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Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Urban warriors thought they'd seen it all. But will gas masks and barricades finally make us surrender?


Sarah is 29. For the past six years, she has worked the twelve-hour days of a corporate lawyer. She has absolutely no interest in corporate law. She never did. Sarah suffers the law because she's making good on a bargain she made with herself after college, that an exhausting, spirit-draining day job would be the price she'd pay for her lifelong dream of living in New York.

"I always wanted to be here, ever since I first visited ten years ago with my mother," says Sarah, an engaging brunette Iowan. "New York for me wasn't about power and money, the whole glamorama thing. I wasn't one of these people that saw Friends and decided this was the place for me. I just fell in love with the East Village. With all the bohemians and writers, it just seemed so magical."

Sarah's is a familiar story. But on September 11, her life's narrative began to stutter.

"I'm going to try to leave New York," she says, with the air of someone who's still trying to convince herself she's doing the right thing. "I've made a deal with myself that I'm going to be gone by January. Today I'm thinking Northern California. I saw the second tower go down from my roof deck. I just can't get it out of my head." She breaks into quiet sobs. "I'll probably never go out on that deck again. I know all these people that have this go-get-'em attitude, like the English in World War II. 'This is my city!' But I'm not from here. I guess it's really not my city."

The fantasy of escape. Who hasn't at least considered bailing out for the yogic calm of California or cashing in for a couple of years and moving out to a 200-year-old Colonial with a wraparound porch in Litchfield County? Even in the best of times, New York is a deal we've all struck with ourselves. But now the terms of that deal present themselves with a new urgency. What is the price we are willing to pay to stay here? We know the old, pre-September 11 price: We put up with the obscene rents, the huge mortgages, the tiny apartments, and the ulcer-creating career anxiety. In return, we had the feeling of being at the center of things, the feeling of excitement, distinction, and, let's face it, the superiority we all derived from being able to put up with these hassles. We set ourselves apart by what we were willing to endure. In the army of urban dwellers, New Yorkers are the Delta Force.

But now we find ourselves facing new clauses in our personal contracts to live in New York: gas masks, bomb scares, three hour traffic-jams at checkpoints that can turn a journey from JFK into a nerve-fraying campaign. We didn't sign up to live in a terrorist target. The night of the disaster, Kathleen Thomas, who watched the towers collapse with her 4-year-old son from their apartment on East 20th Street, sat down with her husband, James Casey, to discuss whether this was the moment they should finally leave the city that has been their home for 25 years. It was not the first time they'd discussed it; James had already been pushing to move to the suburbs. "New York is the city that never sleeps, and this is the conversation that never stops," says Kathleen. "But now it's in overdrive. Everyone's asking, 'Is this the moment where we say, Let's just go?' "

Until now, the Thomases' do-we-stay-or-do-we-go conversation was a private affair, but in the past three weeks, relatives from outside the city have turned into a chorus, demanding to know why the family stays in the city. "That night, as my son was going to sleep, he said he was scared. He asked me what country the men in the planes were from," Kathleen says sadly. "I didn't know he understood that much."

For Catherine Ames, who experienced the horror at even closer hand, from her apartment in Battery Park, the tipping point came during the hours she was searching for her 5-year-old son. It turned out he was safe; he'd just been evacuated with his classmates from P.S. 89, in the shadow of the Trade Center. But a week later, the family fled to the small village in Switzerland where Ames had grown up. Her husband, who until three weeks ago had enjoyed a four-minute stroll to work from their apartment on Rector Street, had put on hold a standing offer to work for his company, Deutsche Bank, in Europe. Suddenly, it just seemed like the right time to accept it. "Battery Park was a great place to live for a family and kids," says Ames. "My last thought before the first building collapsed was: How nice, they've finally finished the bike path! We always kept our doors open and the children would run between apartments. But now, of all the families I know, there's only one who is staying."

After ten years of waning crime and booming economy, this was not what we were expecting. Most of us had lost touch with that sense of urban dread that once defined the New York experience; the persistent fear of muggings, of wolf packs on the subway. Now that sense of dread is back, but it's different, more abstract and apocalyptic. Since the attacks, the city has been in a strange kind of limbo. We're suffering a collective case of post-traumatic-stress disorder. "I'm seeing panic and denial, but the prevailing fantasy is escape," says Marlin Potash, an Upper East Side psychologist with a high-end clientele. "We can't fathom some of the realities we're being asked to live with, so we have to escape or we'd go mad. People are so involved, watching the news, volunteering, and going to vigils, that they need to compensate. They'll eat more starch, they'll smoke more." She also has patients literally escaping. "Some are holed up in their country houses, and I'm doing sessions with them by Instant Message online."

Potash is hearing a lot about novel-writing fantasies in Vermont: "There are so many people going there that Vermont is going to be the next New York."

Sheenah Hankin, another East Side psychotherapist, agrees. "A lot of people rushed off to Vermont, then they got lonely," she says. "It was a temporary anxiety response."

From his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, Joseph O'Neill, a writer who moved to Manhattan from London three years ago, is struggling with the question many are being forced to address. "I don't want to flee, but I'm almost driven to that conclusion, as somebody with a wife and two young children. I have to ask myself: Is my stake in the city sufficiently important to effectively put at risk the well-being of my family?"

He describes that stake as "essentially a lifestyle stake," which he feels is no longer enough to hold him here. "I would have thought that there is a huge number of people, self-amusing single people or gay, who came here for that reason. When I came to Manhattan, it represented the pinnacle of the idea of life as some sort of game; the situation now is one of 'game over.' "

Touching on another fear, the biographer James Atlas finds himself obsessing over whether the attack was an aberration, a single horrible event, or the beginning of a sustained terror campaign against the city. "You wonder, Is this the beginning of the end? Is this Berlin in 1938?"

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