The subway is a porno
And the pavements they are a mess
I know you’ve supported me for a long time
Somehow I’m not impressed
But New York Cares…
Those lyrics are from Interpol’s “NYC,” one of the iconic songs of the immediate post-9/11 era of music. It’s a song that captures the confused emotional tenor of the city in the traumatic aftermath to that dark day 8 years ago, a mix of the old New York harsh-edged urbanity and the “United We Stand” solidarity of a city reborn amidst ashes.
Perhaps moreso than other cities, New York has that peculiar combination of crowded connectedness and desolate urban isolation. On one hand the city cares and accepts all people and all dreams; on the other, it is an impenetrable, callous machine of industry and ambition. On 9/11 both faces merged as the city in all of its seething terror and magnificence forever changed. Before that day, NYC was the incomprehensible nexus of the world. But after that day, NYC was forced to consider the truth of its mythos: that it is still just a city, vulnerable and imperfect as anything else.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this of New York City, in his 1932 essay “My Lost City”:
From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood-everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits – from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.
Of all the things 9/11 has taught us, and of all that it has meant, perhaps one of the greatest lessons has something to do with this “crashing to the ground” realization. Empires fall. Power and prominence and pride are impermanence. The things we create and build and glory in… they all fail us. Even the grandest of structures and dreams will disappear with time.
But New York cares. Or we do. …Or we can.
There are September 11ths every day, in every corner of the globe, in every loss and failure and setback. What else are we to do—against this massive, ceaseless, impersonal machine called mortality—but look each other in the eye and say Shalom. Resolution is coming soon.