The old story

Editorial Notebook

January 03, 2004|By Will Englund

A TRAFFIC JAM and a miscalculated turn put the Holland Tunnel out of reach, so the only sensible way to get out of New York was to head downtown to the Battery and the tunnel to Brooklyn. But were ghosts stirring? On a gray day along the chop-river edge of lower Manhattan, still peppered with names such as Gansevoort and Schermerhorn, old stories seemed to hover in the air, despite all the pavement and waterfront jumble. It was like one of those optical illusions - you stare at it hard enough, and suddenly you make the mental inversion, and plain as day you can imagine Manhattan as a lonely outpost, a foothold in the New World, a city as young as the lives being lived in it.

Here were sailing ships and barrels, molasses and beaver pelts; Indians, Africans and Europeans. Below Canal Street the highway skirted the farmstead of Anneke Jans, maybe the first quintessential New Yorker. She must have been a plucky one, a Norwegian living among Dutch more than 350 years ago, running a farm alone on the edge of the wilderness, a world away from her roots. Can you imagine what drew her here? Then the car came upon a vast empty place, on the left. This is where the World Trade Center stood.

It's easy, when visiting New York, to be busy elsewhere and avoid the site without choosing to avoid it. But here it was. It's astonishingly large. The size of all that emptiness in a packed and vertical city is a shock. The reality of the nothing there is inescapable. It jerks you back to the present.

Soon, of course, there'll be a new development and a memorial where the towers stood. Someday the city will work the site into its fabric again. And the countless other reminders and memorials scattered around New York will grow familiar and burnished with time.

In the subway station at Union Square, for instance, there is a wall plaque filled with names from that day - names from every corner of the globe. Union Square was where thousands gathered day after day in 2001, lighting candles, arguing, singing, bringing flowers. Today, streams of subway riders flow past the memorial; only those who are out of their daily routine pause to think about it. You watch the faces of seemingly every conceivable nationality pouring down the stairs toward the trains below and you think: Why in the world would al-Qaida attack these people?

Americans think of New York as being not really American - but this must be wrong. There is something very essentially American about New York, and worse - from al-Qaida's point of view - this is where the whole world is drawn, to become American. The ambition, drive and optimism that have sent these Asians and Africans and Europeans and Latin Americans plunging down a dingy subway staircase below 14th Street toward a better life is exactly what should distress al-Qaida so much - not the merely physical emblems of financial power. You board the uptown N train, the Broadway local, and you leave the old ways behind.

Way uptown, choose a diner at random. Grab a stool at the counter. Customers and employees are speaking Spanish - except when addressing one another. English is the language of commerce in the New World. There is also this: The older men behind the counter give orders to the younger cleanup employees in English, too, as if to impart the first early lessons in being an American. When the boss says, "Get me some spoons," you better learn what to do, and in a hurry.

This is what al-Qaida was attacking: Americanization by way of elbow grease.

It's not a new story. This one, too, hovers in the air. Pluck has been defining New Yorkers, and Americans, from the very start, from the days when farms were carved out of the woods of Manhattan.

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