On a recent afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, Bernadette Hogan was taking a cab home from a dental appointment when traffic suddenly halted on Fifth Avenue. A burning smell was in the air and police cars were flashing their lights ahead. Hogan panicked in a way that’s become common here since Sept. 11.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, where are my kids, how will I get out of here, have other parts of the city also been hit?’ ” said Hogan, a psychologist and mother of two. “And then it died down. I don’t know what caused the commotion, but it went away. And I went back to normal life.”
In the five years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center -- when hijackers flew two planes into the twin towers, killing more than 2,700 people -- New York has made a stirring recovery. Lower Manhattan shows signs of economic renewal and is once again a trendy place to dine; real estate values citywide have soared; the stock market has strengthened; new construction is booming; the overall crime rate is down; ticket sales on Broadway have hit an all-time high; and tourists are flooding the city in record numbers.
To an outsider, New York seems to have regained its cocky edge. But many New Yorkers concede that there is a lingering anxiety underneath their public bravado -- a hair-trigger fear grounded in the memory of Sept. 11 that can erupt at any time. And this fear, many say, may be the long-term legacy of the terrorist attack on New York.
The new reality has had an insidious effect on daily life. It has Hogan and others scrambling to redefine what “normal” means. It’s got some residents wondering why they remain in the city. “New Yorkers are more anxious than they used to be,” Hogan said. “This is the big change that’s taken place. And it’s a very sad thing.”
Kaisha De Los Santos, a typist in Lower Manhattan, says that since Sept. 11, her life hasn’t been the same. She has moments of uneasiness during her daily subway commute. “If something happens now, you’re more alert. It’s not like before, when the train stopped and people would think, It’s just New York,” she said. “Now people panic.”
This summer, when children set off fireworks at her apartment building in the Bronx, De Los Santos ran to the balcony, as did almost everyone in her building -- their faces filled with fear.
In some cases, life in New York after Sept. 11 has changed for the better. Veteran observers say the city’s political world has calmed down noticeably; they believe a new civility has replaced the rancorous free-for-alls that used to dominate local elections. During last year’s mayoral race -- which included the city’s first Latino candidate backed by the Democratic Party -- there was a virtual absence of the racial overtones that had dominated earlier contests. Political passions run high over global issues, and the city has been the site of some of the largest U.S. demonstrations against the Iraq war. But those gatherings, despite complaints of overly aggressive policing, have been largely peaceful.
There also has been a shift in attitudes toward New York. Residents, who have traditionally been the target of jokes from other parts of the country, have been struck by the generosity and goodwill shown to them by outsiders. Tourists who once viewed the city as a forbidding place are coming in greater numbers than ever.
The crime rate has continued to fall in most categories, and New York has beefed up security more than any other big city in the U.S. But even Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is widely credited for bringing a respectful tone to city politics, does not dispute the lingering uncertainties about life in New York five years later.
“We have the best police department in the world, and they’ve devoted 1,000 officers to intelligence and counter-terrorism,” Bloomberg said at a news conference this week. Nevertheless, he added, the city would only know “in retrospect” whether police had been properly deployed. Unlike other crime statistics, he said, “with terrorism there is no number other than we haven’t been struck. But there’s always that risk, and we’re doing everything we can to keep you safe from that.”
For some, the threat remains overwhelming, no matter what steps the city has taken to increase security. Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, was killed in the south tower, answered bluntly when asked how the city had been changed by the attack. “Not nearly enough,” the Sept. 11 activist said this week during a promotional appearance for her book, “Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow”
“I don’t feel safe,” she said. “I try to be smart about what I do and don’t do here. I don’t relish taking the subway these days. But everybody has to have a life.”
Historian and journalist David Halberstam, a New Yorker, calls this pervasive feeling “the constancy of vulnerability.” No matter how many new security measures are imposed in the city -- more bomb-sniffing dogs on the subway, more heavily armed police near tunnels and bridges -- many New Yorkers live with a daily subliminal fear.
“We all know that 9/11 is not over, that another attack could come at any time, because whenever buttons are pushed overseas, New York becomes the target for the other side,” Halberstam said. “The threat hasn’t gone away, it’s here to stay, and so you have to make a decision. You can either flee to a small town in New England or you decide you’re going to stay here and face it. I don’t know anyone who has left.”
All told, about 820,000 New Yorkers developed post-traumatic stress disorder after the attack, almost half of whom were not directly affected by the destruction of the twin towers, several studies have documented. Other studies have reported that two or three times that number of New Yorkers developed one or more symptoms of stress-related disorders, especially among Latinos and recent immigrants.
Well-intentioned outsiders have frequently urged New Yorkers to “move beyond” the trauma and “get on with their lives.” But moving on is difficult when reminders of the event that caused such chaos are still a key part of city life. Indeed, the attack did not simply happen and then end; it has become a fixture in the city’s physical and mental landscape. The debate over how to rebuild ground zero and construct a memorial is a daily story; New Yorkers are bombarded with images of the immense hole in the ground that once housed the towers.
Even those New Yorkers who say they are not affected by lingering fear admit they have moments when the anxiety of Sept. 11 comes rushing back. All it takes is the airing of traumatic TV footage, the appearance of a suspicious person in a subway car, the sight of an unclaimed package in the corner of a busy bus terminal, the sudden roar of a low-flying plane.
“New York was never Iowa City, but it is still not the city it was before 9/11,” said Cornell University labor expert Samuel Bacharach, who studied the emotional health of thousands of firefighters and transport workers in the aftermath of the attacks. “The whole idea of living on the edge has become more a part of New York culture. The idea that people are on the front line has become much more immediate to them.
“We don’t talk about it,” Bacharach added, “so in this sense we have moved on. We don’t want to wallow. New Yorkers have an almost pessimistic fatality about it.”
In Midtown, Catherine Carney said that she had been toughened by the experience of Sept. 11 and that she hadn’t been overcome with fear, even though the Jewish bookstore she manages could be a target. “My heart doesn’t ball up in a fist,” she said. But Carney notes that there is one ubiquitous reminder of Sept. 11 that she can’t face.
On the morning of the attacks, she was on a train from Brooklyn when she saw the first tower fall. Today, she can watch footage of smoke coming out of the doomed tower, but she can’t bear to watch when the building starts to collapse. She likens her reaction to her reluctance to visit the city’s Holocaust museum: “I don’t need to go,” Carney said. “I know it happened.”
For many New Yorkers, the big unanswered question is whether to stay, knowing that their city will continue to be a terrorist target.
Vicki Brower, a freelance science writer, believes that it takes a tremendous amount of inner strength -- and illusion -- to live in New York. She has had debates with her husband about the possibility of another terrorist attack in the city. She has wondered about her family’s safety each time police ratcheted up security on the subways in response to deadly bombings in London and Madrid.
“You have to live with a lot of denial to live in New York City every day,” Brower said. “I mean, you hear a lot of people say, ‘I was crazy for the first six months after 9/11 happened, but now I’m calm,’ and I think that’s a little surreal. I really do believe [another attack] will happen again, and when it does, the half of the city that’s left alive will wonder, ‘Why didn’t we get out when we could have done so?’ We’re all living on borrowed time in New York.”
So why does she stay? Why are the stories of those who left so rare?
“It would be an act of betrayal to leave New York,” said veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who was born in the city and has worked here for many years. “It’s the excitement and danger that keep people in the city. Where else can you live such a lifestyle? That outweighs everything. It outweighs the terrible burning smell that invaded our homes and neighborhoods after the towers fell. It makes us forget the eeriness after the attacks, when the city ground to a halt. You can’t explain this to people who don’t know, but New Yorkers don’t give up.”
Times staff writers Ellen Barry and Robert Lee Hotz in New York contributed to this report.
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Lower Manhattan: Before and after 9/11
A look at key economic and social barometers tracking life in Lower Manhattan before and after the 2001 terrorist attacks:
2004: 223,054 (1)
(at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark, in millions)
New York City visitors
Hotel occupancy rate
2006: 81.82% (2)
All figures are for Lower Manhattan except where noted.
*Index based on: Total commercial inventory, Gross Lower Manhattan Product, Standard & Poor’s 500, federal funds rate
(1) First-quarter figure
(2) July year-to-date figure
Sources: New York State Department of Labor, New York City Transit, Alliance for Downtown New York, Smith Travel Research, Cushman & Wakefield, NYC & Co., U.S. Census Bureau, Pace University.
Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald