|Sept. 11 —
We hated those damn buildings.
They were boxy, they were ugly, and they were out of scale even within Lower Manhattan’s riot of skyscrapers. They were smug.
|YET AS ALL OF US in Brooklyn hold vigils on roofs for the smoldering remains of New York’s famous Twin Towers, we who lived in the shadow of Manhattan’s greatest symbol are even now unable to accept that our skyline and our city will never be the same.|
|We who lived in the shadow
of Manhattan’s greatest symbol are even now unable to accept that our
skyline and our city will never be the same.
On television, the talking heads were saying that the terrorists who
masterminded Tuesday’s attack wanted to “strike at the symbols of American
power,” but when you live in Brooklyn, the Twin Towers of the World Trade
Center are not symbols. They are omnipresent facts on the ground, visible
from everywhere, as unavoidable as germs in a daycare center or a speck of
dandruff on a just-cleaned interview suit.
George Willig, who climbed one of the towers in 1977 as a stunt before such things were actually popular, once told me that the reason he did it was because the buildings were so ugly that they taunted him. Visitors from out of town would look out the window of my apartment—which has (make that “had”) an enviable view of the World Trade Center—and be in awe.
“Wow, what a view,” they would always say, “except for those Towers.”
And when they wanted to get a panoramic view, we’d always send them to the Observation Deck at 2 World Trade Center rather than the Empire State Building—the logic being that if you were standing on top of the World Trade Center, the World Trade Center wasn’t ruining the view.
Yet when I looked out my window Tuesday morning and saw the buildings engulfed in flames, the sight was simply the most terrifying thing imaginable. And then they collapsed. Suddenly, I didn’t feel terrified anymore. After all, the very thing that New Yorkers have feared since the Trade Center bombing in 1993 had just happened. The buildings had, indeed, collapsed. So feeling terrified quickly gave way to feeling humbled—like the school bully had picked a fight with us—but this time the bully actually won.
My friend David Shenk stood on top of his Park Slope building when the Towers were merely in flames and described the feeling of having his jaw scraping the tar of his roof. “When you live in Brooklyn, the Towers are so far away that the sight of them burning was unreal, but a manageable sort of unreal,” he said. “I mean, when you go into Manhattan and actually stand next to those towers, well, each one of them is like a fortified city! It was simply inconceivable that they would collapse. All I could do was say ‘Oh my God’ over and over and over.”
I headed for Carroll Gardens, a low-rise neighborhood populated mostly by old Italians and young middle-class families whose breadwinners work in Manhattan. The Twin Towers hold an especially powerful sway over this particular corner of Brooklyn, just a mile across the river from Lower Manhattan.
When I got there, the Towers were still on fire, but structurally intact. Resident after resident told me that they were only nervous because their son, daughter, husband or wife hadn’t yet come home from “the city,” as everyone in Brooklyn calls Manhattan.
|“At the school, the teachers
pulled down the shades when the buildings were hit. The kids were scared.
Those buildings are like their friends.”
— NEAL WEINSTOCK
parent at a local school
And then the buildings collapsed. We didn’t hear it, but knew it because
suddenly the debris changed. The neighborhood was quickly engulfed in ash.
A local paint store started selling—not giving out, but
selling—ventilation masks, cheap models for 27 cents all the way up to a
deluxe version for $2.37. Teachers and parents from local schools swarmed
into the store to get the masks for the kids, who were being kept in
classes rather than dismissed to go home to an empty house.
“Every kid in this neighborhood is going to be traumatized,” Neal Weinstock, a parent at a local school told me as he bought two boxes of masks. “At the school, the teachers pulled down the shades when the buildings were hit. The kids were scared. Those buildings are like their friends.”
Outside the store, people were gathering on stoops with transistor radios, just as if they were listening to a news story from the 1960s or a daylight World Series game from the old days. It was clearly a disaster in another way: New Yorkers were actually talking to each other on the street, something that only happens in this deeply impersonal city during really big snowstorms or situations like, well, like the last World Trade Center bombing.
I started walking towards the Brooklyn Bridge—possibly New York’s most identifiable symbol, albeit not strategic from a terrorist’s standpoint. Brooklynites were pouring off the bridge, heading home or just fleeing Manhattan. New York is that kind of city; when terror strikes, you just start walking. Subways, which are as constant in our lives as running water, suddenly become potential deathtraps, places filled with black smoke and burning plastic.
I looked up at the famous bridge, and the Manhattan Bridge just to its north. Both were flattening from the stress of the tens of thousands of people making their way across. Many people, accustomed to riding in that fabled “hole in the ground” under this part of Brooklyn, didn’t know where they were once they got to the other side of the bridges. Or maybe they just couldn’t understand.
“Could you just tell me where I can get a taxi, son?” 71-year-old Ben Sohn, a clerical worker in the New York City Sheriff’s Department, asked me as he came off the Brooklyn Bridge walkway. Sohn was covered in soot from the explosions and needed help standing. He offered all the outward signs of shock, unable to comprehend what had happened two blocks from his office, before he had made the 45-minute walk across the bridge. I got him some water and made him promise that he would sit in the shade and drink the water for a half-hour before trying to get home to Midwood—which was inaccessible for several hours anyway.
Nearby, a man was walking with his two kids, their fluorescent school backpacks slung around his neck. He told me he lived a few blocks from the Towers and that he’d jumped on the first subway he could—they hadn’t been shut down yet—so he could get to his daughters, who go to school in Brooklyn. The subway let him off at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, so he jogged across. Now he was walking his daughters back across the great bridge.
“I know 40 people who work in that building on the 106th floor,” he said. “I mean, I used to. They’re just not there anymore.” “Daddy,” said one of his daughters. “Mommy works in the World Trade Center.” He had no answer for his daughter, but looked at me and said, “Please say a prayer.”
© 2001 Newsweek, Inc.