Vertical City

December 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In truth, I never liked the modernist design of the World Trade Center. Gargantuan, those twin towers were, and expensively sheathed, but they lacked the grace of Manhattan’s prewar skyscrapers. Only now, like everyone else, I cannot look at this skyline without immediately seeking the Twin Towers– and missing them. All these weeks later, the first thing I do upon arriving in New York from California– the thing I feel compelled to do– is to come here to lower Manhattan to get as close to the site as I can. I need to pay my respects to the dead, but also to wonder at the loss of such huge human constructions.

For weeks now, when I told friends in New York I was coming to visit, they warned me that the city was changed. "New York is in shock," they said. "There is laughter but no gaiety. There is kindness everywhere. The pace has slowed. You will notice a sorrow in smiles." Before September, and except maybe for Washington, D.C., New York was the city most Americans regarded as alien to the rest of America. Splendid, yes; a nice place to visit, but… For its part, New York assumed its exceptionalism. In Saul Steinberg’s famous approximation of the "New Yorker’s" map of America, there are few markings west of the Hudson. I hear many New Yorkers describe September 11 as an attack on New York, not America. Understandable, yes, though the devastation at the Pentagon does tend to be forgotten. A few weeks ago, the New York media machine made it seem unpatriotic to cheer for Phoenix in the World Series. And since September, Mayor Giuliani has played a convincing Uncle Sam. And yet there is something oddly reassuring to hear New York’s arrogant survive. What truer architecture for a city so certain of its importance in the life of the nation than this? The skyscraper serves as a paperweight on the imagination, anchoring us.

Early in the 20th century, every town ambitious to become a city wanted these quaintly named skyscrapers– buildings higher than the birds flew. For decades, Manhattan’s skyline greeted boatloads of immigrants from European poverty as well as luxury liners. And those of us who lived many miles removed recognized this as the gateway to America. As a Californian, I’d long been interested in the vanities of New York– who’s "in" and who’s "out," what restaurant is impossible to get into, et cetera. But when I became a writer and found that the city that proclaims itself the cultural capital of America was mostly interested in itself, I tried to turn a deaf ear to its pronouncements. But I was never blind to the glamour of its skyscrapers and its shadowed canyons.

Then the phone rang in September, and now I cannot bear to see on videotape these great towers silently collapsing into dust. Before that September morning, I did not realize how deeply Manhattan’s skyscrapers touched my American soul. I did not realize how they not only boast of achievement but also celebrate striving. Reaching for the sky, after all, is as truly an American impulse as rejecting the center. Now it is not enough to speak of New York– this remarkable, vertical city– as a city preoccupied by itself. Now in tragedy, Manhattan occupies all of our thoughts.

To anyone who hesitates about visiting New York, I tell you the city is intact. Its generous points survives. The miracle happens every evening. This famous skyline of the workaday, of profits and losses, transforms itself into a dreamscape, and you will marvel to see it.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.