Friday, September 09, 2011
10 years after 9/11 - My Love Affair with New York City
The early days of New Amsterdam reflected a spirit of tolerance and diversity that was ground-breaking for its day. Within a decade of its founding, 18 different languages were being spoken in New Amsterdam. The Dutch, in fact, were a minority in their own colony, as Portuguese, free Africans, Germans, French, English, Swedes, Hispanics, native West Indians and Brazilians, Poles, and Bohemians settled the Colony...a far cry from modern nativist cries for an “English-Only!” country. Unlike the strict religious codes of Puritan New England, New Amsterdam guaranteed religious freedom for all, making it a favored destination for immigrating Jews and Quakers. And while the British Crown was guaranteeing a monopoly on all trans-Atlantic Trade for the British East India Company, free global trade was the norm for companies in New Amsterdam.
It’s no wonder that New York Times editorialist Russell Shorto called the people of New Amsterdam, the “UnPilgrims.” Tolerant, diverse, liberal, and commerce-oriented, these people were the founders of New York City…and are the deepest roots of my own family tree.
The Van Kortrijk - Corsa family and their descendents would live though more than 350 years of New York history. They would serve as local guides in George Washington’s army, as the first lithographers at South Street Seaport during the Civil War, and as blacksmiths on the Hyde Park Vanderbilt estate. Three centuries after landing on New York’s shore, my father would be born – where else, but in New York City. He would marry into another local New York family that had, in part, made its mark operating speakeasies during Prohibition – The Riviera, The Chop House, the Lafayette Grill – on Long Island’s south shore in the City of Long Beach. I would be raised not far from there, in Baldwin Harbor, growing up close to the bays and clam flats at a time when living near the canals meant you were on ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ Accordingly, we were known as “Harbor Rats” and “Clamdiggers.”
One of the most enduring institutions on Long Island – the center of our social circle – were the volunteer Fire Departments. My great-grandfather would serve as Chief of Long Beach; my grandfather, Captain of Hose Company #1 in Baldwin; and my father, as Chief. My Uncle would follow him as Chief, and my cousin remains, to this day, an EMT in Brooklyn. The calendar of our lives was comprised of Parades (My sister and I were both in the Fire Department Drum & Bugle Corps), Tournaments, Department picnics and Christmas parties and installation dinners – and punctuated by the anguish of knowing that loved ones were in the middle of buildings aflame almost every day of the year. The sound of the fire alarm put us all on edge in a way that is hard to convey to those who have not lived with the daily risks to a firefighter’s life.
And so it is in that life-context that I watched in horror as the World Trade Center, one of the iconic symbols of New York City, began collapsing on itself – and on the firefighters and fellow New Yorkers trapped inside.
As one of my friends so poignantly reflected some weeks later in a letter, “Not a single neighborhood on Long Island has been untouched.” My best childhood friend would recount to me the horror of running through lower Manhattan – having been late for his appointment at the World Trade Center – as parts of bodies landed around him and on him. My brother-in-laws' (Bill) family, all new york city residents and workers, would take various routes home, including joining thousands walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. Bill, a hospital administrator, was supposed to be in New York City going over architectural plans...but to quote my sister, "..someone called to tell us Bill was back in the hospital preparing for what would never come---survivors." My cousin, the EMT, would lose six men from his company when the South Tower came down.
And I would stand with fellow New York natives where I worked, and watch, and feel helpless.
In the 10 years since that day, I figure that I have been back to NYC perhaps some 50 or 60 times. Each time, as I approach, I get a bit more animated, talk a little bit faster, and smile a little more broadly. Wo-hops in Chinatown, concerts in Central Park, Ty's and Rockbar in The Village, Sici's in Soho, the pace of the Financial District, The Eagle in Chelsea, student hostels in Morningside Heights, Conways in the Garment District, Shows and Bubba Gumps in the Theater District, my old office and Saturday Night Live studios in Rockefeller Center, The Boilerroom and funky vintage shops of the Lower East Side & Alphabet City, taking in the Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, outside dining and Tiramisu in Little Italy...and pizza everywhere. I can't get enough.
And in those 10 years, I have been back to Ground Zero at least half a dozen times. I cry each time, without fail, and I do not expect that will ever change. Actually, I do more than cry - I fall apart. Yes, it was an attack on the United States, on western civilization, on capitalism, and on freedom. But for me, it was more than that.
It was an attack on MY city. MY home. MY family. Almost 400 years of MY ancestor’s footprints on a city that outshines every other city in the world in its energy, its excellence, its diversity, its drive.
And while others felt they needed to flee New York in the aftermath of 9/11, I had the opposite reaction. Everything in me screamed, “No one can f*ck with my city like that and get away with it.!”
I may be currently living in New Hampshire, but I am wrapping that up. Someday – soon - I WILL return to my Home.
As Daddy Warbucks sings in “Annie,”
“What is it about you?
You're big - You're loud - You're tough
N.Y.C. - I go years without you
Then I can't get Enough!
Enough of the cab drivers answering back
In the language far from pure
Enough of frankfurters answering back
Brother, you know you're in NYC…
Too busy, Too crazy…
Too hot, Too cold, Too late, I'm sold
Again, On NYC
You make 'em all postcards
You crowd, You cramp…You're still the champ
Amen For NYC
The shimmer of Times Square
The pulse, The beat, The drive!
The whole world keeps coming
By bus, By train, You can't explain
Their yen for NYC
You're standing room only
You crowd, You cramp
You're still the champ
Amen For NYC