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The Morning After

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA Editor-in-chief

A number of you have asked what happened in the intervening days after the tragedy. Here is what I can report in a piecemeal and highly personal manner:

The house was jammed. Two men accompanied me across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 11. In addition to them, along our private exodus we met a man named Paul from New Jersey who seemed lost. He confessed that he had worked in the World Financial Center, had escaped like us and had nowhere to go. Paul joined the entourage to our apartment on a shady street in Brooklyn Heights, looking for a spare telephone to call his wife. My own spouse, stuck near her office just off Union Square, called to tell me she would spend the first night at a friend’s apartment: I breathed in deeply.

Shortly thereafter, a young man called from a local hospital, where he and his wife had refugeed from the swirling ash and smoke surrounding their apartment at Battery Park City. Seven months pregnant, she had begun contractions after hiding in a postal van, had subsequently been spirited into an ambulance, and shipped to Brooklyn. Their apartment was uninhabitable. Children of close friends, they had been given our name and number. Could they join us? They piled in and stayed for a week. We all managed, and with good humor.

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On the second morning, the two out-of-towners fought with the telephone lines, attempting to reunite with their own families. Despite their simultaneous calls on 3 cell phones and two troublesome phone lines, no flights were leaving New York. In the meantime, we contacted the druggist and had prescriptions filled; filled jugs of water; went to the bank; ate dispiritedly in restaurants; watched CNN. While our energy levels had peaked during the escape from Manhattan, by the second day it was difficult to move or think clearly. I found myself babbling, unable to complete my sentences. A subsequent passed-on note originating from a psychologist would describe the condition well—“psychic numbing.”

Human company and the telephone proved to be the real healers throughout the days that followed. Strangers spoke to each other in small, timid attempts at neighborliness. The city moved in slow motion, still blessed with a spate of acutely clear, cool days that encouraged walking through the neighborhood and simple acts of civility. Each evening we visited the Promenade, just two blocks away from the apartment. From that perspective, Manhattan looked spectral, the site of a massive attack, invaded now by an enormous column of acrid smoke that continued to flow from the earth with elemental force. By night, when the smoke was backlit by massive construction lights, couples or individuals hung over the railing and stared, dumbstruck with a kind of tragic awe.

Slowly the blackened smoke turned white as awe turned to grief, while nightly visitors brought candles and photographs of lost loved ones or family members, transforming our walkway and neighborhood into a memorial. The candle-lit scene was even more intense at Union Square, where legions of young people milled about, lighting candles, ambling arm in arm before simple sheets of typing paper that recorded the smiling faces of the lost. To the left, a man played the guitar while a woman hugged a friend and wiped away his tears. Under the trees, someone unrolled hundreds of feet of blank white paper, inviting images and poems from passersby. The secular square became a spiritual center, as if by gathering, we could touch the city’s grief-stricken heart. The pathos was palpable and moving.

After the second day, work has eased our collective pain. While we continue to grieve for lost friends, for our city, and our world, the business of daily life has drawn us back to life sunrise by sunrise. Lower Manhattan hums with activity, as workers wash down the ash-laden walls and gritty canopies of banks and delis. In all the horror, there is some respite and some good news. Despite the collapse, it seems miraculous that thousands managed to evacuate the towers and that so few other structures surrounding the site were destroyed. Just blocks away across Broadway, sunlight pours into “ground zero,” illuminating the working cranes towering alongside the pronged aluminum hand that reaches skyward like a frozen cry.

Brooklyn is bustling with resolve. Across the harbor, the plume of smoke has narrowed to a wisp. Our pregnant couple has headed back to Manhattan, initially to a hotel. My eighty-three year old business associate made his way to Toronto by hired car. Airplanes flew our other visitors home. The unnamed, unknown Paul left after 3 hours and I never learned his last name. All of us have become inured to the sirens that blast through the streets; we’re picking our way through the subways, which take longer but still operate. New York is already discussing how to rebuild, and we’re part of the dialogue. This is one tough town.

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