In the weeks following 9/11, the New York Post was attacked by anthrax mailings. Three employees were infected. The evil assault on media companies and congressional offices across the country killed five people and harmed 17 others.
It was only because a bacteria-filled envelope remained providentially unopened that none of my Post friends were killed (although three suffered skin damage). Coming to work was a terrifying ordeal. No one knew if it was safe. Health and law-enforcement officials came to the office every day — and told us different things every day.
But come to work we did. We were, after all, New Yorkers — the same valiant tribe that’s endured a biblical-scale run of calamities in the past two decades, enough to finish off any other town for good.
New Yorkers today, too, are reporting for work. Not only selfless, front-line health workers and others deemed “essential,” but those sidelined without income. They’re doing their jobs by staying home to curb the virus’ spread and suffering unaccustomed loneliness sharpened by fear of where the bug will strike next.
In-your-face New Yorkers resigned to crappy pizza at home without friends night after night? Clustering with out-of-school kids and cranky spouses in tiny apartments not meant for 24/7 occupation?
“Why would you ever believe New Yorkers would ever comply with that?” Gov. Cuomo marveled at a briefing last week.
Everyone’s grumpy and scared. But we’re doing it to an astounding extent — and infections, hospitalizations and deaths are significantly down.
Empty streets and 6-foot-apart lineups outside supermarkets and bodegas may spell doom and gloom to pessimists. “Our world is gone,” they say. But I see something else. So much visible, widespread discipline and calm promise that we’re up to the COVID-19 challenge, even though the challenge is unlike any we’ve faced before.
Some shops and restaurants boarded up windows out of fear of riots or looting. Shame on Louis Vuitton and even my local snack shops for expecting jungle law to take hold. Idiots, it ain’t gonna happen.
We regard ourselves as The Chosen City. Our sense of exceptionalism is built on the idea that we’re blessed with more talent, grit and guts than anywhere else. In your eye, al-Qaeda! Blow yourself silly, hurricanes!
Today’s horrific, inconceivable body count makes it too easy to minimize these earlier disasters. But each seemed an affront to the very qualities that make New York different — our diversity, our economic and cultural primacy, our openness to the outside world.
Yet each left us economically and spiritually a stronger place.
The 9/11 attack not only killed nearly 3,000 of us — it left much of lower Manhattan, the heart of the world’s economic system, uninhabitable for months. It shattered subways and broadcast communication and scared many people and companies out of town who never returned. Contamination continues to kill first responders to the present day.
The city was widely pronounced dead. Remember?
But our selfless response so impressed the world that people from everywhere flocked here in greater numbers than before, and today’s Downtown is better than the one before.
The 2008 Wall Street crash put hundreds of thousands of well-paid New Yorkers out of work, doomed Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, ruptured the banking system on which the city and nation depend, and brought on the Great Recession.
Never again would Wall Street dominate the globe — remember? Yet the rebound came swiftly, along with new regulations that made for a much stronger banking system, which has been our backbone during the coronavirus crisis even as small businesses remain devastated.
Hurricane Sandy in 2008 landed a $20 billion blow to Gotham’s economy. Crucial office buildings were sidelined and apartment dwellers forced to move. Some 20,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and parts of outlying areas have yet to be fully repaired. No wonder it was widely claimed that nobody would ever again live or set up shop along the city’s 520 miles of waterfront.
But, in the end, it was a wake-up call to our vulnerability. Older buildings were reinforced and their vital systems elevated above the flood plain. New buildings were designed with environmental damage in mind. And, remarkably, people and companies can’t get enough of new waterside projects from Long Island City to Williamsburg to the far West Side, all connected by swift and popular ferries.
Yes, COVID-19 is much worse. No one can say where we’ll be a month or a year from now.
But New Yorkers have shown they’re ready to stand at battle stations for as long as it takes — even if it’s over cold pizza and takeout noodles on a messy kitchen table in a small, one-bedroom apartment.
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