Our War Zone

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Alan Gerson

Gerson, 48, is the New York City councilor for District 1, which includes the World Trade Center site, and is a lifelong resident of the city.

That day was an election day in New York City. It was the Democratic primary, so I was out early, campaigning. It was the first time I'd ever run for office. I was at P.S. 234, a school four blocks north of the World Trade Center when I saw the first plane hit. The building burst into flames. It seemed unreal, like I was watching a horror movie. I had started the day campaigning, but I wound up the day helping to evacuate the children. I remember as a kid watching the towers being built, watching them go up from my family's apartment on Houston St., north of World Trade Center. Who would have thought years later I would watch them come down?

I spent the next few days walking around the district, not really to campaign, but to help out. We arranged for people to knock on doors of the sick and the elderly. We organized food delivery, and arranged water supply, got emergency generators to buildings without power or water. It was so eerie walking in SoHo and Tribeca, with the gusts of dirt, the debris everywhere, the plume of smoke. People tended not to be out. Traffic was cut off for a while. I think it was the closest any of us have come to living in a war zone. It was a war zone. The stench, the tingle on your skin. There were power outages everywhere. The fires were burning for months. There was also a lot of confusion about what was safe and what was not. The air felt horrible, but no one knew whether it was poisonous.

How 9/11 Changed My Life

In their own words

The Survivor

• The Burden of The Living
An executive made it to safety, but is wracked with guilt knowing his firefighter brother-in-law did not

The Widow

• Death in the Public Eye
An actress accustomed to exposure is stunned by the very public death of her husband

The Firefighter

• It Was All Part of the Job
A lieutenant with the FDNY survives that day, only to be forced into retirement due to crippling lung problems

The City Councilor

• The War Zone
The politican responsible for the World Trade Center's district went from worrying about potholes to worrying about poisonous air

The Cop

•The Darkest Moment
After spending months raking debris for remains, an NYPD officer finds solace in therapy

The Complete Coverage

The 5th Anniversary of September 11


•Photo Essay: 9/11 First Responders
September 11th has left its mark on these heroes

•Photo Essay: 9/11 The Turning Point
How Americans have tried to commemorate the tragedy across the nation

•Video: Memories In The Landscape
Historian Niall Ferguson looks at the effects of 9/11 from the year 2031

In the immediate aftermath, along with the shock and the anger, there was a true feeling of coming together and solidarity: neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends, strangers helping strangers. All the dividing lines, none of that mattered. Our great challenge, I think, is to keep those positive aspects of civic unity alive. I do think people remember how we were able to come together when we needed to, and I think that resonates on this fifth anniversary. It reminds us of our goodness, our heroism, and our capacity for compassion.

I took office on Jan. 1, 2002. After 9/11 the nature of constituent issues drastically changed. Instead of worrying about potholes, I had to worry about whether apartment buildings were safe to live in. Instead of noise and pollution from traffic congestion, it was noise and pollution from debris cleanup. In Lower Manhattan, 9/11 is still a context for virtually all public issues. Of course there's a greater emphasis on preparedness, safety, emergency response. People still worry about the health of the volunteers, the residents, and the workers who were there. As chair of the committee for Lower Manhattan Redevelopment, I do have some frustrations. It's disappointing that we haven't had more progress at the site. Also, in the rush to return to normal, the city and the feds have not always erred on the side of caution with the environmental and health issues, as the recent Mt. Sinai report demonstrates so dramatically. The difference now, five years later, is that in addition to dealing with all those issues that are not fully resolved, we're now back to dealing with the potholes and the traffic congestion, too.

I haven't had a chance to explore my innermost feelings about the Sept. 11 attacks. I've been so busy dealing with everything else I've mentioned. But maybe that was my way of dealing with it. In some ways it's like losing a family member. You can spend so much time sorting out the funeral arrangements that the impact doesn't hit you until later.

I'm not sure if tragedies like this change you or bring out more of who you are. I've always believed in free will, that we are the masters of our beings. But clearly this has to be a factor in the way I analyze the world, the way I think about the world and try to make the world a better place. And of course it heightens your sense of vulnerability — and of interconnectedness.

—As told to Laura Blue

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