It Never Ends

On a recent post here regarding the fifth anniversary of September 11, Wesley commented movingly on how he processes his grief and tries to make sense of the disaster in his life.  Obviously, this is a highly varied and personal process for Americans, and for many, it is a journey that is nowhere near close to over, one that will never really end.** 

And now, no matter the emotional or geopolitical “progress” we’ve made so far, the discovery of human remains at Ground Zero is another painful reminder of all we lost on that day, as New Yorkers, Americans, and cosmopolitan citizens of the world (the latter category being the latest concept we’re debating in my comparative urban politics class).   It’s unbelievable that as we watch the powers that be jockey for control of rebuilding the still empty site, listen to Nagin compete for national attention with Ground Zero to rebuild his own city, and argue the merits of how (not to mention whether) to rebuild these sites, we’ve almost missed that more than 40% of World Trade Center victims have never been identified.  Meanwhile, bodies in New Orleans continued to wash up through the summer.  More than 4,000 victims lost between the two disasters, and likely only half of those identified, claimed and laid to rest in some way by their loved ones. 

This, more than any other snapshot of our post-9/11 and post-Katrina world(s), symbolizes how these disasters permanently rupture our lives.  When people wonder about the progress made in either New York or the Gulf, what I hope they’re asking is how we’re doing building a new emotional, social and physical landscape that captures some of our surviving past, and incorporates that history into a different life and place for the future.  Progress is not rebuilding what was lost; that’s virtually impossible (though Varsovians made the best attempt at this in rebuilding Warsaw after WWII).  Progress is appropriately memorializing that loss in a new world. 

And this is a life-long project, for individuals personally, and for those of us who work to breathe new life into cities irrevocably damaged by disasters.

I learned this lesson of perpetuity in two ways, personally and professionally.  When I broke my back in 2000, cliff-jumping at Rick’s Cafe in Jamaica, I narrowly missed paralysis from my thoughtless antics as just another tourist on Spring Break.  A random, unplanned act that forever altered my life and my outlook.  I can feel myself tightening up inside just thinking about it.  Then almost 18 months later to the day, the world underwent a similar brutal lesson, when those planes struck the Towers (then the Pentagon, and finally crashing in that Pennsylvanian field).  By coincidence, I began a new job on September 17, 2001, and spent the first two months or so working directly on designing a 9/11 response program.  Eventually I was transferred into our Community Economic Development group and spent the next ten months working in Memphis, Miami, and Houston, but not Lower Manhattan. 

In August 2002, I was re-assigned to our Lower Manhattan initiative, a program I helped launch back in October 2001.  It would formally conclude in May 2004, but essentially just morphed into a new scope of services under a different name downtown.  When I came back to the Lower Manhattan group in 2002, it was as if I’d never left.  Sure, I’d miss 10 months of operational development and initial recovery activity downtown, but the vast impact of the disaster downtown, city-wide, nationally and internationally, left more than enough room for me to jump right in and carve out a role in our work and our place in the community downtown.  I worked downtown through January 2004 before leaving New York.  I continue to follow the progress of rebuilding, for formal research purposes and for personal interest.  This work, as I evidence in references to friends like Jake as those with whom I was in the Lower Manhattan “trenches,” will forever be with me.  Just like the titanium rods in my spine, and my new fear of heights. 

This is how I comfort myself when I get restless and frustrated that I have not been to New Orleans in almost two months (since the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina).  Everyday I think about when I’ll be back, in what capacity, and for how long.  I had been planning to move there next year, and that option remains in play.  But in what role is increasingly a mystery, as my work affiliated with MIT wraps up and I make no efforts to extend most of it.  I feel confident that the work is so immense and the need is so great, that there exists some piece to which I can contribute.  But I have more flexibility than when I worked downtown, and thus my options are also much more tenuous.  But what’s reassuring to me (and simultaneously so upsetting) is how the work to be done in New Orleans is a permanent part of its future. 

So while I shudder, like the rest of you, at the thought of bones being pulled from New York City manholes, five years later, I also secretly hope that this gruesome evidence reminds us all of the need for our long-term commitment to rehabilitating these cities we love, share, or at least, own collectively as a nation.  When you query about “progress” in New York or New Orleans, remember that survivors and practitioners in both cities are struggling with visions of their futures as much as they’re putting up buildings or restoring homes.   At a minimum, your on-going debate on the hows and means to recover these two sites is your contribution to this work. 


**(It is this sense of a life-altering new world set in motion for most of us that clashes most strongly with the government’s rhetoric of a “war on terrorism.”  Rather than having any end in sight, or defined battle ground, like the Civil War, Korean War, WWII, etc. this one must define a new epoch, like the Cold War, the war on drugs, poverty, etc.  Doesn’t sound promising, people, since I think we’re still “fighting” all those pathologies too.  Ok, maybe we got the Commies, though not from what I can tell based on the New Orleans activists I routinely bump up against.)


1 Response to “It Never Ends”

  1. October 24, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    Well, I am relieved that I won’t have to have That Long Talk with you about worrying about you spending so much time in New Orleans. 🙂

    I need to marinate a bit on this – I think what you have here is terrific; not sure I really have anything to add…yet.

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