Last week MTV Networks, a subsidiary of Viacom and home to MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon, began distributing sleek, blue biker-style satchels to some 2,000 lucky employees who work in its high-profile offices in Times Square. The arrival of goodie bags does not usually cause much of a stir in the swag-happy hallways of MTV, but the Go Bag, as it’s been dubbed by MTV management, did. Why? Take a peek inside: A combination AM/FM radio and flashlight, a face mask and a single ration of water with a shelf life of five years. Sound familiar? In the edgy months following 9/11, many New Yorkers assembled similar survival kits and kept them within arm’s reach.
A memo to the staff from MTV Networks president Mark Rosenthal clarified the bag’s higher purpose: It was “to be utilized in case of a building emergency.” Ominously, it neglected to specify exactly what type of emergency. (Had Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone received a tip?) The outside of the bag bears no logo, just a reflective strip. Included in the packet was a helpful list of items one could- should? -add to one’s bag, including handy wipes, nonperishable foods and first-aid supplies. (Don’t forget your iPod and Marlboro Lights.) The Go Bag also included a hotline number, 866-77Viacom, to call in case of trouble (on non-emergency days, the number plays a recorded message which says, “Viacom is operating under normal business hours. Thank you.”) Recipients were requested to leave the bag for their replacement if their employment status changed-let your next employer save your ass, bud.
Viacom spokeswoman Susan Duffy insisted that the survival kit was a reaction to last summer’s blackout and not related to the color-coded terrorist alerts. But in the wake of the train bombings in Madrid, a power outage hardly seems front-burner. Ms. Duffy said the timing of the Go Bag’s debut was purely coincidental, and that the satchel had been in the works since the blackout.
One VH1 editor, who asked that his name not be used, said that the bag seemed more like an in-house public-relations move than a genuine tool for survival. As for the blackout excuse, he wasn’t buying: “The first thing that popped into my head was terrorism.”
“If it was just about the blackout, why include a face mask?” said Alison Rosenbaum, a VH1 producer. “The timing was questionable-almost like they had insider information,” she said, adding that the whole thing was “a little scary.”
But how exactly is the bag to be used? Ms. Duffy said she had “no idea.”
“Who’s going to reach for their bag if something happens?” said Ms. Rosenbaum.
What may be most interesting about the Go Bag is what it tells us about the state of mind of New Yorkers three years after Sept. 11. As one MTV 2 writer noted, there was a striking lack of humor or irony from the smug MTV bunch when the bags arrived.
New York 2.0
While restaurants may be full and co-op prices may be scraping the ceiling, many if not most New Yorkers would probably admit to an ongoing unease when it comes to the city’s ability to fully recover from the attacks of Sept. 11. The recent Madrid train bombings stimulated these fears anew and reminded New Yorkers that the shadow cast by 9/11 can still cause a bone-deep shudder.
Professor Lawrence Vale, head of the urban studies and planning department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been studying how cities bounce back from destructive events. Later this year, Mr. Vale, 45, will publish The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster , which he co-edited with Professor Thomas Campanella of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the book, the two academics have compiled essays discussing how cities from Tokyo to Oklahoma City have rebuilt themselves.
“One of the things the book is trying to do that is generally not done is to lump all of these apples and oranges together, and consider the extent to which sudden destruction and the need to recover from it shares some commonalities-whether or not you believe the tragedy has been an act of God or an act of Al Qaeda,” said Mr. Vale on a recent Monday evening in the oak-paneled library of the Penn Club on West 44th Street, before he would lecture on the same topic for the M.I.T. Alumni Club. Bald, with twin tufts of silver hair and a beard hugging his jowly cheeks, Mr. Vale wore a gray tweed blazer and charcoal pants.
“The curious thing that we found is that, with almost no exceptions within the last 200 years, when cities have been destroyed, they’ve been rebuilt,” he said. “It’s been almost a ubiquitous phenomenon. There’s smaller places, certainly a lot of places in the Holocaust, that never came back onto the map, but before the period of the modern nation state, cities could kind of die on their own. Pompeii, for example.”
Mr. Vale said the recent drive to rebuild could very possibly be attributed to the birth of the modern insurance industry, which sprang up in the wake of Great Fire of London in 1666, which left central London a tangled mass of smoldering ruins. Once people had invested in restoring their property, cities would likely never disappear again.
“We’ve stopped losing our cities, somewhere about 200 years ago,” said Mr. Vale. “With the insurance industry that has grown in the past two centuries, people assume there is some way of paying for restoration.” Just ask developer Larry Silverstein, who has been jockeying to recoup a $7 billion insurance claim for the collapsed Twin Towers.
In the months following Sept. 11, Mr. Vale found his thoughts turning to the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, the leveling of Warsaw in World War II that left 800,000 dead, and the 1976 earthquake in Tangshun, China, which killed as many as 500,000 people in a matter of seconds as nearly every building in the city buckled and left the landscape looking like a crumpled napkin.
“We have a common impulse to tell a progressive story about a destructive event. Somehow, there is an opportunity-almost a psychological need-to have a story told in uplifting ways: that this upheaval is somehow going to turn out better ,” he said. “That’s the dominant narrative.” In New York, Mr. Vale pointed out, nearly every politician has espoused rhetoric linking the future of 16 acres in lower Manhattan with the city as a whole.
“There is an implication that the built environment is a symbolic form of recovery,” he said. “That people are building in order to demonstrate, that there has been an ability to come back from a severe blow of some sort: ‘Build grander than before!’ Or evoke some key aspect of the culture.
“In the aftermath of 9/11, the question was, are people asking the best kinds of questions of what it means for a city to suffer a sudden traumatic attack?” Mr. Vale continued. “And the obvious question for us a couple of hundred miles away [in Boston], who weren’t going to follow everything that was going on here, was to say, ‘What parallel things have happened in the past in other places that one might be able to learn from? What kinds of other cities have experienced sudden traumatic events of one kind or another? And what did it mean for them to recover from them?'”
Mr. Vale found that cities generally rebuild what was there beforehand, though in a grander and more symbolic fashion. Which is one reason we’re getting a lot of office space in the Freedom Tower to replace what was lost when, in fact, it may have been better to build something entirely different on the site. Cities have a need to restore what was lost, largely to show they can overcome a disaster.
In the conclusion to his forthcoming book, Mr. Vale cites a 1977 National Science Foundation Study that outlines the four “phases” of a city’s recovery from a devastating natural disaster, which include emergency response, restoration of the restorable, reconstruction of the destroyed for functional replacement, and reconstruction for commemoration, betterment and development. The study found that each phase of rebuilding took nearly 10 times as many weeks as the previous one. So if, for example, it took New York City one week for emergency response at Ground Zero, then it took 10 weeks to restore the restorable and 100 weeks for “reconstruction of the destroyed for functional replacement” (the temporary PATH terminal would be an example of this). And it will take 1,000 weeks to completely revamp lower Manhattan-which means that Ground Zero will be rebuilt sometime in the next 30 years.
Mr. Vale said the study, while not dealing specifically with terrorism, provides a conceptual framework to understand New York’s road to recovery.
“When they were picturing a natural disaster, certainly the kind of rubble at the World Trade Center was beyond what anybody has had to pick through,” he said. “And the study tries to turn disaster recovery into more of a science than it could ever be.”
Like everything in the city, from our heartburn-inducing real-estate prices to the elbow-jabbing deli counter at Zabar’s, New York is a different place; so too, Mr. Vale points out, will be our path to recovery.
“This formula has limitations for New York,” he said. “They developed this process for places that are a lot less complicated. Certainly they weren’t thinking of what’s involved with building a modern skyscraper.”