Brutal City
By A.D. Freudenheim

9 March 2003

A lot of the “news” about the architectural plans for rebuilding on the World Trade Center (WTC) site in lower Manhattan has not really been news at all. Much of the public discussion has focused on ways to make that piece of real estate less harsh and imposing, something that was as much a problem before the buildings came down – but a problem we were stuck with at that point. Now, the various planning agencies have been rightly looking for ways to restore some sense of scale to the site by adding better pedestrian access, restoring previously closed (or vanished) streets, and, of course, including a memorial of some kind.

Anyone who has followed the news coverage probably has a sense of what Daniel Libeskind’s design proposes – and also likely knows that what finally gets built may look very different, after all the planners, not to mention the site’s leaseholders, are finished with their tweaks. It will be a good test for Libeskind (and what strikes me as his “architecture of disfunctionality” when it comes to humans) to see whether or not the new WTC is an improvement over the old one, nostalgia aside. Already, Newsweek’s 10 March issue featured a graphic showing the areas where the architect’s design has been necessarily softened to meet the needs of actual people working in – not to mention looking at – actual buildings.

The discussion about the new WTC – the competing plans, the public fights about the designs, the chatter about the need for challenging “modern” architecture – got me thinking about life in the City in general. New York is an amazing place, but if you are inclined to feel that it is brutal and dominating, the state of the world today may not add much comfort to your life (and the designs for the WTC surely become the least of your concerns). In many ways, the City was brutal before 11 September 2001; for example, at the time of the Y2K scare, there was a certain segment of the New York population that worried they would find themselves in a post-apocalyptic ghost town with no electricity or other modern conveniences. The image was of a quiet shell, full of tall buildings inhabited by people who could no longer enjoy 99% of the conveniences they once took for granted. Across the country people stockpiled water and food, and talked about what they would do if the digital bits hit the fan, but the sense of fear among some New Yorkers was, I think, more palpable.

Now, New Yorkers have suffered through a seriously inconvenient winter of slush and snow, a series of up-and-down alerts about the likelihood of another terrorist attack, and all sorts of pumped-in and pumped-up fear about the damage a chemical or radioactive attack might inflict. This may come as little comfort to any reader, but I have generally accepted the notion that we New Yorkers will be toast, not to put too fine a point on it. Face it, folks. In the weeks following 11 September 2001, the whole notion of security here was topsy-turvy and, as I wrote way back then, we were living in a land of confusion. Have things seriously improved in the meantime? You tell me. And think about how, still, so many months after the fact, your feelings about life here are being manipulated by outside forces.

New York City has never been the place for people living in fear for their lives. I know, because I was one such person; as a child, I used to hate the City with a passion, because it scared me. There were a number of things that slowly changed my perspective, but certainly one big event was finding myself strapped to a stretcher in a Maryland hospital after my car was crunched to bits by an 18-wheel tractor trailer. I got lucky that time, but I also got a clue, and I took on a whole new understanding about the risks involved with plain old life. Visiting New York was never the same after that – and it was not too long after that accident that I moved here.

New York City is an amazing place. There is very little you can’t have delivered directly to your door, 24 hours a day, and while you may have to travel a bit to find something, the world’s cultures exist in microcosm here, as represented by their cuisines and their imported goods. There are always people around, and even people in your face, but the City also offers endless privacy (if not actual silence), and the ability to hide among the masses. I have even come to love the things that are most annoying about the City: the people on the sidewalks who can’t seem to understand the flow of other humans around them (or, the need for other humans to flow around them), the random occasions when an otherwise-glorious subway system comes to a screeching halt forcing a person to do nothing more than settle in with a book or magazine, or turn up the volume on a walkman and just drift away on music. For me, it is the City of love, of friendships come and also gone, of anger and depression as much as happiness and joy. It is a city of life.

Days like this one make it all worthwhile. Clear skies, bright sun, and a strong hint of spring brought people out of their homes and into the streets and parks. Riverside Park, which runs along the Upper West Side next to the Hudson River, still had patches of snow – visibly melting. Kids played basketball or softball, dogs ran happily, people jogged and biked and walked, and little kids, still bundled up for winter weather, availed themselves of things like puddles and piles of slush. I walked a 114-block round-trip stretch of this park today, and as the wind started to rise as the sun began to set, the birds chirped, the Hudson had small waves, and the sun reflected off the windows of the tall apartment buildings on Riverside Drive. There could not have been a better place on earth to be at that moment.

So life in New York is like life elsewhere; you have to take the good with the bad. The brutal and imposing elements of the City represent challenges one has to face, different in type but not in essence from living in a rural area that may impose its own kind of isolation, or in a small city where the social bonds that one must break through are generations old. This aspect of New York, an inevitable ability to go along to get along, is also why all of the hoo-ha about the WTC designs has been hard for me to get into, to care about emotionally. Whatever replaces those two tall, ugly, remarkable towers will ultimately be absorbed by New Yorkers as just another half-planned/half-random piece of New York – in much the same way, I think, that New Yorkers do not call 6th Avenue the “Avenue of the Americas,” even as the dual signs sit comfortably atop every pole along that long stretch of street, and even as many businesses located there use an “Avenue of the Americas” address on their letterhead and business cards. This is an ever-changing city that always stays the same, side to side and up and down. Thankfully.

Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.