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Anxiety Lingers in New York

Manhattan may appear normal, but the little things once taken in stride -- smoke, a subway delay, fireworks -- can trigger emotions.

September 10, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On a recent afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, Bernadette Hogan was taking a cab home from a dental appointment when traffic suddenly halted on Fifth Avenue. A burning smell was in the air and police cars were flashing their lights ahead. Hogan panicked in a way that's become common here since Sept. 11.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, where are my kids, how will I get out of here, have other parts of the city also been hit?' " said Hogan, a psychologist and mother of two. "And then it died down. I don't know what caused the commotion, but it went away. And I went back to normal life."

In the five years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center -- when hijackers flew two planes into the twin towers, killing more than 2,700 people -- New York has made a stirring recovery. Lower Manhattan shows signs of economic renewal and is once again a trendy place to dine; real estate values citywide have soared; the stock market has strengthened; new construction is booming; the overall crime rate is down; ticket sales on Broadway have hit an all-time high; and tourists are flooding the city in record numbers.

To an outsider, New York seems to have regained its cocky edge. But many New Yorkers concede that there is a lingering anxiety underneath their public bravado -- a hair-trigger fear grounded in the memory of Sept. 11 that can erupt at any time. And this fear, many say, may be the long-term legacy of the terrorist attack on New York.

The new reality has had an insidious effect on daily life. It has Hogan and others scrambling to redefine what "normal" means. It's got some residents wondering why they remain in the city. "New Yorkers are more anxious than they used to be," Hogan said. "This is the big change that's taken place. And it's a very sad thing."

Kaisha De Los Santos, a typist in Lower Manhattan, says that since Sept. 11, her life hasn't been the same. She has moments of uneasiness during her daily subway commute. "If something happens now, you're more alert. It's not like before, when the train stopped and people would think, It's just New York," she said. "Now people panic."

This summer, when children set off fireworks at her apartment building in the Bronx, De Los Santos ran to the balcony, as did almost everyone in her building -- their faces filled with fear.

In some cases, life in New York after Sept. 11 has changed for the better. Veteran observers say the city's political world has calmed down noticeably; they believe a new civility has replaced the rancorous free-for-alls that used to dominate local elections. During last year's mayoral race -- which included the city's first Latino candidate backed by the Democratic Party -- there was a virtual absence of the racial overtones that had dominated earlier contests. Political passions run high over global issues, and the city has been the site of some of the largest U.S. demonstrations against the Iraq war. But those gatherings, despite complaints of overly aggressive policing, have been largely peaceful.

There also has been a shift in attitudes toward New York. Residents, who have traditionally been the target of jokes from other parts of the country, have been struck by the generosity and goodwill shown to them by outsiders. Tourists who once viewed the city as a forbidding place are coming in greater numbers than ever.

The crime rate has continued to fall in most categories, and New York has beefed up security more than any other big city in the U.S. But even Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is widely credited for bringing a respectful tone to city politics, does not dispute the lingering uncertainties about life in New York five years later.

"We have the best police department in the world, and they've devoted 1,000 officers to intelligence and counter-terrorism," Bloomberg said at a news conference this week. Nevertheless, he added, the city would only know "in retrospect" whether police had been properly deployed. Unlike other crime statistics, he said, "with terrorism there is no number other than we haven't been struck. But there's always that risk, and we're doing everything we can to keep you safe from that."

For some, the threat remains overwhelming, no matter what steps the city has taken to increase security. Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, was killed in the south tower, answered bluntly when asked how the city had been changed by the attack. "Not nearly enough," the Sept. 11 activist said this week during a promotional appearance for her book, "Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow"

"I don't feel safe," she said. "I try to be smart about what I do and don't do here. I don't relish taking the subway these days. But everybody has to have a life."

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