November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
WE’VE SEEN IT (ALMOST) ALL BEFORE
One standing rule at American Heritage is to be sure not to focus too much on New York City. It’s a good rule, for we New Yorkers have a tendency to think we are always at the center of the world, in case you haven’t noticed. We also love to insist that we have seen it all before.
Then came September 11, 2001. Those of us who live and work here had to admit that yes, for once we would have been happy to forgo all the attention and remain one more untroubled spot on the globe. Yet we have been hurt before, if never quite like this. We have seen fire and riot and war. We have even seen the terrible spectacle of people taking leaps they could not possibly survive from high buildings.
At the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, 146 garment workers died in 15 minutes. Most of them were teenage girls, jumping from ledges of the eighth- and ninth-floor windows. They leaped clinging to each other, some of them. There were so many funerals in Greenwich Village afterward that mourners sometimes got mixed up and walked in the wrong procession. But the building they jumped from is still there, on Greene Street—you can go and see it—and young women and men still come to work in the clothing trades, and the union those teenage girls did so much to build still fights for their rights.
There have been terrible fires before that devastated our financial district. One in 1835 took out 674 buildings and helped plunge the whole nation into a depression. The flames were put out by firemen wearing hats that looked much like the ones they wear now, with a high shield in front and a long canvas back. In those days, they wheeled primitive hand-pumpers through the streets, but they rushed just as boldly into burning buildings as did hundreds of firefighters on September 11.
On our previous worst single day, June 15, 1904, 1,021 German immigrants—most of them mothers and children, for it was a workday—died when the excursion boat General Slocum , which was ferrying them to a church picnic, caught fire in the East River. A huge chunk of the population of what was then Kleindeutschland, in today’s East Village, was wiped out in an afternoon. But the Germans regrouped and moved to what became Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, their former tenements filled up by new immigrants—by Jews and Slavs from Eastern Europe, by Italians and Bohemians.
We have had mad bombers before. One of them evaded capture for 16 years. George Metesky set off some 33 homemade devices between 1940 and 1956 but did not manage to kill anyone, maybe because he had a grudge only against the Consolidated Edison Company, not the world since 1400. The worst bombing came at the stroke of noon, September 16, 1920, when someone—maybe or maybe not a group of Brooklyn anarchists—set off a bomb in the back of a horse cart in the heart of the financial district; Nathan Ward tells the story on page 44. If you think that was the greatest affront to our heritage before now, well, there were the German saboteurs in World War I who blew up the Black Tom munitions dump over in New Jersey. They managed only to kill seven people and riddle the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel, but the statue is still out there, and the United States was not frightened out of joining the war when the Kaiser’s U-boats resumed their own brand of terrorism on the open seas.
There have also been the wounds we have inflicted upon ourselves here in New York. There was the shameful, tawdry blackout riot in the summer of 1977. There were the awful slave-uprising panics in 1712 and 1741, plots that led to dozens of African-American men being tortured and executed. There were the endless, drunken riots of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, born out of ignorance and poverty and ethnic hatred—the Flour Riot and the Orange Riot and the Dead Rabbits’ Riot and the Police Riot and the Doctors’ Riot. The doctors were the target, not the perpetrators; they were attacked for the alleged crime of digging up corpses from city cemeteries for dissection. The Police Riot really was just that, though: rival police forces, one created by the city and one by the state legislature, brawling on the steps of City Hall.
But none of those compared with the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which may have been the worst American riots ever. For four days, mobs protesting the Civil War draft pillaged and burned and committed appalling atrocities against any black person they could lay their hands on, including orphaned children. Phalanxes of police, vastly outnumbered and largely without guns, charged up and down the avenues against the mob, just as fearlessly and as heedless of their own danger as those officers who charged into One and Two World Trade Center right before the towers fell. The police held the city for the Union—and civilization—until federal troops could get here, held it mostly by the sheer force of their clubs.
And yes, we have also suffered terrible losses inflicted by a foreign enemy before, more than any other place in America. After the British took Manhattan in 1776, a third of the city burned (probably at the hands of overzealous patriots). The British occupied what was left of New York for the rest of the war, and out in the harbor and the East River they anchored 25 decaying old hulls that they used as prison ships. On board, American soldiers, including Ethan Alien, were chained down in the dark holds, deprived of almost any medical care or exercise, and fed, literally, on the garbage from the British navy messes. Before the war was over, 11,000 of them had died of disease and privation, nearly twice the number of Americans who died in combat. When the British finally left, in 1783, New York was a burned-out, impoverished shell, wracked with grief and suffering. It has done a little better since then, and that was how it came to be chosen for the horror that descended out of a clear blue sky.
For it seems now that we have been reduced to a new role, that of stage scenery. The men who committed these despicable, nihilistic acts saw the World Trade Center as a convenient symbol for their propaganda coup, a backdrop that would be instantly recognizable around the globe. In fact, what the skyscrapers at the end of Manhattan represented is an immensely complex and eclectic civilization. New York City is the most cosmopolitan place in the history of the world, which only makes it the most American part of America. This isn’t to claim any special privilege. We have all the faults of human beings everywhere, and then some. Yet over the years, in good part because of the very disasters that have beset us, we have been forced to learn a little tolerance, a little respect for one another. We have learned to be a little less sure of what we believe, to see some of the ambiguities inherent in life—which may be one big reason we are still here and why people still flock from the ends of the earth to join us.
The men who did this deed live only in the arid, mental desert of dogma and destruction. Their whole concept of the twin towers was an infantile one, crashing toy airplanes into building-block skyscrapers. We will clean up their mess and build over it again, with the help of our countrymen—and all those who would be our countrymen, in thought or in deed. For it is we who have learned how to build and to abide.