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Should We Stay or Should We Go?

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On the Friday after the tragedy, Atlas and his wife, anxious to retreat from the toxic plume drifting over the city, rented a car with the notion of decamping to Massachusetts. In the end, they stayed put on the West Side, too drained to move. Still, they kept the car -- in a garage. Eventually, they made it as far as Brooklyn Heights. "It cost us hundreds of dollars, but we really wanted to have a car," says Atlas. "This whole thing reminds you how we live on an island, and the dangers that entails. I even toyed with the idea of buying a small boat and docking it off West 79th Street."

"Toward the end of the evening, you're home, it's quiet, then you hear a noise outside and you just jump," says Carrie Puchkoff, assistant editor on Sex and the City. "Sirens are not just background noise anymore. You're frightened. It's the last thing you're thinking of as you nod off to sleep." She has been working through her anxiety in a windowless editing suite, avoiding the water-cooler doom chat. "It's hard to refocus here," she says. A lifelong New Yorker, she's now "exploring options" in Los Angeles.

For many born and bred in New York, leaving may not be an option. Many are psychically wedded to the city or bound by family and career. Many others, however, are here by choice, enticed by the unique cocktail of career and social opportunities that New York offers. A striking 20 percent of Manhattan's population turns over every five years, and we pride ourselves on being a self-selecting group. We're type A's, Scorpios and Aries who can make it here. We understand that New York is a lottery, a gamble. You come here to take your shot. It's Las Vegas for the literate. To us, one of the most shocking aspects of the disaster was that the terrorists picked on New York as the ultimate symbol of America. To New Yorkers, it's anything but. After all, this is the place Americans come to escape America. As Uday Benegal, front man for the recently imported Indian rock band Alms for Shanti, puts it, "Before we came here, people asked us why we were moving to America. But we weren't moving to America. We were moving to New York."

After the urban flight of the crack-addled eighties, the New York of the nineties was revitalized by the younger, highly skilled and transient class reflected in Friends and Sex and the City, televisual recruiting posters presenting a heartland-friendly vision of the city as fun, wry, insouciant, but most of all approachable. The transience of these young professionals now has its perils. "The problem may not be who's going to leave," says Cooper Union professor Fred Siegel, "but who doesn't come."

Arthur Gallego is 32 and single, a native of San Francisco who took a chance on New York three years ago in hopes of sending his public-relations career into orbit. He's been successful but is now planning to return to California. "This was enough to push me over the edge. I was in the heart of the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco in '89, and that had a fraction of the impact on me that this had. To be in New York and have a great job and a shoebox Manhattan apartment that faces a brick wall might not be the best way to live."

"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.'"

The scrubbed, boomtown years of the nineties also meant that young, middle-class families who only a decade before would have moved to the suburbs felt safe to stay and put down roots. Once more, children were swinging their legs from the monkey bars in Central Park and clambering over the Alice in Wonderland statue. After many were forced to close during the eighties for lack of pupils, private schools were once again massively oversubscribed. Suddenly, the ever-present cost-benefit analysis of raising kids in the city is showing a debit.

"Leaving New York is something that's always on every parent's mind, even in good times," says Stacy Rubis, 41, a screenwriter who lives on the Upper East Side. "Once you have children, everything becomes an issue. Space, schools. Is life in New York worth depriving your children of bicycles? The answer is always Yes, we're giving them the Metropolitan Museum! But now everything is called into question. You realize you're living here for the very things that now feel dangerous: the public spaces and spectacles."

"A lot of us were already people on the edge," acknowledges one Park Slope novelist and mother, who these days admits feeling nervous when her nanny and young son set off for the local park. A week after the disaster, she and her writer husband began real-estate-shopping in Columbia County. "Something did shift in us. Something shattered when those buildings went down."

For those of us with less flexible work patterns, telecommuting from a distant hamlet is not an option. The more realistic alternative is the suburbs, close enough to our current jobs and with decent schools for the kids. Yet nothing could pose a more stinging rebuke to our carefully constructed urban identity than to be forced to repatriate to the anonymous sprawl of the bedroom community.

In the past three weeks, however, there's been no shortage of New Yorkers willing to shed that identity, according to Dennis McCormack, co-founder of Prominent Properties in Bergen County. "Almost immediately, calls from New Yorkers tripled," says McCormack, who concedes the bleak irony that a large number of Trade Center victims commuted from the suburbs. The concern among most callers, he says, is for the children.

The bidding frenzy has come to resemble the frenetic Hamptons market of recent years. Potential buyers seem limitless while vacant properties are all but nonexistent, which leaves McCormack reduced to cold-calling homeowners to persuade them to sell.

Yet even as she toys with a move upstate, the Park Slope novelist recognizes the potential folly of abandoning her cosmopolitan instincts. "Right around the time I was born, my parents had a choice of buying a townhouse in the East Sixties off Lex or moving to New Jersey," she says. "I spent my whole childhood thinking, 'You moved to Jersey?' For the same price, you could have had a brownstone around the corner from Barneys! I don't want my kids to say, 'You had a nice, big house in Park Slope, and instead we had to grow up in Glenrock?' "

At least she and her husband reached quick agreement. Many report that the dilemma is pitting husband against wife. "My wife called from our country house and said, 'One more attack and I'm not coming back,' " says one phlegmatic Upper East Side journalist. "Now she's insisting we buy bicycles in case we need to get out of town quickly." He adds dryly, "I asked a cop what to do in the event of a chemical attack. He said put a damp handkerchief over your mouth."

"Wives are so much more concerned," says one midtown mother of three. "My husband keeps saying, 'Look, they've done their damage.' I can only say, 'Hey, three weeks ago, we didn't think they could pull this off.' "

But even her maternal impulse to flee the city wouldn't stand up to a more familiar New York horror: taking a hit on her three-bedroom apartment. "If we were renting, we would probably move," she admits. "But we wouldn't sell our place at a loss."


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