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Personal Essays

A View Across the Bay

The Sept. 11 attacks bonded Staten Island, the city’s most ambivalent borough, more closely than ever before to the rest of New York. A look at the ripple effects.

"Victory Boulevard at Dawn" by Sarah Yuster

At 8:40 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, I was standing on the front deck of the Staten Island Ferry as it approached the Whitehall terminal. The skyline of lower Manhattan stood sharp and sunlit against a crystalline sky. Although a decade of daily commuting had inured me to the charms of New York Harbor, the view that morning—dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Center—was breathtaking.

Minutes later, as the boat docked against the groaning timbers of the ferry slip, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the trade center’s north tower. I neither saw nor heard the impact. By the time I emerged from the ferry terminal, the sky over the Financial District was thick with scraps of singed paper, which floated down like tickertape on pedestrians below.

Puzzled but blind to the extent of the unfolding tragedy, I followed my usual route up South Street. A jumble of skyscraper spires blocked the twin towers from my vantage point on the East River waterfront. All I could see was a column of black smoke rising somewhere to the west.

 

A week earlier, my daughter and son had started third and fourth grades, respectively, at P.S. 35, a close-knit school near our neighborhood on Staten Island. When news of the attacks reached the teachers that Tuesday morning, they tried to keep it from the children. Soon, however, anxious parents began arriving to pick up their kids. Even the youngest students pieced together snippets of the hushed, worried adult conversations they overheard.

The worries weren’t unwarranted. Staten Island is home to a disproportionate number of cops, firefighters and workers in the vast back-office hives of Wall Street. These were precisely the groups worst affected by the World Trade Center attacks. Directly or indirectly, almost everyone in the borough knew at least one of the more than 270 islanders who perished in the towers. Among them were 93 of the 343 firefighters lost that day.

There were plenty of uniformed city workers and downtown office drones among the parents of P.S. 35. None of them was killed, but there were some close calls.

One of the closest involved a mother who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, the big brokerage firm on the upper floors of the north tower. Running late after dropping off her son at school, she witnessed the attacks from an express bus on the BQE. All 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who were in their north tower offices at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11 died. The firm later regrouped and relocated. The mother from P.S. 35 never went back.

 

I had been treating myself to an all-water commute that summer. It was one way to take the edge off the daily slog between Staten Island and Manhattan. Most mornings, I took the ferry to Whitehall and then caught a Seastreak commuter boat on the last leg of its run from New Jersey. The Seastreak made a stop at Pier 11, right at the foot of Wall Street, then raced up the East River to a midtown dock near my office.

During my walk up to Pier 11 on the morning of the attacks, I paused at Engine 4, Ladder 15, a firehouse in the shadow of the FDR Drive. A group of firefighters donned heavy gear and maneuvered their trucks out of the garage. Though I didn’t know it then, they were responding to the first alarm of the World Trade Center attacks.

Nor did I know, or could I know, that most of those men would never return from that alarm.

As it turned out, stopping at the firehouse made me late for my Seastreak connection. When I got to the pier, the boat was already backing away. The next uptown boat wouldn’t arrive for another 40 minutes—too long to wait. I turned around and set out for the subway station at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway.

It was one of those rare moments when the natural boundaries reassert themselves and you’re reminded that New York is, indeed, a city of islands.

The calamity that was in progress just a few blocks away still hadn’t fully registered for me. Only when I emerged from the canyon of Wall Street did I begin to understand. Standing on the east side of Broadway, across from Trinity Church, I could finally see the source of the black smoke. Amid thousands of other onlookers, I craned my neck and watched the raging fire on the upper floors of 1 World Trade Center with a sense of awe that had not yet turned to fear.

Fear would come moments later, not with the sight of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the south tower, but with the sound. It began with the high-pitched clang of metal against metal and built into a roaring crescendo like the loudest thunder imaginable. For a few dire seconds that seemed much longer, I was certain the massive buildings were collapsing on top of us.

In contrast to the selflessness of the rescuers who rushed toward the stricken towers, my instincts led me in the opposite direction. Still unsure of the exact danger at hand, I ran down Broadway to Bowling Green. There, idiotically, I boarded a northbound 4 train to go to work. What I should have done, while I had the chance, was keep going south to catch a ferry home. That day, surely, a five-mile retreat across the harbor would have been the better part of valor.

 

Of course, a five-mile stretch of water isn’t the only thing separating the islands of Manhattan and Staten. From the beginning, estrangement has been the rule, not the exception, in Staten Island’s complicated relationship with New York City.

A Tory stronghold during the Revolution, the island was used by British troops as a base of operations against American forces in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the early part of the war. It remained isolated and rural for most of the next two centuries, even after becoming part of Greater New York in the consolidation of 1898. The opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge established a direct link between Staten Island and the rest of the city in 1964. Yet the mostly suburban, overwhelmingly blue-collar islanders remained, in many ways, a breed apart.

By the 1980s, a campaign to secede from New York City was simmering. Fueled by changes in the city charter and suspicion of Manhattan elitists, the movement heated up after the 1989 election of David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor. It boiled over in a special referendum held exactly four years later.

On Election Day, 1993, more than two-thirds of island voters cast ballots favoring secession. The proposition was non-binding and had little effect beyond catharsis. Still, it marked an all-time low in islanders’ attitudes toward their fellow Gothamites.

Ironically, that same election also landed Rudolph Giuliani in City Hall—and Staten Island was Giuliani country. The push for independence lost steam dramatically after he took charge. Through most of Rudy’s eight years at City Hall, his law-and-order approach (combined with frequent appeals to white working-class resentment) papered over the cultural divide that the secessionists had exploited.

And yet, strangely enough, the World Trade Center attacks bridged that gap more profoundly than any politician could have done. After all, there may be no deeper bond than shared loss. When New York City came together to grieve in September 2001, petty conflicts fell away, at least for a time. If the soon-to-be vilified French could famously declare on the front page of Le Monde, “We are all Americans,” how could the people of Staten Island deny that we’d been New Yorkers all along?

Resentments persist, no doubt, but I’ve never heard anyone on the island mention secession again.

 

By 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, I was at my desk, regretting the ill-conceived decision to continue on my way to work. I was also worried about my kids. All the bridges and tunnels were closed, and I knew my wife Rachel would be stranded in Brooklyn, where she worked, just as I was stuck in Manhattan. It was one of those rare moments when the natural boundaries reassert themselves and you’re reminded that New York is, indeed, a city of islands.

I tried to call Rachel a dozen times or more, finally getting through on her cell phone an hour later. Through another series of laborious calls, we managed to arrange for someone to get the children from school. It was a small victory, which provided a temporary distraction from the terrible news that both towers had now collapsed.

Where conspicuous patriotism is concerned, the island is more like the rest of America than the rest of New York City.

At midday I left the office, after the rumors that more hijacked planes were circling above had been more or less dispelled. With the subways shut down, I went over to the East River to see if the Seastreak boats were running. What I found, instead, were dozens of ferries, tugs and speedboats evacuating people from the Manhattan shoreline free of charge. I hopped a New York Waterway boat that dropped me off, somewhat unhelpfully, on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge.

Determined to get home, I walked back across the bridge into Chinatown and turned south.

The police had established a cordon at Canal Street. I showed them my driver’s license bearing a Staten Island address, and they let me through. It was an odd sort of privilege, not unlike a free pass to hell. I headed for South Ferry, walking at a clip. Suddenly, I was a jittery stranger on streets that normally felt like an extension of my neighborhood just across the water.

Downtown, ash-covered cars and trucks were still innocently parked where their drivers had left them in the morning. Along with a pall of acrid smoke, there was an incongruous quiet in the air. It felt like the hush of a snowstorm in the city, or the languor of lower Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon. At each intersection below Chambers Street, I looked to my right and caught glimpses of the giant, smoldering pile that just hours before had been an immutable New York landmark.

At Whitehall, the ferries to Staten Island were still running. I got on a crowded boat and bought a Corona at the onboard concession stand, which was doing a brisk business. Only then did I look out the window and notice the Coast Guard cutter shadowing us 50 yards away, gunners at the ready on its decks fore and aft.

 

One afternoon later that week, my wife and I were walking with our children on Victory Boulevard, not far from P.S. 35. It’s an old road—and still a main drag—that follows the route of an ancient Lenni Lenape trail across Staten Island’s serpentine spine. The road dips as it approaches the north shore, revealing a spectacular view of Manhattan from the crest of a steep hill. Until they were destroyed, the World Trade Center’s towers figured prominently in that vista.

When the kids were little, either Rachel or I drove them home from their preschool on Victory Boulevard every afternoon. Through a trick of perspective, the towers seemed to drop away and out of sight as you descended the hill toward the bay.

“Whoa! There they go! They’re falling dow-ow-own!” we’d call out, and the children would giggle from their car seats in the back.

As we walked along the boulevard on that September afternoon after the towers really fell, a minivan pulled over to the curb just ahead of us. It was packed, like a clown car at the circus, with a group of five or six beefy, exhausted firemen in full gear. Their hats, coats, boots and faces were covered with the dust of Ground Zero.

One of the passengers got out and wearily waved goodbye to his comrades. I realized we knew the man, who had coached our son’s Little League team that summer. It was good to see that he was safe, and we said hello when we passed. Despite his bone-tired condition, he greeted us warmly and genuinely, especially the kids, saying he was happy that we were OK.

Like other firefighters I know who saw so much death on Sept. 11, he clearly had come out of the experience with a heightened sense of life’s fragility.

I’m not suggesting that he or anyone else on Staten Island became a peacenik or a pacifist in response to the to the World Trade Center attacks. In fact, where conspicuous patriotism is concerned, the island is more like the rest of America than the rest of New York City. The flags came out in force on car antennae and front porches after the attacks. Most islanders (like most Americans) wholeheartedly supported the wars that ensued.

Still, that fireman’s immediate, visceral reaction to the horror he had witnessed wasn’t about vengeance, but rather, love. It was a deeply human impulse, and it reflects a legacy of Sept. 11 that has been all but ignored these past seven years.

“Be about peace,” says a lawn sign in the front yard of one of my more liberal neighbors, capturing that legacy in bold strokes. And even on Staten Island, this world apart, that sign still stands.

Timothy Ledwith reads, writes, and occasionally looks out the window on the Staten Island Ferry. He is a fellow at the Writers’ Institute of the C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center. More by Timothy Ledwith