Should We Stay or Should We Go?

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?

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.”

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.”

Should We Stay or Should We Go?