July 19, 2007

New York, Wednesday Afternoon


It was strange being in New York yesterday, where I’m spending the last month of my sabbatical year.

On a day that started out with a large NYT headline about the government’s failed fight against Al Qaeda, this town bears zero innocence now when it comes to sudden physical insult.  And, although a transformer explosion is radically different from an act of terrorism, the instant and knowing appreciation of the difference is an indicator of how this city has transformed.

Based on my experience of living here years ago, its is hard to imagine the city as capable of losing innocence.  But it has.  Yesterday, listening to strangers in a thoroughly packed subway car exchange news and compare commuting inconveniences of the accident, I realized 9/11 has generally caused people to feel a little more connected, and friendlier.

For certain, yesterday’s event re-exposed residents and workers to the feelings and trauma of 9/11, if in a more somatic way, especially for those in more direct proximity to Midtown’s rock throwing geyser. The kind of reaction expressed by the woman in the glasses, and especially, by the horrible expressions of the couple just behind her, however, are so highly particular to the moment as to be something of a lie.

The significance of this picture is that it denotes a new American (or, at least, Gotham) form.  What you instantly recognize viewing this image — or any of the shots in the unsettling and “reminding” slide show the NYT published of yesterday’s event — is that 9/11 has yielded its own unique visual “genus.”  Among the family:  The people peering pensively or tremulously down the concrete canyon.  The shot from the high rise or helicopter of the creeping plume.  The scattered debris and the litter of Matchbox-like vehicles.  The emergency workers taking a break, now diligently outfitted in protective masks.

But to imagine that the immediate reactions above were any more than that, or that New York hasn’t digested 9/11 and grown from it, and or that the city wasn’t humming again within minutes is to be seduced by the power of a visual, or the mythologizing of a event that powerful interests have since appropriated for their own.

(image: James Estrin/The New York Times.  New York. July 18, 2007. nytimes.com)

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Michael Shaw
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