The Inner Strengths of a Vulnerable City

journalism

TIME – September 24, 2001

“The Inner Strengths
of a Vulnerable City”

By KURT ANDERSEN

During my long walk home Tuesday, it was on a block of lower Third Avenue–that is, the Bowery–that I first felt reassured. All the storefront missions were hopping, their doors wide open. The mission workers were on the sidewalk exuding matter-of-fact competence as they offered their services–water, bathrooms, food, telephones, first aid–to the thousands of anxious strangers passing by. A few of the regular clientele, people accustomed to walking the streets dazed and dirty, stood aside, watching their temporarily down-and-out fellow citizens accept handouts.

New Yorkers are known for being jaded, and they are, but the iconic toughness is also a pose. It isn’t just a matter of 8 million cynics who turn out to be romantics when you scratch them. As a practical matter, living here requires some willed sangfroid because living here also requires, more than anywhere else in America, an exhausting everyday vulnerability. We travel on subways packed shoulder to shoulder with exotic strangers close enough to smell their hair, and in taxis we put our lives in the hands of other random strangers who may or may not speak our language or know where they’re going. We walk down sidewalks insanely dense with people and data, sidestepping peddlers, beggars, dog turds and gaping steel holes that descend into basement caverns. We live in a teeming throng, exposed. And we like it that way. Because life in the open has two sides: we make ourselves vulnerable to ugliness and annoyance and danger because that’s the price of remaining vulnerable to serendipity and beauty and even the odd epiphany.

We come here and stay, as E.B. White wrote of New Yorkers after the last World War, because we’re “willing to be lucky.” We’re game. And lately in this city, as crime has plummeted and Wall Street has flourished, it has been easy to forget that luck, like vulnerability, has a flip side. A willingness to be lucky implies a willingness to be unlucky. As a result of the reduction in the city’s homicide rate, more than 5,000 lives have been saved over the past eight years. And now: 5,000 murders in one day.

In fact, White’s willingness to be lucky–by which he meant pluck and hustle–is the American predisposition. Everyone (including us New Yorkers) tends to think of this place as radically unlike the rest of America. But now we know differently. Wide-open, vulnerable New York was targeted with such staggering precision and viciousness because the city, more than any other, actually does live up to the demonic Taliban caricature. We are the bin Ladenites’ worst nightmare. We are rich. We swagger. We enjoy ourselves. From Wall Street to the media conglomerates of Midtown to the vast immigrant neighborhoods in all the boroughs, we embody the power and the glory of globalization. We are a profoundly secular city; nowhere else in America are people freer to worship their own gods or to be godless. No place outside Israel has more Jews. Blasphemy is common, irreverence is obligatory. Art is at least as important as religion. Eccentric ideas and profane entertainment flourish. Women do just as they please.

In other words, the terrorists attacked us for precisely the reasons we choose to live here. And, we can only hope after all this, choose to stay–still willing to be lucky.