In my class called American Places, we’re studying four cities: New York, Detroit, San Antonio, Los Angeles. We’re still in New York presently, and this week is 9/11. It is enormously bizarre even so many years later to think that it is no longer possible to study the city without studying what 9/11 did to it.
One of our readings this week is two chapters from a book called After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City, edited by Michael Sorkin and Sharon Zukin. It’s architecture criticism, about the impact of those towers on the skyline and what they symbolized to the people who live and work in the city. For people my age, who don’t remember the city before 2001, the towers seem like an addition, Photoshopped into an old photograph. For anyone older, there is an empty space now, a scar on Lower Manhattan.
I bring this up not to pontificate about something I shouldn’t, not to offer my opinion on a city I have no claim on and can barely understand, but to point out this video:
This video was made sometime in the ’80s—YouTube doesn’t tell me when—and shot by Nelson Sullivan, whose video camera documented bohemian ’80s Village life. And it was shot, YouTube tells me, at the World Trade Center plaza. The World Trade Center is the most obvious thing in that video that no longer exists, but I still couldn’t see it being shot today, no matter the location. The society it imitates, I sense, is probably not quite the same anymore; there’s an element of insider camaraderie that threads throughout all Sullivan’s videos that I, at least, haven’t noticed today. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. Maybe I just don’t live in the right neighborhood. But somehow I don’t think that’s the case. Somehow I think things really changed when the century did.
In Angels in America the end of the century and the start of a new millennium is a really big deal. Coping with the meaning of that impending earthquake is the entire point of the play. But when it did come, pedants argued about whether it should be celebrated-and-feared in 2000 or 2001, and it wasn’t till after either of those events that the new millennium slowly started to lurch into gear. George W. Bush was inaugurated. And planes hit the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. And I grew up in a world where camaraderie was shattered, because you didn’t take care of your dying friends and throw parties to stave off the fear of a virus. You took off your shoes for an airport metal detector and you wondered whether it was right to send our soldiers to war.
I survived the transition to the new millennium relatively insulated from its ravages, and it’s only now that I come into sudden visceral contact with its legacy. I’m not quite sure how to look that in the eye, how to work with it or fight it. The fact that I learn about these things in school means the twentieth century is slipping out of our grasp, and it is terrifyingly odd to think that kids in elementary school now saw none of it. And I don’t know what that means, or what our moment now will mean. But I feel as if watching the video above is not like watching older archival footage, because here it is easier to see how quickly time moves. The World Trade Center went up, and then it came crashing down again, and now it is Ground Zero. A non-entity. An emptiness. What are we to assume: that the 20th century was a presence, and the 21st is an absence?
I’m not sure I like that.
I was going to post this in the morning, but I realized it is the kind of thought that can only be timestamped 2:00am.