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The Economic Divide

Consumer purchases, Robert Reich said on television early Friday morning, account for two-thirds of the American economy. So it’s no wonder that Mayor Giuliani has urged New Yorkers to go about business as usual. It‘s not simply to thumb a nose at the terrorists or to buck up the city’s wounded spirits: The well-being of the economy depends on it.

But after a tragedy of this magnitude, with hundreds of firemen still searching for bodies under the rubble and massive office buildings teetering on the edge of collapse, is it appropriate to go about business as usual? Is this really the time to buy a new dress or a new car or that thrilling new olive oil they‘ve been raving about in the Sunday food section? Can grieving really co-exist with a fully functioning consumer economy? Doesn’t the solemnity of the first preclude the garish unconcern of the latter?

On this issue, as with many others in New York, 14th Street -- the east-west thoroughfare that for days separated downtown Manhattan from the rest of the island -- marked a philosophic as well as geographic dividing line. Below 14th Street, little or no vehicular traffic is currently permitted, and so an unusual silence reminds everyone of the gravity of what has happened. But above 14th Street, for the most part, life goes on as before. There is traffic, there is noise and there is shopping, and a friend of mine who lives on East Third Street sounded quite upset about it when we spoke on the phone. He‘d gone out for a walk earlier in the day, and when he ventured north of 14th Street, he found himself on what felt like a different island. It was (more or less) the old consumerist New York, the one that prevailed before the disaster. But below 14th Street, it was the new New York -- the New York of grief and anger and eerie silence -- where bodies were being dug up and smoke seared the throat and nostrils.

Below 14th Street, if only because there was no traffic, it was impossible to pretend that things were normal. That suited my friend better. He didn’t want things to be “normal.” He wanted them to continue to be strange, and silent and serious. He didn‘t want to go shopping, and he didn’t want to see other people loaded down with their latest consumer purchases either. He wanted to continue thinking about what had happened. At least for a while, he wanted to live life differently -- quietly, seriously, as a citizen rather than a consumer. Was he the enemy of the new, post-disaster American economy? --


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