took the United States to fight its share of World War II. Most of the people I know would like to live long enough to see a memorial rise from the construction site. They'd like to walk around on an autumn afternoon and hear birdsong from the trees and children giggling at play and old men sitting on benches, reading Yeats. But the memorial and the rebuilding no longer matter as much as they once did.

Most New Yorkers are enjoying their city, for as long as it is possible. New York is better now than it has ever been in the seven decades of my lifetime. Poverty has been drastically reduced. The plague of crack cocaine has faded. Schools are better. The streets are safer than they've been since the 1950s. New York, of course, is not a perfect city. It is harder and harder for young working people to find places where they can afford to live. Many of the city's glories—from theaters to restaurants—are too expensive for ordinary citizens. Amid the largest immigration wave in a century, another generation of newcomers is discovering what most New Yorkers have always known: the streets, alas, are not paved with gold.

But in my experience, almost all New Yorkers, old and new, have gotten over September 11, 2001. They face each morning with those qualities that have always helped them through the days and nights: optimism, irony, intelligence and laughter. Prophecy is a fool's game, but I want to believe that even in these demented times, those human qualities will prevail.

Pete Hamill, former columnist and editor of the New York Daily News, is the author of Downtown: My Manhattan.


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