A New View of Ground Zero
NEAL CONAN, host:
Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. In the days and weeks after 9/11, we called on Stanley Mieses, a New-York-based writer who lived in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Five years later now, he wrote an op-ed about life after the attacks, about fear and grief, about what's changed since that September morning, and about moving on, or at least trying to. Stanley Mieses still lives in New York and he joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Stanley, nice to talk to you again.
Mr. STANLEY MIESES: (New-York-Based Writer): Hi, Neal, nice to join you again.
CONAN: We talked to you I guess the first time, the day after 9/11. Do you still remember everything that happened five years ago today?
Mr. MIESES: Very clearly.
CONAN: You wrote about it in your piece, of hearing the groan of one of the buildings collapsing.
Mr. MIESES: I think that's one of the things that's not often repeated in the recollections of that day, but I don't think that's a sound I will ever forget.
CONAN: The - where you lived was so close to Ground Zero - you were forced to evacuate for a while, and then sort of going back and forth. I guess we talked about it five years ago, but that you description you had in your story about the view at the end of your block changing every day as the mound of debris changed.
Mr. MIESES: Well, it was extraordinary. You know, on normal days you're quite used to different cars appearing in front of your door as people come in and out of shopping or restaurants, but what I saw in front of my house for weeks and weeks afterwards, was crushed vehicles - crushed and dusty vehicles, trucks and buses and cars - deposited right in front of my house, and they then next day they were gone and replaced by yet another crushed vehicle.
CONAN: Did things ever return to normal?
Mr. MIESES: Things have returned to normal, albeit maybe there's some spiritual loss in that neighborhood.
CONAN: Well, normality sort of changed. As your story describes, 9/11 triggered a little urban renewal.
Mr. MIESES: Well, a little urban renewal for a very small group in Tribeca, which the neighborhood that I lived in. Following 9/11, there was a period where nothing seemed to happen, and then suddenly every warehouse in the neighborhood was converted into luxury lofts. Every parking lot, suddenly there was a new construction of a living - a residential building where you had to pay well over 1,000 a square foot in order to afford it. Even on existing buildings, they built penthouses on top. So suddenly, Tribeca decided that what it would become is a neighborhood for the wealthy.
CONAN: I'm not sure Tribeca decides anything, but nevertheless that seems to be what happened.
Mr. MIESES: Well, it certainly - what happened was that as we discovered years later, many of those buildings went up as a result of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation parceling out money to developers who then decided to use that money and build luxury housing.
CONAN: We're talking on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page with Stanley Mieses, a New-York-based writer who lived in Lower Manhattan on 9/11. If you'd like to see any of the previous stories on the Opinion Page, you can log on to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And Stanley, let me ask you a little bit about the emotional baggage, as well as sort of the redevelopment baggage that has happened. You write that after five years, what, I know we talked at various points where you quit smoking and then started smoking again.
Mr. MIESES: Well, I think anybody who has been anywhere close to me in the last five years has felt a whirlwind of changes. I lost a lot of weight, I gained it back. I stopped smoking, I started again. I found work, I lost work. I fought with my friends, I tried to make up with them. Sometimes I felt very emotional about politics, and sometimes I just didn't care.
CONAN: It sounds - I'm no clinician, but it sounds like you're talking about post-traumatic stress.
Mr. MIESES: That is correct. And believe me, I pay hourly to correct that.
CONAN: And those prices, I'm sure, haven't gone down, either. Nevertheless, you write about, you know, an untold story of 9/11, which is the struggle of you and people like you to try to get back.
Mr. MIESES: I think that is the untold story. I think there are an awful lot of people who have suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. I think a lot of them have not sought help or don't know how to. And I think what's happened is that they're - what I've found, at least personally - is that just as I feel like I have my footing, a trap door opens. And suddenly I feel despair, I feel the world is an awful place again, and I just shut down.
CONAN: Hard to work like that.
Mr. MIESES: Very hard to work like that, very, very hard.
CONAN: You describe an incident, visiting your apartment - again, this was during that period where you had to be sort of escorted back and forth across the lines into Ground Zero - with a friend of yours - and forgetting a flashlight and going into your apartment with a lit candle.
Mr. MIESES: We arrived at my apartment building, which is actually a tiny building with only two apartments. We had forgotten our flashlights. We took candles and walked up the stairs. We walked into my apartment, and I saw this lifeless, black mass on the floor by my dining table, and I just lost it. I had just gotten a new cat. I mean, three weeks before 9/11, I brought this cat into my apartment, and then suddenly there he was on the floor and not moving. And I thought, you know, my new big boy has died. And I just - I couldn't contain myself. I really, really lost it. And normally I'm not an emotional guy, In fact I like to think of myself as a tough guy who grew up in a tough neighborhood. But I just become unhinged, and there I stood crying over what turned out to be a silk shirt that had fallen to the floor.
CONAN: Your cat was fine.
Mr. MIESES: My cat was fine.
CONAN: And did you think, even for a moment, I'm here bawling over a cat -there's 3,000 people dead a couple blocks from here.
Mr. MIESES: Well, I think it's all of one piece really. You know, I felt the loss of my cat in a sense was just an aftershock. It was all part and parcel of that greater loss.
CONAN: We've been asking people today, people in the military, where they were in 9/11 and what it has meant for their lives. Is this the defining event of your life?
Mr. MIESES: I hate to say yes, but I have to say yes. I don't think anything has been so profound. I don't think anything in my life has, excuse me, uprooted me the way this did. I have to say that 9/11 occurred three months after the death of my mother, and 9/11 hit me harder.
CONAN: Do you think you're - you're the one working with a therapist. Do you think you're going to be able to work this through?
Mr. MIESES: I think I'm going to make her wealthy.
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CONAN: Send her children to college. As you look around the city, one of the things that changed, I guess forever, and New York City's a constant place of change. But one of the things that did change forever was your old neighborhood.
Mr. MIESES: Yes. Where we used to have, you know, Laundromats and general stores and newsstands, suddenly there were very expensive restaurants, and then next door what they call, literally, they're next-door brands. Every single store on the street that I lived on has been replaced.
CONAN: And your building was not spared the byproducts of gentrification, which are, of course, much higher rents.
Mr. MIESES: That's correct. And at the beginning of this year, my landlord came to me and proposed that my little studio apartment was worth $2,500, and finally the gentrification of my neighborhood was complete - I left.
CONAN: Where are you living now?
Mr. MIESES: I live in Jackson Heights now. And the irony of my living in Jackson Heights is that - while it's affordable and lively, and I'm very, very happy to be there - it's also one of the thriving Muslim neighborhoods of the city.
CONAN: Go figure. Stanley Mieses, good luck to you. Thank you very much for being with us. We're sort of tied together, I guess, after all these years. Appreciate your time today.
Mr. MIESES: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Stanley Mieses is a New-York-based writer who lived in Lower Manhattan on 9/11. We spoke with him in the days and weeks following the attacks, and he joined us today from our bureau in New York. Stay tuned to National Public Radio News for much more on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 throughout the day. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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