The Twin Terrors: Financial Blowback Sweeps the Neighbourhood

Still, as you walk past those patches of darkness, a thought almost can’t help but form. For the last seven years, we’ve been waiting for 9/11, The Sequel, to arrive from Afghanistan or some similar place. The media has regularly featured fantasy scenarios in which Islamic terrorists sneak atomic bombs or “dirty bombs” into cities like New York and set them off….And yet, in a sense, as on September 11, 2001, maybe we were just looking the wrong way. After all, you might say that an economic dirty bomb did go off in downtown New York and this city (not to say, the nation and the world) has been experiencing a second 9/11 ever since, even if in slow motion.

Tom Engelhardt’s “A Second 9/11 in Slow Motion,” dated today (22 March 2009), provides a personal, ground-level view of “that other terror” (see “The Two Terrors of 2008“). Engelhardt goes on a walk through his New York City neighbourhood, across Broadway, and shows us a landscape of shutters, brown butcher paper, empty storefronts, and “sale, sale, sale” signs that sound like the last gasps before economic death. I do not see much about the financial/economic crisis that is written to suit readers other than economists, or that is little more than thinly veiled propaganda that was already favourably predisposed toward bailouts for the super-rich parents of the economic meltdown — this is a refreshing change. Engelhardt’s “walking the city” echoes introductory anthropology exercises inspired by Michel de Certeau, which is probably why it caught my attention — that and the financial blowback that sweeps death in, and life out of the neighbourhoods of the “world cities” of global capitalism. For a fairly short piece, Engelhardt manages to pack in a lot of vivid description of demise.

Broadway in daylight now seems increasingly like an archeological dig in the making. Those storefronts with their fading decals (“Zagat rated”) and their old signs look, for all the world, like teeth knocked out of a mouth. In a city in which a section of Broadway was once known as the Great White Way for its profligate use of electricity, and everything normally is aglow at any hour, these dead commercial spaces feel like so many tiny black holes. Get on the wrong set of streets — Broadway’s hardly the worst — and New York can easily seem like a creeping vision of Hell, not as fire but as darkness slowly snuffing out the blaze of life.