The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a debate in New York about whether the city can recover the vitality that it had before the virus. Optimists point to how Gotham bounced back stronger than ever after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001—19 years ago today—though the devastating attacks sparked predictions that it might be decades before New York could rebound. It’s provocative to compare these two existential crises, nearly 20 years apart.
I’m on the side of the optimists, but I’m not sure that 9/11 is a useful template for what’s happening today. Some crises unite us, and 9/11 was one of those. Some cataclysms divide us, exacerbating our differences and amplifying the challenges we face. For a host of reasons—differences in leadership chief among them—the pandemic is one of those.
The 9/11 attacks were a giant shock to the city. September 11 itself was a paralyzing day, with commercial flights ordered out of the sky nationwide and the U.S. armed forces put on high alert worldwide. Much of New York City, including its transit systems and its tunnels and bridges, was shut down. Many of us were stunned to watch live on TV as the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers collapsed and a giant plume of smoke rose over Manhattan Island. Emergency vehicles sped downtown, first from around the city, then later from outlying communities, and eventually from around the country. Some 1.6 million daily commuters began the task of finding their way home, with no transit and roads blocked. Many walked, creating long lines snaking north, west, or east over bridges. Ferries stopped collecting fares and began piling commuters into their boats for rides off the island—though for many, once they reached other shores, there remained the task of finding a way home. In the back of our minds was the question of the human toll; as then-mayor Rudy Giuliani put it, that toll would turn out to be “more than any of us can bear.”
Giuliani would emerge from the crisis with the sobriquet “America’s Mayor” for his decisive and inspiring leadership in the hours and weeks after the attacks. Operating out of temporary headquarters on 9/11 because City Hall was inaccessible, Giuliani organized search-and-recovery operations in meetings that day that Democratic congressman Jerry Nadler praised as a marvel of “efficiency” amid the chaos. Even before any substantial federal aid arrived, Giuliani began the massive task of clearing the site and planning the city’s comeback, while also becoming a leading international voice against terror. Weeks after the attacks, he told the United Nations assembly, “You’re either with civilization or with terrorists.” Newsweek dubbed him “America’s Winston Churchill.”
Still, life in New York was unsettling for months because of the stunning realization that the city was so vulnerable a target. Our army bases and naval stations could defend themselves, but Gotham was what the military called a “soft target,” and it was clear that the terrorists could strike anywhere. In the months following 9/11, it was impossible to walk down a Manhattan street and see a U-Haul truck or a rented van and not wonder if it was packed with explosives. Weeks after the attacks, for instance, letters laced with anthrax began arriving in New York, Washington, and Florida, killing five people and sickening another 17.
Still, the city began doing what it had to do: finding and identifying the dead, then undertaking the massive task of clearing the debris downtown. Rescue workers and then volunteers, many of them construction workers, poured in from around the country. The city began contracting with private firms to clear the site. Soon truckloads of what were once the Twin Towers began making their way out of Manhattan, to the Fresh Kills dump in Staten Island, where the materials were sifted for evidence. What seemed like a Sisyphean task at first began to show progress—one of the first signs that New York could possibly move forward.
What helped enormously was a sense of national unity—something that would seem almost unthinkable now. A bipartisan prayer service in Washington led by President George W. Bush featured four ex-presidents—two from each party.
Ominous talk persisted, though, that New York couldn’t fully recover from a blow of this nature. One sign of that: the New York Stock Exchange had managed after several days to get back up and running because it had sited computers outside the city. Big financial firms had done the same. Less than a week after the disaster, some of the city’s biggest corporate names—American Express, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley—were negotiating for office space outside of New York. A city that welcomed 50 million tourists a year to nourish its economy was largely empty of visitors. How many would return?
The city’s political infrastructure faced its own challenges. The planes had struck the towers on the day of municipal election primaries, which had been cancelled. Though there was some talk of delaying the election, the scarred city held the primaries on September 25, and the general election, in which Michael Bloomberg won to succeed a term-limited Giuliani, took place on schedule, on November 6.
The city of 2001 was perhaps better prepared to face the post-9/11 storm than New York had been for decades. The city’s neighborhoods were stronger than they had been in half a century—maybe stronger than they’d ever been. The economic recovery of the nineties had spread out from Manhattan to the other four boroughs, creating numerous boomlets and hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Meantime, New York’s key institutions, especially its police and fire, were among the world’s best. One result was that the social order that had been reestablished in the city during the 1990s held fast, creating a sense of calm when it was needed most.
Once the city stabilized, business leaders and politicians began planning a revival. Some of it seemed quixotic. I remember sitting in a room weeks after the attacks with Larry Silverstein, the developer who had leased the World Trade Center, as he outlined his plans to rebuild on the site. The price tag was enormous, the risks incalculable, the obstacles formidable. His hope that others would build around him, creating a newer, even more vibrant Lower Manhattan, was just that—little more than a hope.
Little went according to plan. The vision of downtown changed many times. Every constituency had a say, and there were huge policy disagreements. The site itself, where more than 3,000 had died, would spend years taking shape. But in the background, New York got back to business. A place that had earned a reputation as one of the world’s safest cities remained just that, and tourists returned. Businesses made themselves more resilient by backing up their New York operations with remote locations, but few moved out. One of the projects that city planners hoped would help revive the city—unlocking the development potential of the Far West Side of Manhattan—took shape.
That was nearly 20 years ago. On the surface, at least, the city of today seemed as ready to face Covid-19 as it was in 2001 to deal with the terrorist attacks. Even with the recession of 2008, the city’s economy had grown steadily. Crime remained low. The city’s budget was flush with record-breaking tax revenues. Visitors from around the world flocked here. There was a New Yorker in the White House—a real estate developer, no less!
But there was also a strange uneasiness. Though New York’s continued expansion had resulted in declining unemployment and a record-low poverty rate, the overwhelming economic narrative of the Bill de Blasio years has been about income inequality. A progressive mayor and left-leaning city council, elected by a new generation of city residents, had imposed one new mandate after another on small firms in what was already one of the toughest places in the country to run a business. A similar drift leftward in Albany had reinforced the trend. In the nineties, the city welcomed new companies like Disney that promised to invest here; now much of New York’s political class told Amazon that it wasn’t wanted.
Even more troubling, the social order has frayed. Once lauded as the city’s premiere public institution, the NYPD for the last several years has been persistently under attack and its policing deemed a draconian regime that must be overturned. A group of progressive district attorneys had already begun that process before Covid hit, releasing violent criminals onto the streets while city leadership sought to downsize New York’s penal system. Fears of a return to a 1970s era of crime and chaos have been heightened by the violent protests and rioting beginning in June, in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.
Maybe the starkest contrast between the crises is the way the city treated those who rushed here to help. In 2001, volunteers began heading to New York even before the city put out a call for help. The city welcomed and organized them. Ordinary residents cheered them on, and they remain an essential part of the 9/11 story. Something similar happened with Covid. Likening the virus to war, Governor Andrew Cuomo in late March appealed for health-care workers from around the country to come to the city. “Let’s show a commonality and a mutuality and a unity that the country hasn’t seen in decades,” he said. While ordinary New Yorkers cheered the workers who came, Cuomo soon informed them that they would have to pay New York taxes. New York, he said, couldn’t afford to provide “subsidies” to those who came here to help.
Both 9/11 and Covid sparked suspicion and paranoia. In the weeks after 9/11, of course, much attention focused on nearby Middle Eastern Muslim communities and whether sympathizers within them had aided the attackers. An entire security apparatus grew up around those suspicions and remains with us today. Covid created something different, but perhaps more troubling. Though it’s still unclear whether the virus was designed by human hands or is just a grim product of nature, as an outside agent of destruction it descended on the city almost as swiftly as 9/11.
To date, about 23,000 city residents have died from it, most in the first weeks of the epidemic. As the numbers grew exponentially in the early days, the city shut itself down. Even so, the virus seemed out of control, and in a pattern that was to repeat itself elsewhere, city and state leaders began blaming residents, assuming that the virus was spreading because they weren’t taking it seriously. “How selfish is it for those people who are not just doing it on their own,” Cuomo said in April. “Who has to die for you to understand that you have a responsibility in this?” The result: a Soviet-style culture of citizen surveillance. Mayor de Blasio even announced a new service that encouraged New Yorkers to snap photos of those not social distancing and send them to authorities. One irony about these accusations is that it was state government itself that committed perhaps the gravest, deadliest mistake of the pandemic—when Cuomo ordered nursing homes to take back from hospitals patients who were still positive for the virus, accelerating its spread among the most vulnerable.
Yet in a city of empty restaurants, vacant office buildings, and deserted subways and buses, it was unlikely that a few reprobates cavorting outdoors were fueling the epidemic. We now know that the virus was circulating in the city as early as mid-January, and that much of the terrible toll it took is the result of that uncontrolled, undetected spread. Still, the outbreak produced something that would have been unthinkable after 9/11: a tendency to blame victims, to suspect that those infected must have failed in some way. That idea has found its most troubling expression in media stories featuring individuals who had pronounced on social media or elsewhere that they didn’t fear the virus, only to contract Covid—and die.
One final, key difference between the two crises is the role that the business community has played. Business leaders were crucial to New York’s efforts to pick itself up after 9/11. They played a significant role in the planning for downtown, in the efforts to revive industries that had been shut down, in the task of convincing the world to come to New York and continue doing business here. By contrast, much of the business community in the Covid crisis has been held at arm’s length, struggling to survive amid restrictions that endure even as the virus recedes. While the intense nature of the epidemic back in March and April may have justified lockdowns, Gotham’s virus cases and deaths have since shrunk to among the lowest levels, based on population, in the country. Yet businesses continue to struggle under severe constraints. Restaurants still can’t offer indoor dining until October, and even then it will be at lower capacity levels than anywhere else in the state. “Something has to happen because I don’t see us surviving the winter,” said the owner of a Greek restaurant in Queens, just blocks from the border of Long Island, where eateries have already been allowed indoor dining. And more than 160 New York business leaders recently sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio lamenting the city’s continuing deterioration.
New York’s biggest recovery challenge is answering the question: When does it begin? Though massive uncertainty followed in the aftermath of 9/11, within weeks the city was working on its comeback, even amid worries about new attacks. In the current crisis, the political leadership has continued to change the parameters for beginning a Covid rebound. “How many lives are you willing to lose to reopen the economy?” Cuomo asked in May, responding to questions about when to reopen the city. “We don’t want to lose any lives.” That stark, quarantine-or-die scenario was never the original point of the lockdown, though—it was all about “flattening the curve,” remember? The governor’s words should remind us how easily government can seize power in dire circumstances and then hold onto it. That didn’t happen to anywhere near this extent after 9/11, though government leaders certainly had a pretext to assert more control.
Those were different times.
Photos by Spencer Platt/Getty Images