Last year I started this anniversary winding through police barricades in the pre-dawn cold to collect my security clearance. This year, I woke up to daylight in an overheated apartment and got my computer on in time to catch the reading of the names starting around the letter C. I had work I needed to do, emails to answer in the short window I had before my biggest task of the day that afternoon, but I needed to let the names stream in the background for as long as I could.
Twelve years is a long time, fully half my life. What some call a post-9/11 world is, really, the only world I and many of my friends know and understand. What, exactly, is a ‘pre-9/11’ world to those of us who count only elementary school in that timeline? This day is spoken of as a dividing date, one that separates a before and an after. It’s a concept I think New Yorkers are more highly conscious of this time around. We had our mayoral primary yesterday, the first in twelve years without Michael Bloomberg on the ballot. While everyone will remember Mayor Giuliani as the voice of the city that day and in its immediate aftermath (even my spell-check just now corrected his name), many forget that 9/11/01 was an election day, that countless survivors were late to work because they had stopped off to vote for Bloomberg or one of his rivals. It was Bloomberg who stepped into City Hall at a time when the big plans for ‘after’ started taking shape. It has been his city for the entirety of that ‘after,’ and while we can argue for days over whether he steered it in the right direction, there’s no denying that his vision for the future of NYC was singular and that the city is a different place than it was twelve years ago, and for hundreds of different reasons. These days, as New York comes to terms with the end of the Bloomberg era and works to wrangle with the successes and failures of his mayoralty, the city is also considering that this might be the end, too, of that ‘post-9/11’ era, whatever that means. Nearly half of New Yorkers living here today were not here to witness the towers fall, whether by age or geography. For us, there is no old New York, there is only the one we know now. These twelve years of new towers rising and memorial building will be our ‘before.’ We can’t help it. And this doesn’t mean forgetting, don’t get me wrong; in fact I hope that with the museum opening in the next few months there will be a resurgence of real, genuine, remembering, not the kind that led to everyone plastering my social media feeds with #neverforget today. No one wants to be the one to acknowledge that this is probably the close of a chapter. Endings are rarely easy. But I find a lot of hope in it. New York as an entity is as alive as any one of us here, and while growing pains can hurt, living things should never be stagnant. As the city continues to fold in newcomers and young people our collective memory will change, our afters will become our befores.
I had the privilege of meeting four AFS students from Chile who flew into LaGuardia this afternoon en route to their year in the US. None of them had ever been to NYC before, but here they were collecting their luggage in the American Airlines arrivals hall on this anniversary, as CNN’s coverage blared on screens overhead and National Guard troops with rifles stood watch. They were so exhausted from so many hours of traveling they may not even have noticed anything out of the ordinary. But for them, there is no NYC before, just NYC as they met it today, in all it’s hot, loud, security laden glory. I found myself wanting to apologize for my city, to tell them it’s not usually like this. And in that moment I sympathized with all those who tell me about the ‘before,’ who tell me the New York I live in isn’t the ‘real’ New York. For me it is though, it’s my before and my present. Here’s to hoping the after is worthy of what came before it. (And that Stephy, Waldo, Francisco, and Rodrigo make it here again to see our progress.)
I posted this last year too, but it’s worth re-reading. It fits, as I think one of the reasons I find myself so moved by this piece is because the author captures so well the before and the after: Evensong, by Cynthia Zarin.