What’s next?

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Eye from Albany
November 2001

What next?
by Paul M. Bray

Following the September 11th tragedy I was talking with a friend whose children are in their 20s and 30s. One daughter who had three flights scheduled for business trips was very traumatized by the terrorist attacks and absolutely did not want to fly. Her father has a more stoic attitude about flying and getting on with life.

The generation that came of age in the 90s has been relatively protected from the calamities that inflicted much of the rest of the 20th century. They saw the stock market soar to new heights and wars as being surgical operations far from home. Middle age individuals like myself know that the economy ebbs and flows and the world can be a nasty place.

What I don’t think anyone can know as I write three weeks after the 11th is what the future holds in store for us as a state and a nation. The terrorist not only showed how vulnerable our safety is in our homeland but they also compounded an economic downturn and set the nation off into the unchartered territory of a war without boundaries or an foreseeable endgame.

How the generation that came of age in the 1990s will react is only one of many uncertainties. Are we approaching a long night of darkness economically, socially and environmentally in the face of a demoralized public, a declining economy and a war against terrorism or could this be a catalyst for doing well? If so, the prospects for our State are bleak.

Using my rose colored glasses and belief in the resiliency of the American people, I am optimistic we will not only recover physically and psychologically from this horrific assault, but some fundamental changes for the better will happen.

Instead of President Bush blowing off the global community by dumping the Kyoto Agreement and Senator Helms telling the United Nations that we will judge other nations by how well they serve American interests, we have now learned the hard way that America part of one global community that must find common ground whether the need is to fight terrorism, to protect the environment or maintain conditions for economic improvement for all including the one third of the world population living in severe poverty. The world is just about serving American interests.

After a couple of decades of ascendancy of anti-government rhetoric, the pendulum is swinging back as it is increasingly evident that we need government to protect our health and safety. Of course, it is ironic that it is Republicans in Washington, New York City and Albany that have so far effectively risen to demands for quick, humane and effective response by all levels of government.

At the personal level the events of September 11th have proven as Maureen Dowd of the New York Time points out “our culture turns out to be about more than its glittery surface” as demonstrated by the “valor of the rescuer workers; the altruism derring-do of the men who fought back on Flight 93; our concern about inflicting unnecessary suffering on innocent Afgans” among other indicators. We have been forced to move beyond the just ended decade of consumer self indulgence.

Architectural critic Jane Holtz Kay posses our challenge this way: “The aftermath of the war of the ‘greatest generation’ paved the way for an environmental feeding frenzy which dictated a socially, economically and environmentally pernicious pattern. This is time to change that pattern. This ‘first war’ of the new century must bring heightened environmental consciousness and a truer and better concern for urban needs.”

There surely are signs that we may be moving into a new era of civic generosity and progressive government that addresses poverty and the crisis from environmental abuse.

Without the rose colored glasses one can also see very long term damage to both New York City and State in a national and global sea of ongoing crisis. Before September 11th New York City was on a roll as the economic capital of the world with robust tourism and even a rebirth of small manufacturing. This came after the City suffered many decades if industrial decline since the 1950s leading to financial crisis in the 1970s.

New York City and State are going to have to recover from the effects of the downward economy that were already being felt before the terrorist attack in areas like Silicon Alley as well from all the primary damage and secondary impacts like the loss of tourism. This comes at a time when there is a long backlog of billions of dollars of projects to rehab or develop public infrastructure especially in the New York metro area.

In Albany, I can already see the hunkering down in State Government as agencies face bleak budget prospects and in the many small private companies and nonprofits that are so tightly linked to the fortunes of State Government. The State and New York City are facing forecasts of billions of dollars in revenue short falls.

Articles are appearing in newspapers about individuals and businesses wishing to flee New York City for the perceived safety of the suburbs.

There is, in effect, only so much New Yorkers can do to determine their own fate given the forces of economics and war swirling around us. We are fortunate that Americans have been wonderfully generous in their sentiments and commitment to assisting in the rebuilding of the damaged area. The good will felt for New York by people from all over the world is a valuable intangible resource for the City’s long-run economic prospects.

So, far our political institutions and leaders have shown they can work together and do the right things. We need this to happen when the time for rebuilding comes in order to stay focused on restoring the public infrastructure. But the real test may be whether we have the leadership to shape a unity of vision for rebuilding from the ashes in a way that brings all of us throughout the State together to see ourselves coming out of this tragedy as one coherent whole.