“Even if it ain’t all it seems, I got a pocketful of dreams
Baby I’m from New York!
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in New York!
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Hear it for New York, New York, New Yooork!”
from EMPIRE STATE of MIND by Alicia Keys
I first visited New York City when I was a cash poor, college student working upstate. Regrettably, we ate only Pizza Hut and walked around aimlessly. I was warned more about crime than where to eat or what to see. “Don’t look up at the buildings, it makes you a target,” people told me. I was a small town girl visiting the Big Apple but felt I was visiting an entire produce market instead! The masses of people were bewildering. I felt compelled to ask everyone where they were going since everyone seemed in a hurry. When I went again, in the early ‘90s, Mayor Giuliani was beginning his term and I ate A LOT better. I remember seeing the volunteer “Guardian Angels” trekking around Times Square keeping order and a benevolent watch over the city. Times Square was a bit more seedy and undesireable back then. Still, the jumbo screens that only partially existed (compared to now) were a spectacular light show. And I did steal glances up at the towering buildings regardless of prior warnings.
I went a third time when taking my daughter to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It was the early ’00s, after the horrendous 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. It was a difficult decision to proceed, but we felt it was more tragic NOT to go. We relished the opportunity to stay at the famous Plaza Hotel and see Eloise. She was the little girl famed to live there in a childrens book. Amazingly, the illustrator, Hillary Scott, from the original “Eloise at the Plaza” was there and signed our copy. We sipped tea in the Palm Room, wrote a letter to Eloise, and recounted history of the famed hotel. Seeing Santa at Macy’s and riding the old, wooden escalator were highlights. The Fifth Avenue shop windows were extravagantly decorated for the holidays by designers involving big budgets. Those were worth a stand in line. A chilly carriage ride through Central Park was picturesque, as was skating at the Rockefeller Center. Minus the exact site of the twin towers, the city did not reflect it had just survived its worst tragedy in modern history. Nothing could hold New York City down, it seemed.
The attack on the World Trade Center forever changed the city (and country). I have read numerous accounts of heroicism and altruism surrounding the day’s events and those after. What terrorists meant for destruction and despair actually had the opposite effect. People began connecting and relating in meaningful ways versus the former “keep to self” mentality. I can attest that on my recent visit, I was aided on two separate occassions by New Yorkers who simply wanted to be nice. One totally inconvenienced herself by walking us to our destination. Another who appeared intimidating at first, was a godsend at the subway. He observed our wide-eyed confusion trying to choose a line and gave us detailed directions when he could have walked on. We noticed incredibly kind and friendly people overall.
My husband and I finally visited the 9/11 Memorial site last Fall. We were silenced eyeing the massive holes in the earth where the two towers once stood. Commemoration of all that occurred in those two towers was aided by deep fountains now in their place. Water cascading towards the center of the earth solemnly recalled the parallel events. Yet now it was beautiful and serene. What irony! Loved ones left flowers by the names of those deceased. Children born well after the devastation played happily on the grounds while young adults lined up at food trucks. The massive structure over the entry to the Oculus, a three story underground mall, appeared to be a gigantic carcass. (More irony.) When I learned it connected all the way down to the subway, I was dumbfounded at its architectural and engineering genius. My husband pointed out the Trinity church directly across the street with its aged cemetery that appeared not to have noticed the events of 9/11 at all. It remained miraculously untouched. The fourth tower is slated to be built next year, I learned, while touring the Freedom Tower Observatory. Its panoramic view was astounding and limitless. With the last tower, the site will be bigger and better than ever.
How can an event so devastating and ugly become an architectural feat that draws millions? How can New York overcome all that it has endured? It can through resiliant, inconquerable souls who love their city and their ideals. It can through those who choose not to live in fear but to look for possibility instead. It can in New York City. I know because I was there, met some of its people and saw all of it myself.