Five Years Later

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

A rendering of the completed One World Trade Center
A rendering of the completed One World Trade Center Public Domain

The tourists still arrive at the edge of the void. In summer, they wear shorts and T-shirts and baseball caps. In winter, they bundle up against the harbor wind. They don't gawk. They make no stupid jokes.

"It was right over there, Ruth," a beefy man says, pointing to the emptiness where the North Tower once stood. "Remember? When we came to New York that time? We ate at Windows on the World."

"I remember," his wife says and pauses, squinting into the sky. "Up there at the top. The view was amazing."

Yes, it was, and that view has been gone now for five years. Most of today's visitors come from elsewhere in the States, but you hear the languages of the world as they gaze together at the void. Most speak very little. The visitors peer through high wire fences at what has become a 16-acre construction site. They can see the rough accidental cross formed by intersecting steel beams, a remnant of the South Tower. They can hear the hammering of rivet guns and the grinding of heavy machinery, but they can see nothing of the work. Five years later, the building is going on below street level. Still, they come to the site. They assemble as if in prayer, the largest group staring up at the panels of the timeline of September 11, 2001, attached to the fence. Memory is so dense in the air that it seems tangible. Memories of where they were on that terrible day. Memories of happy times spent when the World Trade Center towers still rose to challenge the sky. And then they move on.

That is, they resemble New York itself. For those of us who were here that morning, the horror can rise again at odd moments: at the sound of a police siren, a low-flying airliner, a fire truck screaming to someplace unseen. The heart skips. We pause, look anxiously skyward, and then the moment passes.

New Yorkers have long since moved on. The subject of terrorism seldom comes up anymore. We know only too well that terrorists exist. "But if you think about that all the time, you go nuts," said my friend Raymundo Martinez, who works in the Broadway Café around the corner from where I live in Lower Manhattan. "You can't live afraid. You can't look at your kids and think some nut will kill them, or kill me. You get up and go to work."

Most New Yorkers have donned the armor of a healthy fatalism, which allows them to shrug off the scare stories that appear from time to time. "That’s mostly politics," my friend Tim Lee said. "They figure if you get scared bad enough, you might vote for them."

There may be people permanently traumatized by September 11, but there is little sign of them. The city's economy has long since recovered. Real estate and housing cost more than ever. The lines at fashionable restaurants are long. The ballparks, arenas, theaters are full. Times Square and other public plazas are packed. In good weather, parks along the rivers are full of people strolling at dusk, lovers holding hands, joggers and walkers squeezing past bicyclists. Hundreds of them pass within a block of Ground Zero.

There remain some prime targets for terrorists. Most vulnerable, of course, are the subways. But even here, fatalism persists. Daily ridership is up to 4.8 million a day, the highest in years. On the crowded subway trains, you even see people dozing after a long day's work—something they would not have done 15 years ago, when crime was rampant. There are police at certain key stations, watching for signs of danger. But you don't feel that you've descended into the tunnels of a police state.

The true changes to New York since September 11 are more subtle and might be more enduring. To begin with, there is the continuing presence of better manners. New York is a city of dozens of minor collisions; it's part of the deal when there are too many people and too little space. So when someone inadvertently bumps into someone else on the subway and says, "Excuse me," that is a revolutionary change. On any given day, you can see New Yorkers helping old people across the hazardous streets. You can see young men helping women carry baby carriages up the stairs of subway stations. You can see New Yorkers giving directions to obvious tourists (wearing white shoes and holding maps) and even smiling. New Yorkers still live as if they're double-parked, but some sea change has taken place, a recognition that we're all in this together.

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.