Ten Years Later: City of Comrades

Many think of Lower Manhattan as a commercial neighborhood, but it’s also home to 50,000 residents. When the twin towers collapsed, they crashed into the living rooms, and into the lives, of the residents of Battery Park City, a planned community directly across the street from the World Trade Center. The collapse blew in residents’ windows, filling homes with soot, debris, and human remains. The neighborhood that residents had called “the suburbs of New York” was thrust into the global spotlight during rescue, recovery, and redevelopment.

Initially, there was fear that the neighborhood would never recover. But with the help of generous disaster assistance, the neighborhood rebuilt and grew substantially.

Battery Park City residents’ experiences in the years after September 11 provide insight into an ongoing debate on the effects of disasters on communities. Many traditionally held that disasters strengthen peoples’ sense of community, producing what has variously been called a “democracy of distress,” a “community of sufferers,” a “post-disaster utopia,” an “altruistic community,” a “therapeutic community,” or a “city of comrades.”

The sociologist Kai Erikson, however, reached very different conclusions after three decades of research. “Among the most common findings of research on natural disasters…is that a sudden and logically inexplicable wave of good feeling washes over survivors not long after the event itself…as people come to realize that the general community is not dead after all,” Erikson conceded. But “nothing of the sort happened in any of the disaster situations” he studied (all of which were “man-made,” rather than natural). In contrast, “these disasters…often seem to force open whatever fault lines once ran silently through the structure of the larger community, dividing it into divisive fragments.” While there is no consensus on Erikson’s findings, his revisions of the traditional expectations of post-disaster harmony have been influential.

In Battery Park City, however, there was near unanimity on many issues, and on no issue was the community polarized or divided, even thought the potential for such fault lines did exist—among renters and owners (who could have argued over rental subsidies), among newcomers and old-timers, among people with children and those without (over park usage, school construction, environmental hazards, noise, and a host of other issues). The residents of Battery Park City reported a strengthened sense of community.

In many of the disasters studied by Erikson that were characterized by conflict, victims either came from different communities (such as the survivors of a sinking cruise ship) and therefore recovered in relative isolation, or were scattered by the disaster itself. The formative case for Erikson was the Buffalo Creek Flood, in which the residents of tightly knit communities lost their homes when a mining company dam broke. The scattering of residents across dispersed emergency housing sites denied them contact with or proximity to their own neighbors, leaving them among strangers. The emergency camps “served to stabilize one of the worst forms of disorganization resulting from the disaster by catching people in a moment of extreme dislocation and freezing them there in a kind of holding pattern.” The dislocation of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina has had a similar effect, according to a report on the mental health of Katrina surivors.

In contrast, Battery Park City residents returned to their homes soon after the attacks and were surrounded by a community of fellow survivors. Moreover, the highly restrictive community space of Battery Park City—for months it was difficult for nonresidents to get to the neighborhood—meant that “strangers” whom a resident met could be assumed to be comrades. Battery Park City residents’ post-disaster experience was in this way more similar to that of the hurricane and tornado survivors studied in the early twentieth century than to survivors of the Buffalo Creek Flood. Their community of fellow survivors allowed the kind of casual public contact that FEMA trailer parks or autocentric suburbs cannot provide.

All of the community-rending disasters Erikson studied were caused by people, not nature: an underground gasoline leak in suburban Colorado, the mercury poisoning of a river running through an Indian reservation, the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. Such disasters are so destructive, he argued because “the real problem in the long run is that the inhumanity people experience comes to be seen as a natural feature of human life…They think their eyes are being opened to a larger and profoundly unsettling truth: that human institutions cannot be relied on.”

This makes a paradox of the Battery Park City case. The attack on the Trade Center was obviously a human-made disaster (though of course the responsible party was not a trusted institution in the community, like the corporations studied by Erikson were), yet the residents’ unified response was inconsistent with Erikson’s findings. They did not focus on the people who committed the attacks, did not voice anger at the perpetrators (who were rarely mentioned), and did not generally debate whether the disaster demonstrated that institutions had failed to protect them. Mostly, residents described the unpredictability of the event. They wondered if they would be the victims of another attack, saying, “You never know when something else is going to fall out of the sky.” This is not to suggest that residents were oblivious to actual people’s culpability for the attack, nor is it my intention to minimize such responsibility. But the residents’ discussions were not about recrimination, blame, revenge, or distrust. As throughout much of New York, their primary focus remained sorrow over what had happened. (Despite much overlap in emotion after September 11 in New York and the rest of the United States, there were differences of emphasis. The bumper stickers on firefighters’ private vehicles parked outside New York firehouses said things like, “All Gave Some, Some Gave All,” or “Never Forget.” Virtually unseen were bumper stickers with a picture of Osama Bin Laden and the caption, “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which could be found elsewhere in the country.) Federal hearings concluded that in a number of ways government had failed to prevent the destruction of the twin towers, but they aroused little interest of any sort in Battery Park City. Residents of Battery Park City did not react like victims of the human-made disasters studied by Erikson because they did not treat it as one.

Any consideration of Battery Park City’s successful recovery must include the recognition that residents there had more financial and political power than most victims of disasters do. Residents who lost their jobs after the post-September 11 economic downturn often did not lose their homes, because they had sufficient financial resources to get through several months of unemployment. They received rent reductions from landlords and rent subsidies from the government. They lived in an affluent, state-subsidized enclave whose parks agency could quickly renovate community spaces after the disaster and plan new social events aimed at easing both children and adults through a traumatic period. Residents had many justified criticisms of the city, state, and federal government’s responses. Still, those governments responded, with direct monetary assistance, reconstruction plans, and in other ways, more quickly than they have to other disaster-disadvantaged communities.

In this respect, Battery Park City is a model for how communities should be provisioned to recover from a disaster. Survivors need easy, casual community space in which they can, as they see fit, interact with others to help them through the recovery period. They need abundant resources from the government, such as the thousands of dollars in rent relief that Lower Manhattan residents obtained, as well as other support for ensuing economic hardship. Finally, residents benefit from programming and events from agencies that facilitate voluntary socializing and interaction among community members. In these ways, the re-forming and rebuilding of Battery Park City’s community, the resilience of its neighborhood spaces, and the generosity of people and government beyond the boundaries of the community are a model for communities anywhere responding to traumatic events.

Greg Smithsimon is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is the author of September 12: Community and Neighborhood Recovery at Ground Zero (NYU Press), about Battery Park City’s recovery.

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