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Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Real estate is many people's main anchor to the city, and the primary barometer of the anxiety. In the first week after the attack, brokers put up a suspiciously unified front, insisting that sales were progressing almost as normal and panic was undetectable, though rental prices were taking a small dip. One Corcoran broker, Margaret Velard, even witnessed a bidding frenzy over a $2 million penthouse on the Upper West Side on the day of the crisis. "We went to sealed bids on September 11," she says. "At that point, my seller happened to be at 1 Liberty Plaza and reacted by shaking like crazy, saying, 'Let's get this thing over with!' "

But last week, the business-as-usual line seemed to waver as Barbara Corcoran herself cashed out of the business, selling it for a reported $70 million to real-estate concern NRT. Uptown prices were said to be holding, while some rumors had once-coveted TriBeCa boxes plunging as much as 30 percent.

"Do we move farther uptown? Does that solve the problem?" asks one West Village mother who quickly swept her children off to the weekend house in Kent on the afternoon of the disaster and returned a week later only after much persuasion by her husband. She admits she's alarmed by the environmental aspects of living so close to ground zero. "Do I sound too neurotic to say I'm worried about the children getting cancer?"

On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, friends Tracy Barakat and Julia Ryan sat in Central Park discussing their Cuban Missile Crisis-style evacuation plans, storing surplus clothing at their in-laws' house out of town.

"It's hard to teach your kids to be vigilant without being fearful," Ryan says.

"I don't go more than fifteen blocks from the school because I always want to be close to my kids," Barakat adds, nodding, as her sons chase each other in the sunshine.

One of the things that will help us decide our future in New York is the degree to which the character of the city is permanently changed. Without the Twin Towers, New York looks more like Houston. Will it soon feel like somewhere else, too? Already, so many of us are acting so un-New York. The glamour that once coursed through the city's arteries seems irrelevant. We smile at waiters and token-booth clerks (hey, we're all in this together). We rally around a Republican president from Texas. We're beginning to accept our common borders with America proper.

While the debate itself may be therapeutic -- an essential step in our healing process -- to many people, actually leaving New York would represent failure. To others, it would be nothing short of treason, especially while recovery teams are still bravely combing through the rubble. "We came from the suburbs," says Stacy Rubis. "We don't really want to go back. The irony is that people feel safer in New Jersey, but there are still apparently terrorist cells there. If we do end up going, we'll be tearing ourselves away."

Both born here, James Atlas's two teenage children won't countenance moving. Their father recalls arriving from Chicago the day after the blackout riots in 1977. He can still remember the acrid smoke that hung in the air that day too. Despite his boat fantasies, he refuses to embark for another life. And already, he feels the reassuring routines starting to return: "I went to my first literary party last week, a HarperCollins event for Dan Halpern." Once again, Atlas felt that tribal Manhattan allegiance that drew him here in the first place. "You couldn't imagine going through the city without your little band, your group. We all come here and seek out that group. We seek out our identity within that group. I've known the people in mine for a quarter-century."

"People are proud to be New Yorkers now," points out Fred Siegel, the Cooper Union professor. During the crisis of the seventies, New York was the world's great symbol of urban collapse, and no one in Washington or the rest of America wanted anything to do with us. "We're the darlings now," Siegel says. "Of the nation and of the world. This was a horrible tragedy, but we are about to receive $20 billion from the Feds. This could also be a chance to rethink what we want to do with New York."

Sheenah Hankin concurs. "Immediately, 90 percent of the people I've talked to have stopped feeling sorry for themselves about what they didn't have, what they haven't achieved, which is such a New York thing," she says. "New Yorkers have stopped being so self-absorbed."

For designer Benjamin Cho, 24, the question of surrender was never an option. Cho was about to have his first big show on September 12, during Fashion Week. It was canceled. "I know all these people who left town and then came back every bit as freaked out," he says. "Getting away didn't help. I'm glad I stayed here throughout the whole thing. It was helpful, and sort of surreal, to see the mind-set of the city change instantly. You have to just move forward with what you do, accepting that you're a changed person."

For one class of New York ex-pats, the tragedy has even signaled that it's time to return. Caryn Marooney grew up on West 90th Street and Central Park West but now co-runs a small public-relations firm in San Francisco.

"My husband and I got to talking, and we think that if we have kids, we'll move back to New York. It hits on the heartstrings amazingly hard to see the city like this from afar," she says. Besides, San Francisco is an oasis of terror-free bliss only in the imagination of skittish New Yorkers. "Every tall building here has been evacuated on a weekly basis for bomb scares. The other day, there were 3,000 people at a memorial at Grace Cathedral, and the PA speaker made this feedback noise. People just ran."

"I have no question life is going to go on, that it's going to be very different, but not necessarily in a way that has to be gloomy," says the filmmaker Ric Burns, who was producing the final two episodes of his elegiac New York documentary mini-series for PBS when the terrorists struck. "Our psychic buoyancy was connected to a feeling of power and invulnerability. This radically reordered our priorities."

When the big gears of history turn, they often turn here first. A sort of urban laboratory, New York was the first American city to at least attempt some uneasy solutions to race riots, drug epidemics, and slum squalor. Burns believes we'll have to find the solutions this time too: "An extremely urgent cosmopolitanism is going to have to come out of this -- less brash, more sensitive to the complexities of the larger world we live in."

At a time of aching uncertainty, he offers a "ludicrously confident" prediction. "It will probably take a decade, maybe exactly eleven years for us to heal," he says. "What's clear to me is that New York will become the center of the Olympics in 2012. It's inconceivable that the International Olympic Committee will not choose New York. That will involve massive new public works in Queens and Brooklyn and Manhattan. The World Trade Centers will be rebuilt. The hope and greed and ambition and aspiration they embodied have not crumbled with the structures themselves.

"Finally," he says, "on opening night in July 2012, as they light the torch in a city that has been rebuilt, it will be universally noted, by pundits and commentators and television anchors, that at last, the city has come back."