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    « BACK to Amy Zimmer's portfolio

    Posted 05.12.03
    On the Streets of New York

    A New York minute is no ordinary 60 seconds. Despite all of the insanity and uncertainty of the moment, the city teems with activity-the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, the New York City Marathon, the classic Yankee comebacks in World Series Games 3, 4 and 5 against the Diamondbacks in the Bronx. Public space breathes yet.

    Still the city feels different. The destruction of part of the city's landscape has lead to the slight unraveling of the streets celebrated by Jane Jacobs in her famous 1961 study The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In Jacobs' description of the spontaneity and primacy of the streets, people move through public space achieving a balance between anonymity and the desire for contact. These interactions of the unscripted plots and surprise twists build and bind the city.

    I remember watching Philip Glass perform in the World Trade Center plaza during the summer of 1999. As I craned my neck upward and upward I lost myself in the building's facade as it echoed and enveloped the minimalist music. Sitting with Financial District workers dressed in their starched button-down shirts on their lunch break and tourists armed with camcorders on their way to or from the observation deck, I listened to the rhythmic sounds of the black-clad, tousled-haired musician drinking in the scene. These modern buildings provided the perfect backdrop for the music.

    The Twin Towers symbolized the city's might and ability to prevail. Despite the ongoing fiscal crisis that plagued the city when it was completed in 1973, the World Trade Center trumpeted New York's technical and financial bravado. While New Yorkers initially lamented the intrusion of Minoru Yamasaki's boxes of repetitive rows of steel and glass altering the skyline, the mammoth complex eventually became an icon of power. The buildings anchored the city's southern tip, balancing out the skyline, re-orienting subway riders when they emerged to the streets.

    "The Twin Towers were where our eyes were focusing on. They were the Big Apple for us," says Elizabeth Burgos, a senior at Seward Park High School. Burgos had a view of the buildings from her apartment near the FDR Drive, and now that they are gone, she feels like her whole world is topsy-turvy. Burgos had been struggling with other losses in her life -- New York City is not exactly the calmest place -- but the September 11th attacks and continuing threat of terrorism has only heightened the challenges. "First Aliyah [the singer] died, then my friend got shot, then this. Since all this whatever happened, I don't wanna go anywhere," Burgos says. She has stopped taking the subway or venturing far from her Lower East Side neighborhood. "Brooklyn's whack. Queens is whack. The Bronx is whack. I know everybody here, and I feel safe right here."

    Joel Velasquez, another senior at Seward, has also been staying close to home and has stopped taking the subways. He did not even go out on Halloween. "My grandmother's friend's daughter goes out with an Arab guy who left her a letter saying something was gonna happen on the 31st," Velasquez tells me. Almost everyone in New York has heard some story regarding future attacks-especially on Halloween. Joel does not want to take any chances. He tells me his school is evacuated weekly due to bomb threats and sometimes he goes home when classes resume because he's so scared.

    In the current climate, the line between prudence and paranoia is a thin one. Ava Hamilton, who has a shop called World Kitsch in the Essex Street Market, thinks the media are exaggerating possible future terrorist events. Or does she? "I'm glad I don't work in midtown or have to go to Grand Central. I'd be uncomfortable going there. They can easily wipe out those skyscrapers, and it would be all over since that's what Manhattan's all about."

    Hamilton used to work as an architect for the Port Authority, so she was familiar with the World Trade Center's structure. "Everybody knew the buildings were a hazard. We knew back in '93. After you walk down 44 flights, you get dizzy. And what about an older person on the 104th floor or a handicapped person? The city is lax with codes."

    Actually, the World Trade Center was a New York state-agency sponsored project that did not have to comply with city codes or have the plans reviewed by the Department of Buildings. According to Harvey Feinstein, a plan examiner with the New York City Department of Buildings, the unified building code the state uses is far less strict than the city codes. This is not to say that things would have turned out differently even if the buildings were required to meet more stringent city codes.

    But these loopholes in the system worry Hamilton. "When I was in Paris and saw how they dealt with terrorist threats with their low-lying buildings and open air courtyards, I remember thinking that New York would never be able to handle anything like that. All of the high-rises and it's so easy to move in and out of buildings here. Forget it."

    Hamilton has continued her daily routine as usual, which is easy for someone who lives and works in a five-block radius. Frayed nerves are keeping people close to home and New York's economy is suffering. The financial problems and transportation issues (local and global) have had a domino effect on city life in general. The decline of tourism, for example, has been disastrous for the city and its public spaces. Even during the World Series at Yankee Stadium some seats remained available. Despite claims of an advance sell-out, when I called Ticket Master the night before the home opener they still had tickets.

    Most cultural institutions around town have seen sharp drops in attendance. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's attendance is down 25 to 30 percent since September 11th, though Harold Holzer, Vice-President for Communications and Marketing, says that visitors are coming back gradually. The museum is participating in a host of marketing initiatives to encourage visitors, New Yorkers and tourists alike, to come to the Met for solace and renewal.

    New York City and Company, the convention and visitors bureau has also embarked on a massive marketing campaign to promote the neighborhoods below 14th Street and boost the tourist industry. Starting November 5 and running through February 28, the bureau is sponsoring "Paint the Town Red, White, and Blue," which offers special discounts at hotels and cultural institutions. (The bureau holds the "Paint the Town Red" celebration every winter offering tourists deals, but this year they are offering the initiative two months early.)

    These efforts are sorely needed to stimulate tourism. John Wang, President of the Asian American Business Development Center has grim reports on how Chinatown has suffered tremendously and has yet to recover. When the area below Houston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, the garment industry couldn't get deliveries or ship good out and now over 1000 workers have lost and are continuing to lose significant wages. The same problems plague the food industry. Restaurant business is down 60 to 80 percent. Even the street venders have relocated to Flushing, Queens to hock their wares. The closure of the Grand Street subway station, the main artery to Chinatown, a few months ago, has only compounded the terrible situation. Wang is working on marketing campaigns to attract visitors. He is starting a tourism development program and is putting together a special dinner event for Latino and Black community organizations to generate more business from nearby neighborhoods.

    Tristan Warner, a DJ who spins at downtown hotspots Swim, Spa and the Lotus Club, has seen the nightlife business slow down, but he feels New Yorkers will get past these tough times. "People are being self-indulgent," Warner says. "But it's no longer the event that is important, it's our own feelings of victimhood." Warner thinks we should all just get over it. He needs to promote this philosophy to resurrect the party circuit.

    New York has never been a city for the faint of heart. It's a city for dreamers-"If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere"-and for people who relish in the superlatives New York offers-the fashion capital, the finance capital, the artistic capital. New Yorkers-the mix of people from around the country, around the world, as well as those who've never ventured west of the Hudson-enjoy being in-the-know, being able to navigate through this layered city.

    Janice Graham, a speech pathologist who lives in Manhattan and works in Brooklyn, enters the 14th Street F-Train stop at the Metrocard only entrance on 16th Street every morning. Last Monday she was the only person on the platform. "Suddenly a policeman yells at me saying the station's closed. He couldn't tell me what was going on, but when I asked if it was a bomb scare, he nodded." Graham exited the stop, but she still had to go to work, so she walked to the nearby West 4th Street station. "At some point you just have to take a fatalistic attitude. If something is going to happen, it will happen." Countless New Yorkers have stories of recent station closures and train delays due to scares, but many continue taking the trains. Graham jokes, "I never felt unsafe in the subway because it's not for the prominent rich people. I don't think the peasants who ride the subways are as much of a target." For the most part, Graham says she remains hopeful. "I don't think this will faze New Yorkers. We're not wimps."

    Overall, public transportation is still going strong, despite the fears. Deidre Parker, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at New York City Transit reports that bus ridership is at 100 percent of what it was pre-September 11th and subway ridership is at 98 percent. Not too bad.

    Janice Graham's husband works in construction and is on a project at World Trade Center Building 8. "He tells me that it will take two years to fix the superficial structural damage there. That's just his estimation. Then they can start rebuilding, but I don't think they should rebuild the towers."

    Architects, urban planners and politicians are fast at work discussing future plans for the site -- how to or whether to recreate the public space where I last listened to Philip Glass. Whatever they build will mold our common world and undoubtedly multiple viewpoints will come to the fore. But as the debate unfolds, I hope we as New Yorkers can participate and embrace the force of architecture in its ability to shape our experiences.

    The city needs to address how buildings play a significant part in the collective conscience of the city. We inhabit the city as much as the city inhabits us. In the public spaces of New York, we come together and weave the city's fabric.

    November, 2001