The city after 9/11

Lawrence Solomon

September 11, 2002

Sept. 11, 2001, unleashed a momentous, urgent debate over the future of homeland security and an equally momentous, if less urgent, debate over the future of the city. “Dispersal rather than concentration is being talked about as the viable pattern of life and work, where monumental buildings will give way to camouflaged sheds, or be entirely scattered to home offices,” stated The New York Times in a Sept. 30, 2001, article entitled “A City Transformed: Designing ‘Defensible Space.'” Several weeks later, The Wall Street Journal, in a front-page column, entitled “Decentralization and Downtowns,” encapsulated the larger urban debate: “Even before terrorists levelled the World Trade Center, economic and technological forces were combining to decentralize the economy. Sept. 11 will only reinforce these centrifugal forces, underscoring the risk of concentrating too many people, computers and phone lines in one spot.”

Throughout the last year, in fact, arguments in favour of dispersing the population have been building, not just in the United States but in Canada and Europe as well. Road-builders cite security needs in justifying the rebuilding of national highway systems, recalling that President Eisenhower had justified the U.S. highway system – officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways – in large part on the need to evacuate cities in the event of nuclear war. Advocates for suburban lifestyles tout the vulnerability of cities to terrorist attacks as another reason to leave city for suburb. And business analysts such as Lehman Brothers’ David Shulman state that “Terrorism demolishes agglomeration economies,” meaning that businesses will no longer cluster together in downtowns or other dense locales, as they historically have.

Shun-the-city thinkers correctly note that terrorists target people-rich places – the World Trade Center held 40,000 to 50,000 occupants a day – but they forget that there is no shortage of people-rich targets throughout society. And that terrorists crave trophies as much as high casualties, explaining why the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and Olympic events have also ranked high on terrorists’ target lists. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the insurance industry set about cataloguing the targets likely to attract the eye of terrorists – bridges, national monuments, railway stations, and city halls among them – and found 330,000 in the United States. National treasures and well-peopled targets, it has become clear, exist throughout a country.

Killing large numbers of innocents, however, may be more easily done away from the big city. Early fears of casualties in the tens of thousands at the World Trade Center soon dropped to 6,000, then to 5,000, then to 3,000 and now 2,800 – fewer than 2,300 civilians who worked or visited the World Trade Center, fewer than 400 firemen and policemen, and 147 airline passengers and crew. The diminished death count must surely have become a disappointment for the blood-lusters at al-Qaeda, particularly since the lives saved are a direct testament to the incomparable heroism of New York’s firemen and policemen. Some analyses credit the men in uniform with rescuing an astounding 12,500 civilians in the World Trade Center; a more recent McKinsey & Company analysis credits them with saving an even more astounding 25,000 civilians.

But more than heroism was at play. New York employs more than 11,000 firemen and 40,000 police officers, many of them highly trained in emergency procedures. Had a meticulously planned terrorist attack such as the one at the World Trade Center instead targeted a rural theme park or a small-town college football game, which often attracts more than 50,000 fans, the toll could have several times exceeded that at the World Trade Center. New York City lost far more in fire equipment alone – 91 vehicles worth US$97-million – than many counties own, and it had tens of thousands of professional rescue workers in reserve. Likewise, the city’s vast hospital network had sprung into action, prepared to accept thousands of casualties that luckily did not need their services. In comparison, a rural college stadium under attack, even if it wasn’t dependent upon a local fire department and the local deployment of state troopers, would have been woefully defenseless and incapable of averting a larger catastrophe.

The gap between the preparedness of dense cities and sparsely populated areas will soon grow. Though New York’s rescue workers were unquestioningly heroic and effective, they could have done better, the New York City government has decided. Two newly released reports that the city commissioned after the Sept. 11 attacks point to numerous impediments to efficient rescue operations that became evident following the World Trade Center attacks. As a result, all New York City high-rises will soon be outfitted with equipment that boosts the radio signals rescue workers use, for example, and fire chiefs will ride police helicopters to help them dispatch the right number of firemen in emergency situations, preventing too many from arriving in the same place at once, as happened during Sept. 11.

Other post-Sept. 11 analyses will benefit all cities. A two-year, US$23-million study has just begun to scrutinize the mechanics of the twin towers’ collapse, and the reasons why more than 1,000 people trapped on the upper floors were unable to escape. Once various riddles are solved – such as why the steel near a Boeing 767’s entry point into the north tower resisted intense fire – new building techniques may allow present skyscrapers as well as future ones to withstand similar attacks or worse. Even before those new studies are complete, building and fire codes have changed in light of post-Sept. 11 engineering understandings.

Cities – New York, Chicago, London, Toronto – have seen devastation before, and they have bounced back brilliantly. New technologies, new building codes, new practices, invariably arose to solve old problems. In 1835, an accidental fire incinerated 700 buildings and 52 acres in the heart of New York’s business district. Although one-quarter of Manhattan was gone, it was soon rebuilt. Thick granite replaced brick and wood facades, a new water system was brought in and the city became more valuable, and more splendid, than ever. Within one year, the value of Manhattan’s real estate increased by more than 60%, from US$143-million to US$233-million, and business was prospering.

One year after Sept. 11, downtown businesses continue to suffer, but in many ways the city is once again coming back stronger and more splendid than ever. While the site’s redevelopment is yet to be determined, New York’s architectural tradition, and its refusal to accept mediocre designs, point to excellence. At the same time, the often-voiced fear that people would abandon Manhattan – the residential buildings that ringed the World Trade Center sat half-empty in the months following Sept. 11 – has vanished.

“Hot, hot, hot,” is how realtor Brown Harris Stevens characterizes the general residential market. “The recovery is now across the board; our sales of apartments over US$5-million are up 300%,” announced Insignia Douglas Elliman, the city’s largest real estate company. The price per square foot has been increasing, as have apartment sizes, says Miller Samuel, a New York appraisal firm, leading to a 21% increase in the cost of apartments throughout Manhattan. Condominiums are now selling for the highest prices seen in years.

Rather than dispirit New Yorkers, the terrorist attacks have brought New Yorkers together, creating a bond and strengthening the sense of community that, ironically, tends to especially thrive in the big city. The immense insecurity that followed the terrorist attacks is being supplanted with a new optimism, as New Yorkers make clear that they’re there for keeps. “Today, joggers and baby strollers ply the narrow paths once crammed with dump trucks and moving vans, and only the slightest sheen of ashy grit still clings to the buildings,” The New York Times reports. “The thousands of apartments that stood so precariously vacant have dwindled to a few scattered dozen, all of them going fast.”

Islamic terrorists didn’t select New York because it is a city, as shun-the-city thinkers seem to think. The terrorists selected New York because it is a great city, the ultimate trophy. New York is a beacon of personal liberty, as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, and a beacon of capitalism, as symbolized by Wall Street and the World Trade Center. For those who aspire to personal and economic freedom, for those who seek the cultural amenities that only a large and diverse population can bring, there is no alternative to great cities. And for those very reasons, attacks on New York, as on other great cities, will fail to persuade their residents to leave.

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