Gathering Places


Tragedy reveals
New York’s aloha spirit

NEW YORK >> I have always felt at home around tourists. Growing up in Hawaii will do that to a person, I guess.

We Remember

Like my hometown of Honolulu, New York City has long been a major tourist destination, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from every corner of the world. When I moved to Manhattan almost four years ago, I didn't flinch when the double-decker tour buses packed with sunburned onlookers rolled down my Greenwich Village street. The camera-toting families meandering through the neighborhood amused me as they stopped to take in a concert at the park or to snap a photo of what was once my prized view -- the World Trade Center, just three miles due south.

These days, tourists flock to New York for a new reason. They come to see what is left of these towers after the tragedy of last September.

They stumble out of newly opened subways near Ground Zero toward makeshift memorials of international flags and laminated, heart-shaped notes. Street vendors push Twin Tower snow globes and $2 "I Love NY" T-shirts nearby. Across the street from a tiny church that once served as a rescue center, tourists peer through holes in the green tarp fence that surrounds the massive construction zone. They roam in search of the best vantage spot for snapping pictures of the dusty pit below.

I don't fault their curiosity. I understand these tourists. But I know I'm not one of them.

Not unlike visitors to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, most tourists come to Ground Zero, first and foremost, to pay tribute to the thousands who lost their lives and to the community that forever will be changed in their absence.

Visitors can chart the physical changes in this city, but what is so much harder to grasp is the emotional transformation at the heart of New York. The once monstrous pile of debris was carefully hauled away months ago. Workers are returning to their newly renovated downtown office buildings, and nearby waterfront parks are growing back greener than ever. But the intangible change at the internal core of this city is not as easy to measure. It is subtle, yet significant.

Just as a Hawaii tourist can absorb the beauty of a mist over Manoa Valley or a sunset at Waimea Bay, it is hard for any newcomer to fully appreciate the islands without knowing its people. The same can be said of New York today. In the case of this city, the only way to really appreciate it fully is to understand those who live here -- who they were before last September and who they have since become after what they witnessed.

If you weren't in New York last fall, you didn't know the horrific smell. Odors of a giant electrical fire clung to the crisp autumn air for months after Sept. 11. If you weren't in New York, you didn't dust layers of World Trade Center silt from your windowsill, nor did you gaze at the dreary faces of war-torn office workers on downtown-bound subway cars each rush hour.

Colleagues hugged in hallways. Awestruck neighbors stopped to gather at the firehouses they normally scurried past silently on the way to work. On Sept. 13, when we normally would have stood armpit to armpit as cramped fellow strap-hangers, a stranger on an otherwise deserted subway car handed me a tissue. She noticed me holding back tears while reading the morning paper.

Deep down, New Yorkers had it in them all along: Compassion. Warmth. Generosity. These are traits often associated with Hawaiians, but rarely with New Yorkers. Talking to neighbors in elevators. Greeting familiar faces on the street. These are normal activities in Hawaii. But before Sept. 11, they were not so common for many of us in New York.

I remember the sense of relief I felt as things started to get back to normal last fall. I savored the first car horn I heard in late September. Taxi drivers started cursing again when you cut off their cabs -- even when you had the right of way, of course. Raucous bar crawlers were waking me up at 3 a.m. again by the following spring. Just last month, a homeless man kicked me on my way to work because I didn't give him a dollar. It was a rare New York moment.

Indeed, the city's gruff exterior is back. It wasn't gone for long. But inside, a Hawaiian-style gentleness to the city still remains. An unspoken sense of understanding permeates. Subtle smiles are exchanged between strangers. Friendly glances tend to last a little longer.

The city's emotional soft spot was exposed last September, although you wouldn't know it from some of the stoic stares on the suits marching to and from their offices near Ground Zero today. As visitors from around the world snap photos and leave behind expressions of their grief, New Yorkers keep their emotions close at hand -- but in check.

We exposed a flash of our secret sensitivity last September. It is still there, now closer to the surface than ever before.

Monica Leas grew up in Manoa. She graduated from Punahou School in 1995 and is pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York.

We Remember

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