ESSAY; A Line Drawn in the Sands of Time

By BEVERLY SWERLING
Published: September 8, 2002

FOR the first time in memory no one could come. The dream was interrupted.

On Sept. 11, at 9:17 a.m., 14 minutes after the second plane hit, the Federal Aviation Administration shut all airports in the New York area as well as the rest of the country. Four minutes later, the Port Authority ordered every bridge and tunnel closed. We were isolated. For some 24 hours the activity that defines New York stopped.

No one arrived bearing that special unseen baggage, that carry-on, which in these cynical times in this often most cynical of cities is a tenderness regularly on display. The dream-bearers couldn't get in. First time ever. Probably since the original American Indian crossed the land bridge looking for who knows what: food, shelter, safety. Something better than what was. A dream.

Some events draw a line through history, create a solder mark that leaves a permanent scar. Whole generations of people speak of things as occurring before or after the war, and don't have to add anything to indicate that they mean World War II. In New York we speak of buildings as postwar or prewar with no need to add the dates. And prewar is more desirable, a mark of quality.

Sept. 11, 9/11, has rapidly become just like that. If you were here on that day, if you placed your bet on the city before the attacks, you belong in a special way. You secured your place in a long line that stretches back hundreds of years.

The record is unclear about which Indian tribe bargained with Peter Minuit in 1626, the year Manhattan was supposedly bought. Most likely it was the Canarsee, and that they did not think they were selling the place called in their Algonquian language, Manahatta, the High Hills Island. They were merely giving the Europeans leave to peacefully use the land in return for 60 guilders — $24 — worth of ”duffel cloth, kettles, axes, hoes, wampum, drilling awls, jew's-harps and diverse other wares.” (Or something close. No bill of sale exists, but we know Minuit paid just that for what he referred to as the Staten Eylant.)

The Canarsee themselves were only summer residents. In winter, they lived on Metoaca, the Long Island. In summer they paddled over to Manahatta to do business. Their campsite on the southern tip of the island stood about where Wall Street is now. And since the Canarsee were reputedly the makers of the finest wampum in Ur-America, members of other eastern tribes arrived to trade. The Canarsee moved the store after Minuit cut his deal, and doubtless the 270 Walloons who were the first settlers of New Amsterdam felt more secure.

The agreement also meant that the canny men of the Dutch West India Company — who, different from the founders of cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, were interested in earning power rather than theology — were free to invite the rest of the world. So many came from so many places that a 17th-century commentator described standing on the corner of Wall Street and the Broad Way at noon and hearing at least 18 different languages.

A long line indeed. But what of those who came after the divide, who stand on the other side of the wound? A friend who moved from Long Island to a new building on Chambers Street two years before the attack speaks of neighbors who fled in those first hours and decided not to return. My friend has new neighbors now, but she does not think they understand her grieving for what existed before the chasm opened.

In the blackness after Sept. 11, there were many small miracles. Surely among the wonders were those who decided to come to this city anyway, to arrive schlepping that special piece of bound-for-New York luggage. On Sept. 12, the bridges and tunnels were slowly reopened; two days later, a few planes took off and landed. And, undoubtedly, well before the tourists began to trickle back in a tentative stream, some gutsy someone packed up a dream and brought it here.

I know one 23-year-old who came from New Mexico six weeks after the attacks, because, she says, that had always been her plan. Come to New York and take pictures and write. She admits she called a friend who lives here and asked if he thought it was safe. ”What's safe?” he asked.

That made perfect sense to her, so she got on a plane and came. Now she lives in Brooklyn across the street from a firehouse, and she has become friendly with the firefighters whose silent witness seems to her an explanation and a bridge to all that happened before she arrived.

A MAN of 30 tells me he's from a small town in Iowa and has been waiting to come to New York since he was 11 and realized that he was gay. Easier to come out here, he thought. His mother, a widow, had progressive multiple sclerosis, so he waited until she died and didn't need him. A computer programmer, he got a job with a dot-com connected to a fashion house. His plane ticket would have brought him here on the afternoon of 9/11. He came a week later, and still regrets that he was not here before it happened.

He, too, sees the attack as a dividing line, something that separates real New Yorkers from the rest. I tell him to rejoice. He was among those who brought healing.

History matters, even in a city like this one where almost nothing from the past is allowed to remain standing. Because our European period began with the Netherlanders, whose practice it was to live above the store, we do not zone ourselves into the divisions between residential and commercial use as neatly as other American cities.

In New York, even brand-new luxury apartment buildings put a supermarket on the ground floor. Because the city's purpose has always been the generation of wealth, and laborers are a form of capital, in 1809 we laid down a grid. The early city planners recognized that you can get more people into a smaller space that way. Ever since, at least on the High Hills Island, we have lived with the intersection of population and transportation the grid requires at every corner. Like it or not, it is that constant friction that generates our energy.

It has always been the lyricists who remind those of us who live here that we are inside the dream, populating the mirage.

”Another hundred people just got off of the train, Stephen Sondheim wrote in ”Company,” and we nod and indulge a secret smile, because we're the ones who stayed, came in our 20's or 30's and proved we can make it here, so we can make it anywhere: thank you, Messrs. Kander and Ebb. And the Bronx is up and the Battery's down, and New York, New York, is a wonderful town, as we know because Ms. Comden and Mr. Green told us. Born here or more likely brought here, we sucked in self-belief along with oxygen; that's the New York way. But it remained for this generation's balladeer, Bruce Springsteen, to sing of the boarded-up windows and empty streets in our city of ruins.

Not permanently, however. Among those first Americans, the wampum-makers, it was the custom after a battle to select a few defeated enemies as captives and bring them home to be adopted, replacements for fallen warriors. Such tactics can never heal individual wounds, but they do much for collective loss. Rise up, rise up, Springsteen admonishes the ruined city. Few of us doubt that the rising will happen.

How can it not? Another hundred people, another hundred dreamers, got off the train and the plane and the bus maybe yesterday.

Beverly Swerling is the author of ”City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan.”

top

Subscribe To Beverly's Newsletter

Subscribe To Beverly's Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates fromĀ  Beverly.

You have Successfully Subscribed!