The view from the frozen zone
For several days last week, in the wake of the attacks, downtown New Yorkers lived in what the authorities termed a "frozen zone." Troops in urban camouflage (lately a fashion world favorite) policed the traditional boundary of Fourteenth Street that divides Downtown from the rest of New York, and--many of its denizens like to believe--from the rest of the country.
Additional checkpoints on Houston, Canal, and Chambers Streets heightened the feel of an occupied, semi-militarized zone. Outsiders with no claim on residency were barred from entry. Even in the age of the three-thousand-dollar rental, downtowners had still imagined themselves in that "other country" which wry nineteenth-century cartographers had depicted as "le pays de boheme." Suddenly, this was the least urbane of urban quarters, and on our most civil of streets and avenues a freakish assortment of paramilitary vehicles (bearing unfamiliar acronyms) held sway.
Of course, our mute sector was not the real center of attention, it was serving as a buffer-a temporary urban sacrifice zone-for the precinct to the south, where the hapless thousands who worked in the nerve center of global capitalism had tragically fallen. Living in such close proximity to the citadel of finance has always provoked unease and ambivalence. In the 1960s, the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association (spearheaded by the Rockefellers) spawned a plan that incorporated Robert Mosess dream of a Cross-Manhattan Expressway on Broome Street.
Everything to the south was to be the preserve of the business community. Soho artists, among other community activists, fought the plan, and prevailed. Over time, the northern border of the business quadrant was fixed at Chambers Street, and now this was where the National Guard had established its final no-go line.
When I first took up residence in Tribeca, at the exit to the Holland Tunnel, I often joked that if something went catastrophically wrong in the neighborhood, I could always run to New Jersey. The joke soured a little after the 1993 bombing, and is now drained of its potential humor. Yet, the twin towers had always been a catastrophic site. After 1993, I researched the buildings history for a book chapter titled "Bombing the Big Apple" (in The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life), and learned of its own role in the devastation of a downtown neighborhood. The project plan had displaced over 30,000 small merchants and their employees, and the new buildings were viewed from the first as unsafe, even by the citys Fire Department. After the first of many fires, in 1970, an Assistant Attorney General commented on the city departments bleak assessment: "We chose not to further alarm our people....In the case of a real fire like The Towering Inferno, we knew there was no escape."
The WTC had been the last of the postwar urban renewal projects and it was the first of the new office complexes to embody the citys transformation from the nations largest manufacturing town into a center for financial services. The development of the towers razed a neighborhood that was especially rich in the kind of diversity that characterized business and trade before global finance took over. The WPA Guide to New York, published in 1939, describes the area as the Lower West Side, an appellation that has disappeared entirely: "Though this district has a few modern skyscrapers with impressive marble facades, the character of the neighborhood is derived from produce sheds, crates, smells of fruit and fish of Washington Market, and the amazing variety of retail shops selling radios, pets, garden seeds, fireworks, sporting goods, shoes, textiles, and church supplies." The Washington Market at the neighborhoods core overflowed with the produce of world trade: "caviar from Siberia, Gorgonzola cheese from Italy, hams from Flanders, sardines from Norway, English partridge, native quail, squabs, wild ducks, and pheasant." Its residential center was the Syrian Quarter, composed of "Turks, Armenians, Arabs, and Greeks." The guides authors note that "although the fez has given way to the snap-brim, and the narghile has been abandoned for cigarettes, the coffee houses and the tobacco and confectionery shops of the Levantines still remain." Shish kebabs, knafie, baclawa, and other Middle Eastern specialties were widely available in neighborhood restaurants, and stores sold "graceful earthen water jars," "tables inlaid with mother of pearl," and "Syrian silks of rainbow hues."
All of these commercial goods and practices, dating back to the storied Levantine trade of the Ancient World, were cleared away to make room for a physical structure that, for 30 years, was called the World Trade Center. Now, all that may be left is a lavish memorial to the accidental victims of an economic system that tried to impose new rules of global trade at its own peril. Yet long before September 11, the victims in other countries had numbered in the tens of millions, starved and crushed over the years by the impact of the financialization of the world economy.
By chance, I had recently done a word search for Osama bin Laden in the digital files of my research for that book chapter. The files, culled from the thousands of pages of media coverage of the 1993 bombings, bore no mention of his name. In 1994, at least, bin Laden was simply not on the radar screen as a potential enemy of the state. Indeed, he had only recently been a CIA asset, a vital U.S. ally in the last of the official Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan. Today, he, and others on the suspect list, are Americas chickens coming home to roost, to cite a dictum of Malcolm X that is currently making the rounds. Though every corporate TV channel and newspaper in the country will deny it, many Americans know we are reaping some of the vast carnage that Washington has sown in the decades since it began to oversee the petroleum concessions of the Gulf states.
The day after, since I have neighborhood ID, the authorities allow me to go downtown as far as Chambers Street. Past the checkpoint on Canal Street I find some bizarre sights, like the crushed cars piled on top of one another that have been dumped outside one of Tribecas fanciest restaurants. The local bourgeoisie is nowhere to be seen, and the folks on the streets are artsy, indie-types-the kind of folks who used to live here. In my building on Laight Street, its the older residents who have stayed, and the newer ones who decamped. I run into some people I havent seen in 10 years. The throaty white dust thickens as I approach Chambers Street, buzzing now with new kinds of traffic. All of the marks of authority--city, county, state, and federal--merge here, alongside fringe, paramilitary organizations like the Salvation Army and the Guardian Angels (New York Citys version of vigilantism, circa 1980). A machine gunner atop a jeep stands guard outside a shuttered bank.
Four blocks to the south, when the smoke and fumes momentarily clear, I can see the mangled wreck of the towers, and every so often, the sunlight catches what looks like a flame. I manage to get access to the bridge over the highway that links the Borough of Manhattan Community College to Stuyvesant High School. For as far as I can see north, the West Side Highway is crammed full of heavy trucks of all shapes and sizes, waiting to cart off the shrapnel. The yachts off the piers are bobbing merrily. The trees in Washington Market Park are snow-white with dust. Someone has traced out graffiti in the dust on the bridge: "Fuck Woodstock! Time to Fight!" A sentiment to which the decent New Yorker can only say: Oy!
I am guessing that the graffitist was not a visceral, flag-waving warmonger of the sort that is easily caricatured, or, sad to say, easily found in the present climate. Something in the phrasing of the message suggested that he or she had some knowledge or experience of the discarded option, and, at one time or another, may even have embraced the pacifist spirit that Woodstock embodied. Let us give the benefit of the doubt and assume this was indeed the handiwork of a peacenik who had decided, under the force of circumstance, to trade a ploughshare for a sword. If so, the implications are all the more doleful. Now, more than ever, we need to remember how and why the peace movement blossomed into mass acceptance 30 years ago. Two full generations have grown up since Woodstock and Vietnam in a world laboriously excavated and worked over in order to reconstruct, on behalf of our gilded youth, the myths of American innocence and noblesse oblige. How many times is it possible for American innocence to be shattered? In my estimation, this has been happening with some regularity-at least every two generations--since the Mexican War of the 1840s.
Perhaps, this time, things will be different. Perhaps these really are extraordinary circumstances, which will prompt truly inventive responses. Perhaps we will astonish the world with solutions that will not inter tens of thousands more civilians. As for the perpetrators, let the U.S. pursue them through the channels of international justice, at the Hague and elsewhere. Demystify the would-be martyrs by putting them on trial. Nothing reduces the all-powerful to banality more effectively than a court proceeding in full public view.
But dont hold your breath. No one in high office is capable of surprises, and, besides, Bush and his circle need a war to bolster their approval ratings. As always, we must now fall back on our own resources-education, public debate, and movement mobilization-to supplant the grisly drumbeats of war with the tempo and cadence of justice.
Andrew Ross is Professor and Director
of the Graduate Program in American Studies at NYU. His most recent book is The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disneys New Town.