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In New York, Inner Worries Don't Cancel Out Festivities

July 04, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — They were supposed to be chatting about beach blankets, bathing suits and lunch boxes. But when a group of Manhattan parents attended a recent summer camp orientation for their children, talk quickly turned to terrorism.

If an event like Sept. 11 were to happen in New York City this summer, they were told, the children would be taken to special shelters at an undisclosed location. Parents would be notified, but the address could not be given out now for security reasons.

"I never dreamed we'd get into this issue so quickly, but I guess it makes sense," said Nora Brennan, a casting director whose daughter is attending the bucolic camp just north of the city. "This is the reality of New York now. There's always a level of concern, just underneath the surface, and you have to deal with it."

As the Big Apple gears up for a huge July 4 celebration today--a bash that will include some of the largest fireworks displays ever seen in the city--New Yorkers are being told to be vigilant but also to enjoy themselves. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, unveiling elaborate security, has urged residents to celebrate the four-day holiday weekend by gathering in public places and thus "stick it to the terrorists."

It's an increasingly common theme in New York, and many have taken the message to heart. But as Brennan's experience shows, even the most fundamentally innocent activities have been transformed by the terrorist attacks, and a low-grade anxiety seems to permeate every discussion about safety and the future.

This week's cover of the New Yorker, for example, displays a resident's nightmare: While a family stands on a rooftop, admiring holiday fireworks, a gigantic mushroom cloud looms large in the background.

"I call it 'The Fears of July,' " said cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who wished he could have sketched something more reassuring, like a backyard barbecue or seaside picnic. "But that wouldn't convey the true sense of New York now. In other parts of the country, people are wondering if the other shoe will drop, with another act of terrorism. In New York, we cut to the chase: People just want to know where the shoe is going to drop and how big it will be."

There has been no shortage of national terrorism alerts, of course, but they seem to have a special resonance in the city that took the brunt of the destruction on Sept. 11. In recent months, New Yorkers have been warned of threats against subways, tunnels, bridges and large public spaces such as Times Square. They've been told to keep an eye out for terrorists driving bomb-laden emergency vehicles; they've nervously watched the skies over Manhattan, where small, general aviation planes routinely swoop near the Empire State Building and other tall structures.

The anthrax fears that dominated public and private conversations last year have been replaced by ruminations over dirty bombs and the damage they could do to a commuter hub like Pennsylvania Station.

This week, radiation detection devices were installed in select police precincts throughout the city, and about 300 hand-held radiation monitors were distributed to members of the New York Fire Department.

If accepting all this is part of "getting on with normal life," as Bloomberg suggests, New Yorkers are struggling to cope in different ways.

Ed Ho, president of IQ Financial Systems, a software company, believes many residents are braced for the unthinkable but have no intention of succumbing to their worst fears.

His firm was on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center, and four employees died in the attacks. Since then, the company has relocated to another Manhattan neighborhood and is focused on getting everyone back to work.

"It's been hard, because some people want to avoid traveling at rush hour, remembering what happened before, and others insisted that our new office not be located near any monuments," said Ho, who lives on the Upper West Side.

"So we take all the precautions you can imagine and still live with the idea that if someone is going to do something horrible, there's not much you can do to stop them. You just have to be aware."

Like many New Yorkers, Ho and his wife have had numerous conversations about whether they and their twin 2-year-olds should leave Manhattan for a safer place. Each time they raise the issue, the same old questions surface: Where could they go that would be safer? And why abandon a city simply because of personal anxiety?

"We're actually going to leave New York for the suburbs later this year," he said. "But it's all about needing more space for our kids. We're not running away because of terrorism."

The issue of whether to flee New York before another attack occurs is pervasive; it's been a hot topic in therapy sessions, from the Upper East Side to Battery Park City, according to Bernadette Hogan, a psychologist and psychoanalyst.

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