The City After 9/11

Sunday is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I have to admit I’ve been trying to avoid the coverage so far, partly because of the self-importance of some of the chroniclers. (We were all there.) Not helping matters is the return of the old promiscuous anxiety of the Bush years.  (Chicago is in the clear.) I’m also not looking forward to explaining the event to my kids, especially to my seven-year-old son, who loves skyscrapers.

But the coverage is going to be unavoidable, so I’d like to look at how the way we think about threat and loss in our lived environments has changed. Usually I call this feature Fun Friday, but the occasion is too somber for that.

PBS looks at how skyscraper design and engineering has changed since 9/11. The gist of the story is “they don’t build them like they used to.” What’s interesting about the feature is the reporter talks to more firemen than architects. In fact, architects are bad guys in the piece.

(By the way, the new structural technique discussed in the feature wasn’t developed for Freedom Tower. The technique, called core and outrigger, was developed for more efficient structures in very tall buildings. The extra security features are one of the benefits of the technique, but not the primary one.)

For a while after the attacks urban spaces were symbolically reordered. New York City became part of the “homeland” with special security provisions, while Baghdad became a target of U.S. military action. The dichotomy is standard for war time. In its characterization of Middle Eastern cities as teeming, menacing warrens lorded over by despots, the binary had an old-fashioned Orientalist element to it.

Ten years later New York City is better than ever. Google has rented loft space downtown and people sit in lawn chairs in Times Square. The PBS story revives a symbolic character that briefly represented the whole of the city: the New York City fireman. Now the representative figure for the city is the hedge fund manager waving merrily from his newly-purchased Ferrari. The ascent of the evil Wall Street tycoon is a return to normalcy.

The new peaceable, if greedy, New York is a far cry from the New York as a rotten, crime-infested core in a vast metropolitan sprawl. In this video from a Canadian documentary series, Lewis Mumford summarizes the threats to the city, from fistfights to a nuclear apocalypse. He also points out why cities are important.

Since 1963, when Mumford was speaking, the central issue in the debate about urban planning hasn’t changed entirely. It’s been redefined as the tension between density and sustainability. The underlying assumption about the solution is that good intentions and good planning can create a humane, environmentally friendly urban space.

But unless underlying social inequalities are addressed, the best urban planning created by the brightest design minds aren’t enough. Amanda Baillieu’s bitter article about the summer riots in British cities. In “Fiddling While Croydon Burnt” she describes how the local city council spent vast amounts of public money publicizing dubious schemes to transforms their drab corner of the megacity. The Croydon council

spent a small fortune – in 2010 the bill was £165,000 for three days – to be with the ‘movers and shakers’ – its words not mine.

The problem was the council thought it was a mover and shaker, and believed that if you gave journalists and agents fat brochures showing Croydon reworked as a shiny new office district and lots of happy employed people it would happen. And of course everyone lapped it up.

Nothing came of the schemes except for a new Starbucks or two. Then the rioters struck.

A communal loss can happen in many ways. Riots and terrorist attacks and natural disasters get all the publicity, but economic forces do more damage than all of them combined. A stark example comes from the project Welcome to Pine Point. This interactive documentary tells the story of Pine Point, a small mining town in norther Canada. Founded when the mine was dug in the early 1960s, Pine Point thrived until one day in 1987 when the mine closed. After a single generation, the residents simply packed up and left, abandoning the town, which vanished virtually overnight. It will never be rebuilt.

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