Today, for the first time in over a year, normal weekday service on the New York City subway has resumed. The 1 and 9 trains again travel the routes they had for decades, and a strange yearlong interlude in which I could travel — slowly, albeit — from Downtown Brooklyn to Columbia University without a transfer has ended. At least part of the city is the way it should be again.
New York has proved false many of the negative predictions people made about it soon after Sept. 11, 2001: it avoided a mass exodus; it cleared ground zero in less than nine months; and it reopened all but one affected subway station in just over a year. Even as New York faces its chronic educational system problems and a gaping budget gap, all these achievements do the city proud and help it recover.
In fact, an August New York Times/CBS News poll reported that 70 percent of New Yorkers said “their routines had returned to normal.” But the same poll said that half of New Yorkers felt their lives had changed.
And so they have. No matter the talk about the towers being symbols of capitalism, globalization or America, they were, from their beginning to their end, symbols of New York. They found — still find — their way throughout the city into the logos of stores, the scoreboard at Shea Stadium, and even the designs of the packaging of pocket tissues. Even if, like me, one spent next to no time in the World Trade Center, the towers’ presence was unavoidable.
Those attacks struck the foremost icon of the city, and so it is easy to interpret them as a blow aimed directly at New York. When the rest of the world thought of New York, what image came to mind? Likely the skyline, with the World Trade Center towers soaring above it, huge, shimmering and silent; twin blocky captains of the city, looking over it benevolently.
But now they’re gone, destroyed in the most shocking, amazing, violent and powerful thing I’ve ever seen, even though I was here, in New Haven, asleep for most of the attacks. In February, watching a video of the attacks at the New-York Historical Society, the viewers’ reactions were still as rough and raw as I could imagine. Seeing the second plane hit the south tower, an image we’ve all seen hundreds of times, still provoked loud gasps from everyone watching. And seeing the tower collapse still made at least one person cry. Even now, and possibly forever, the blinds remain drawn on the window in my father’s office from which he saw the second plane hit. My grandfather, who was a medical officer in the U.S. Army that occupied Japan after World War II, said in October that the only thing comparable to ground zero he had ever seen was Hiroshima in 1945.
Now, though, the site has been cleaned up, and at least some memories and fears have been dulled. But it’s still strange to look at Manhattan, and it makes me wonder what will replace the twin towers as symbols of New York. They were hugely ambitious — hubristic, even — in other words, perfect symbols for a city that lives up to the cliches that purport to describe it. It took 30 years and its destruction, but now we can recognize the World Trade Center not as a monstrosity, but as New York.
Planners and politicians tout an impressive transit hub as a massive modernization “worthy of the 21st century.” While this is certainly true, it does not have the same power in the imagination as a skyscraper, even though a “normal” subway is profoundly comforting and useful. For me, at least, the truly meaningful building will occur high above the surface, no matter how important the work underground is. And I only hope that whatever replaces the towers can exceed them.
Seth Johnson is a senior in Morse College and copy editor of the Yale Daily News. He is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.