New York Is Still Healing, 17 Years After 9/11

New York After 9/11, co-edited by Professor Susan Opotow (GC, Psychology / John Jay, Sociology) and Zachary Shemtob looks at the varied and lasting impacts of the terror attacks on the city, and at the many conflicts that unfolded within its communities.

On the 17th anniversary of the attacks, Opotow spoke with The Graduate Center about her just-published book, which includes contributions from experts in fields including architecture, health, community advocacy, public safety, and human rights, and which together illuminate the city’s ongoing recovery.

The Graduate Center: This book discusses the many ways, large and small, that life in New York City changed after the 9/11 attacks. Which of these changes do you find most counterintuitive? How are some of the subtler shifts affecting us today?
Opotow: The 9/11 attack on New York City was so horrifying that, at first, it was impossible to grasp its scope and its reach into our individual and collective lives or imagine how we’d ever move forward after so much tragedy, damage, and loss. Now, looking back and studying what happened in New York City from 9/11 to the present, much has changed, but oddly, in ways that are scarcely noticed now. As the meaning of “everyday” and “normal” have continued to evolve in the days, weeks, months, and years since 2001, a vast number of people worked to repair a city that is not the same as it was before but feels whole again now. Leaders, agencies, and organizations of many kinds worked to repair civic functions, and more people than can be named found gaps that they could mend, often joining with others, as chapters in New York After 9/11 describe. This collective human effort has steadily knit together our urban fabric, a remarkable achievement and a testament to human attentiveness, ingenuity, and generosity.  

GC: In the chapter on health effects, some people note that New York’s congressional representatives were effective at advocating for relief on behalf of the city and, in that sense, we’re lucky that 9/11 occurred in New York and not in another state. Do you agree?
Opotow: New York City was indeed fortunate to have such effective legislators represent us. Our Congressional delegation fought for us when their advocacy was sorely needed and their efforts exemplify how legislators can take up urgent issues, be sensitive to emerging challenges and needs on the ground, and proceed together with determination. They argued for disaster relief when we needed it after the attack and later for the passage (and the 2015 reauthorization) of the 2010 James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to monitor the health of first responders, volunteers, and survivors of the attack. New York City was also fortunate to have national media close at hand to document the catastrophic effects of the attacks, both immediately and in the aftermath. In the years since 9/11, we have seen how important immediate and long-term aid after disasters can be to foster recovery and well-being, and how communities that urgently need immediate and then sustained assistance but fail to get it suffer grievously.    
GC: What was the most surprising thing you learned through your work on this book?
Opotow: There are some common truisms and expectations about how disaster trajectories proceed, , but what I found surprising was learning that recovery is a multiple rather than singular process. It proceeds in its own way in different urban sectors. Each chapter in New York After 9/11 describes particular issues, pacing, and resources within its own context. For example, post 9/11, public safety concerns; emerging physical and mental health issues; developing the Ground Zero site, the memorial, and the museum; surveillance of Muslim Americans; and building code changes proceeded with their own sequence of challenges, conflicts, and goals. But though the particulars differed, there was a shared sense across contexts that the key task at hand was making what was problematic right again and persevering against all odds to make that happen. Therefore, to learn from New York’s remarkable achievement after 9/11 as well as from its mistakes; we need to pay attention to what happened in many sectors of urban life. Though New York City is the subject of this book, lessons from our post-9/11 struggles can usefully inform disaster preparedness elsewhere. 

Submitted on: SEP 10, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Psychology