City of Ambition Will Rise From Ashes of 9/11

As the head of Chase Manhattan Bank, a great international power, David Rockefeller’s appointment book filled up as much as a year in advance. So I was surprised to receive an invitation to lunch with him at his headquarters near the southern tip of Manhattan.

It was the late 1960’s, and his passion then was building the World Trade Center along with the Governor at the time, his brother Nelson. I, on the other hand, was the editor at New York magazine, where we’d been questioning why the Port Authority wanted to engage in a real-estate project instead of improving mass transportation-its very reason for being. We were not alone. Local real-estate developers argued that the city had plenty of office space already and complained that the last thing they needed was a government agency to enter the game.

When I joined Mr. Rockefeller in his office at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, he took me to the window overlooking the construction site. Oddly enough, it looked much like Ground Zero today.

He understood that some people didn’t share his vision, but he argued that it would be a great thing for the city, for the whole region. At lunch, he went into more persuasive detail. I was impressed with his commitment as a New Yorker to the future of the city as the great international financial capital it was.

But as we sat together, something else crossed my mind. Maybe he wanted to make his own mark, revitalizing lower Manhattan just as his brother Nelson had done to midtown with the construction of Rockefeller Center a few decades earlier.

Now the Twin Towers are no more, leaving us to wonder again about the direction of New York itself, the larger question whose answer will almost certainly tell us what to do with those 16 acres that, once more, stand nearly vacant.

It is becoming apparent that lower Manhattan will not be the financial center that it was before. There is an inexorable movement away from it, not only to midtown or New Jersey, but also to the far-flung corners of an electronic world that no longer needs a grand metropolis from which to provide financial services.

As cruel as it has been, a disaster on the scale of Sept. 11 can be looked upon as an opportunity to recast the future. San Francisco, for one, has had its share of devastating earthquakes and fires, but emerged each time with new vitality and a new identity.

The economic promise of New York lies in its historic ability to adapt and recreate itself. After all, the great port that first gave the city its dynamism was superseded by manufacturing, then by financial services. Now, another future beckons-if it isn’t already here.

Where are we headed? A good guess would be that the divinations of men who understood the historical currents of their times point the way.

Some years ago, I went downtown to have lunch with Felix Rohatyn at the investment bank Lazard Freres. We were joined by the head of the company, the legendary and massively powerful Andre Meyer. The process of consolidation among financial firms was picking up speed, and Mr. Meyer wanted to talk about it.

“No matter what happens,” he said, “people will always need expert advice. And Lazard will still be here to give it, when most of these others have gone.”

Another glimpse of the future came in a conversation Tom Wolfe and I had with the visionary of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan. He told us that in the future New York (meaning Manhattan) would become Disneyland.

When one would ask for clarification of his startling oracular bulletins, Mr. McLuhan, in his typically mystical manner, would simply say, “They are only probes.” But what he was driving at was that the business of Manhattan would overwhelmingly become tourism. With its great hotels, restaurants, entertainment, cultural institutions and shopping emporiums, the island would become an enclave where only the privileged-and the temporary-could afford to live.

I saw something like this happening to Paris when the great designer Milton Glaser and I were asked by the publisher of Paris Match and the daily newspaper Le Figaro about the possibility of starting a New York –style publication there. The cost of living in the French capital was driving most ordinary people to the suburbs or the outskirts-so much so that even the French Disneyland was located well outside the city.

When fate takes a hand and speeds up the future, as it did on Sept. 11, the dimly sketched outlines of what was already occurring stand out more clearly.

New York is not going to become Disneyworld, of course, and for the most critical financial transactions-especially the kind of deal-making that requires face-to-face negotiations-Manhattan will remain irreplaceable. But visitors coming here to spend money, either as tourists or business people, will ultimately edge out financial services as the city’s economic engine.

Right now, New York is currently the recipient of wide admiration and sympathy. But those sentiments will undoubtedly revert to more normal geocentric attitudes, and people will focus on their own self-interest. The rest of the country is fond of saying, “We’re all New Yorkers now.”

But they’re not.

New York’s historic role has been that of an idea factory, where ingenious and capable people, packed together, take raw materials from around the globe and transform them into products and services they sell back to the rest of the world-at higher prices. Whether it’s managing money, designing fashions, solving knotty legal or marketing problems, or translating ephemeral ideas into art and entertainment, New Yorkers thrive by charging high fees for their advice and services.

This commercial alchemy-the advice and ideas-depends on a critical mass of ambitious and highly creative people, and New York is home to more of them than probably any other metropolis in the world. It may cause outsiders to feel jealous or inferior. But they’ll seek it out anyway, with all its irritating confidence and street smarts.

That’s what New York does.