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Will New York ever be New York again?

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — I was one of many New Yorkers who had the sad experience of witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers. The memories of those moments — gigantic skyscrapers collapsing like castles made of sand — have not disappeared from my mind. I wonder if they ever will? After this tragedy, the aftermath of which has affected us all, I also wonder if New York, the most vigorous of cities, will ever be its old self again?

I came to New York from Argentina in 1971, looking for new horizons in my budding scientific career. It took some time to get used to a new country, a new city, a new culture, a new language and new values. But New York soon became home for me, my wife and my daughter, who grew up American but with a sensibility toward Latin America nourished at home.

Although we had only intended to stay a couple of years and then return to our country, it was clear after the first two years that we would be in New York for a long time. New York, although not part of “our country,” soon became home. And that in spite of the difficulties involved in the transition.

Why did this change in plans take place after arriving with a clear intention of returning to Argentina in the not-too-distant future? There were both scientific and personal reasons. Scientifically, I had begun to do biomedical research in a completely new area for me — molecular genetics — and realized that after two years I only knew its rudiments. Personally, I was being bombarded by new experiences, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things and the incomparable energy of New York.

And this initially cold, forbidding city soon revealed itself in all its magnificence. We wouldn’t have changed the experience of living here for the world.

That still holds true now, even after Sept. 11. As for millions of people throughout the world, the events of September were most unwelcome. This city, this wonderful giant, had become a colossus in pain. And we, like so many, couldn’t help but feel its pain in the most intimate way.

New York is now a bisected city, with an uptown area where things are starting to work again and a very slowly awakening downtown area, where signs of the tragedy remain everywhere. This is the case not only because of the site itself, which has become the most brutal of reminders, but also because of a host of minor difficulties resulting from that event. Sales are not back to normal, restaurants are mostly empty and the streets have fewer people than before. And with the expectations of new and equally brutal terrorist attacks, we live, if not in fear, with great concern for the future.

This is not New York, at least not “our” New York, the city of our dreams, the city of our hopes.

Will New Yorkers now go back to leading a normal life? We certainly will not. All those who live in New York now have a heightened sense of concern, a greater preoccupation with security.

We, who use to carelessly roam the streets of our beloved city, now do so with the expectation that some unwelcome event may shatter this fragile status quo.

But will New York ever be New York again? It certainly will, because the people are still here, and we are the ones who give New York its energy, vibrancy and culture. And because our pride for the city remains, as does our desire to heal its wounds.

As a Soho art dealer recently told me, “If anything, looking at all that happened makes me love New York even more.”