Historians Weigh Attack's Impact On New York City
For weeks historians have been e-mailing one another the text of a poignant and
prescient essay, "Here Is New York" by E. B. White. In 1949, bringing home the
new nuclear reality of the postwar age, he wrote: "The city, for the first time
in its long history, is destructible," adding: "Of all targets, New York has a
certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the
lightning. New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm."
Historians who take New York City as their subject continue to be stunned by the
World Trade Center attack, daunted by the urgency of comprehension and, of
course, brimming with opinions about it. And today they get a chance to share
them publicly at the first Gotham History Festival, a free series of more than
100 panels, papers, films and exhibitions in the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York in the old B. Altrnan building at 34th Street and Fifth
Some scholars caution that instant history must inevitably be premature. "We do
not yet have the perspective to know what is going to happen," said Kenneth T.
Jackson, president of the New-York Historical Society and a co-chairman of the
festival. "We shall need some years to know whether this will be a moment of
rebirth for the city or the beginning of a relative decline."
Since the festival was planned before the Sept. II attack, several sessions were
hastily scheduled to relate it to New York's past. Today there is a retrospective
consideration of the city as the object of assaults and murderous fantasies;
tomorrow there is a study of New York's Arabs. (The complete schedule is
available online at www.gothamcenter.org.)
"We need to set these horrible events into a larger context," Mike Wallace, the
co-author of "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" and a co-chairman of
the festival, said, "and I think that all the sessions will have new resonance."
To historians like Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University,
the disaster's traumatic power derives from its status as the sum of all fears, a
composite of previous New York City tragedies.
Indeed, the events of Sept. 11 revisit the most appalling moments of 'the city's
retrospective nightmare: the destruction of buildings by fire (a third of the
city was destroyed in a 1776 blaze, and 674 buildings burned in 1835); an
airplane) striking a skyscraper (the Empire State Building was struck by a B-25
bomber on July 28, 1945, killing 14 people); large-scale civilian deaths (1,021
people, mostly women and children, were killed in a fire aboard the excursion
boat General Slocum on June 15, 1904); and the spectacle of victims jumping to
their deaths to avoid being consumed by flame (as occurred in the Triangle
Shirtwaist fire on .March 25, 1911, when 146 perished).
More than three weeks after the disaster, it is hard to comprehend the extent of
death, sajd Timothy J. Giltoyle, an associate professor of history at Loyola
University of Chicago. With thousands presumed dead, the death toll exceeds the
3,513 New Yorkers who died in the cholera epidemic of 1832, and is roughly
equivalent to that on the bloodiest day in American history, the Battle of
Antietam on Sept, 17, 1862, when 5,000 died, according to the historian Shelby
Historians have found that 19th-century Americans had a difficult time "grasping
the volume of death during the four Civil War years," Dr. Gilfoyle said. "It was
a burden that stayed with Americans for the rest of the century in ways that they
didn't always fully comprehend."
Many historians, he said, have written about a communal grieving over the demise
of the prewar culture of optimism and a rising sense of pessimism in a nation in
which three of the eight men elected president from 1864 to 1900 were
assassinated, said Dr. Gilfoyle.
Scholars cite a sense of existential confusion embodied in the words of Justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Civil War veteran. "The generation that carried on the
war has been set apart by its experience," he said late in the century, adding:
"I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe."
From the first, many historians viewed the terrorist attack as an assault on the
essence of the city. "Tolerance, density, openness to all people and openness to
all ambition and achievement," Dr. Jackson said, "These fanatics can't make their
peace with all that."
Ric Burns, the creator of the PBS series "New York: A Documentary History," which
ended this week, said that from its earliest Dutch days as an outpost of trade,
when Peter Stuyvesant was chastised by the Dutch West India Company for mak- ing
newcomers feel unwelcome. New York has attracted people interested in creating a
global network of commerce and culture.
"The expansion of diversity in New York has always paralleled the global reach of
the city," he added, "and New York was the city of nations even before the United
States became the artificial capital of the world with the United Nations."
But now "we have lurched forward horribly into a new phase of globalization," Mr.
Burns said. "We are happy to think of ourselves as global leaders when it
involves the Internet, but now globalization has an infinitely more conplex
context. There is no place that is remote from us, and no problem that is
"Our first response was to pull the series, Mr. Burns said, "but then I realized
its relevance had been enhanced in a way we could never have imagined." He
revised the final minutes, inserting clips of the construction workers'
topping-off ceremony when the center reached its full height. Mr. Burns is
planning an epilogue "on the meaning of all this," he said, expanding on the
notion that New York, as the capital of a global multicultural network, as
therefore the inevitable target."
Meanwhile, the New-York Historical Society is collecting artifacts from the
disaster for an exhibition next year. They range from soot-clogged breathing
masks to memorial candles and missing-person posters. "These materials will
disappear if we don't try to collect them now," said Jan S. Ramirez, director
of the society's museum.
The historical perspective is also a tonic to the frequent pronouncements
that New York has changed forever. As Dr. Wallace said, "The consensus is that
everything has changed since the tragedy, that 9/11 was a great cleft in time
and space, and I think that is wrong. This is a wicked blow but not an epochal
transformation or the first day of a new history. It is not capable by itself of
altering the course of a 400-year-old, eight-million-strong city."
Dr. Wallace contends that seemingly less spectacular events like the completion
of the Erie Canal in 1825, which made New York the fulcrum of trade to Europe and
the West; the concentration of powerful corporations in the years around 1900;
the arrival of the automobile in the 20th century; and the dislocations of the
Depression were all, he said, more seismic in impact "on the culture and politics
of the town."
He added: "This attack is a horrible blow, but not that kind of transformation,
unless it accelerates existing trends that could have tremendously greater impact
on the city, to wit, a major depression."
Mr. Burns pointed out that a quarter-century ago, as it approached insolvency,
New York initially got its "Ford to City: Drop Dead" message from President
Gerald Ford, "but now George W. says we must rebuild New York. The protection of
New York is now seen as a protection of values that are held globally."
No wonder, then, that E. B. White's essay has provoked such somber interest. "I
think we are all mourning a little bit for the past we thought we had," Dr.
Jackson said, "and we mourn for the future that we'll have to endure. Do we have
the power to recapture that tolerance and openess and diversity amid density?
Cant hat happy, carefree spirit be restored to New York?"