Only One Scar of 9/11 Has Failed to Heal

New York -- So what happened? In October 2001, a month after 9/11, the New York City comptroller's office produced a report sunk in doom. It was the answer to Osama bin Laden's prayer, portaying a city devastated not by the collapse of the twin towers but by the resulting hysteria. Companies would flee. Thousands of jobs would be lost and billions in income would disappear. Forget heroic resilience, this was panic.

The loss of buildings was assessed at $34 billion, of which only half was insured. Beyond that was an "ongoing" impact of up to $60 billion. Manhattan was already suffering a recession and now even companies inclined to stay "will in future avoid concentrating employees in one area." Pundits were concerned that the new generation of high, lightweight glass buildings would have to be so strengthened as to be uneconomic. Tourists would shun a city with so many iconic targets.

The truth is that governments, even New York ones, do not understand cities. They are the unruly teenagers of the modern state. One survey after another has shown that the impact of 9/11 on New York has been negligible. Tourists briefly punished the city for its suffering by staying away but the place soon returned to normal. The Wall Street area near the World Trade Centre had been in fast decline, with office vacancies running at a dreadful 30 per cent in the 1990s. But drastic action by Mayor Giuliani through tax abatement and rezoning for housing had reversed this and the 9/11 did not affect this. The only firm to leave New York was the cigarette company, Philip Morris, fleeing to the tobacco-friendly south. Visitors poured downtown to see the site and a boom occurred in yuppie riverside apartments near ground zero.

New York was blessed with two mayors well suited to the moment. Rudolph Giuliani steadied the ship when Washington was taking to the hills. Michael Bloomberg, coming to office soon afterwards, rectified New York's ever critical finances. The city in 1975 had faced bankruptcy and still lurches in that direction. Wall Street moaned incessantly against high taxes and over-regulation, which it says have led to New York this year losing financial pre-eminence to London. Yet some survival instinct always pulls cities back from the precipice.

I lived in New York for six months as a child and must have visited it almost every year since. I have been seduced by it and experienced its rage, watched it stamp its foot, howl with pain, brag, fight and express pride and joy. After the horrors of the 1970s and the resulting crime wave I did join those who wondered if, like some ancient Sumerian city, it would finally turn up its toes and die.

But New York never cut its umbilical chord, new immigration. As fast as white citizens fled the crime and squalor, newcomers arrived. A declining population in the 1980s has for the first time topped 8m, an astonishing third born overseas (and a third of a million Britons). Conventional wisdom attributes much of this to the conquest of crime and the recovery of the city's self-esteem. Credit for this is disputed, but the fact is that in the early 1990s Mayor Dimkins recruiting a police force double the size of London's and told them to get out of their cars and walk the streets. The impact was instant and remarkable.

In 1990 New Yorkers were killing as many of their fellow citizens each year as died in 9/11. The number was halved and then halved again, to 550 today. Crime is still falling annually even after Bloomberg cut the police by 20 per cent to save money. New York's portrayal in fiction has changed from the grim introversion of Death Wish and Bonfire of the Vanities to the casual exoticism of Friends and Sex in the City.

Much of the credit for this goes to the micro-renaissance of neighbourhoods. Block associations and business improvement districts run their own cleansing, organise their policing and levy their own taxes. They monitor crime and oversee that most creative New York obsession, urban colonisation (or gentrification).

Over the years I have watched Greenwich move to Gramercy then to Soho then to Tribeca and now to the Lower East Side, not to mention Brooklyn, Harlem and Williamsburg. The thesis of the urbanologist, Richard Florida, that renewal follows an influx of artists, gays, bohemians and ethnic minorities may be questionable elsewhere but it applies in New York.

The writer, E.B.White, divined half a century ago that New York's survival lay in its magnetism for ambition. It was a place "of strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town". There they are offered "the gift of loneliness, the gift of privacy" but with a generous hand and a dose of luck. London and New York are the gilded Siamese twins of urban glory. I have preferred London for its gentleness, against New York's harsh geometry and its canyons of the mind and spirit. Yet New York offers what London never does, always a warm handshake. A passing couple this week saw me reading White's New York essay in a sidewalk café in Soho and stopped immediately to discuss it with me. It seemed the most natural thing to do.

Like White I believe New York's survival lies in what it never admits, in historicism, in "the unexpungeable odour of the long past the vibrations of great times and tall deeds and queer people." It is the most truly old-fashioned city in the world. On each visit I find it like Proust's Albertine, unrecognisable not because it has changed but because it has not changed as in the mind it should.

The taxis still look like imports from Congo Brazzaville, as do the pot-holed streets. Faded advertisements and rickety fire-escapes cloak street facades. School buses and fire engines have stepped from a 1950s movie, as have the soap ads on television.

The city still has trade unions and a mafia running garbage disposal. Elevators still have manual operators. Parking meters are antique. Newspapers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal look as if they have just been peeled from a museum wall: I expect to read in them of the Titanic or the Great Crash. As for the new skyscrapers, these banal characterless boxes, so unlike the greats of Empire State and Chrysler, are transients from Mars. As the doyen of New York critics, Ada Louise Huxtable, predicted of the twin towers back in 1970, they would prove "the biggest tombstones in the world".

Only one scar of 9/11 has failed to heal, the site itself. It is a literal and metaphorical bomb crater, a battleground across which architects, planners, financiers and politicians continue to fight to no conclusion. Ground zero is not a monument to terrorism but to the inadequacy of government.

New York is not surprised. George Bush and Tony Blair had their reasons for regarding 9/11 as a monstrous assault on western civilisation from which only they could offer salvation. To most New Yorkers of my acquaintance it was a nasty accident at Fulton and Church when sadly a lot of people died. But that was five years ago.