I often long for the “good old days.” Not because I miss “Pee Wee” Reese and Jackie
Robinson, John Wayne, Ed Sullivan, and Frank Sinatra, though I do. No, it’s because
in the ’40s, The Greatest Generation punched the Nazis right in the nose. In the ’50s,
Eisenhower stretched a gleaming interstate highway system 42,000 miles from sea to
shining sea. In the ’60s, young J.F.K. promised we would launch humans to the moon,
and, astoundingly, before the ’70s began, humanity took that giant leap into a new and
At the turn of the 19 th century, my own grandfather, an immigrant from
Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi in the Avellino province of southern Italy, stepped anxiously
along with millions of other émigrés from Italy, Ireland, Asia, and Eastern Europe
through the gateway of a red brick castle on Ellis Island. Destitute, hopeful,
hardworking, and ambitious, these people would design and build all the bridges,
tunnels, subways, and skyscrapers that still define my city – America’s city – New York.
Your city, too.
As a people, we’re no strangers to such Herculean engineering projects. Starting
centuries ago, we laid out the rails – 107 billion pounds of steel – for train travel. From
east to west, city after city rose from the desolate and unforgiving landscape—Boston,
Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco, and everything
in between. Towering dams. Half a million miles of electrical transmission lines.
Immense aqueducts, “water tunnels,” like the one in NY with a storage capacity of 550
True grit, vision and ingenuity. Such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s when he looked
at swampland in the middle of Manhattan and built, from the ground up, an 800-acre
idyllic retreat – America’s most visited urban park – for the public’s health and
recreation. Without the respite I have felt there, there were days – especially in the fall
of 2001 – I might have gone crazy. Or again in 1968, when the builders of the first
World Trade Center (W.T.C.) site had to figure out what to do with the 1.2 million cubic
yards of rock and dirt they’d excavated for the foundation. Should they just heap all that
crap into the harbor, or jam up local landfills?
Instead, in concert with David Rockefeller’s urban renewal mission, they
conceived the idea of using all that fill material to expand the Manhattan shoreline
across West Street to enlarge the city itself. That’s how Battery Park City, a 700-foot,
six block, 92-acre add-on, arose as though straight out of the Hudson.
And speaking of which, more recently, we found ourselves having to reconstruct
much of the downtown of America’s City after terrorists annihilated its heart in one
unimaginable attack. That’s where I come in, but more on that later.
Vision. Consider again that audacious “moon shot.” Or Edison and Tesla’s
competing wonders of modernity. Or how about watching the Roebling couple’s
masterpiece erected between Manhattan and Brooklyn, over which 120,000 cars pass
now every day?
Somebody had to dream these things, necessity often being the mother of
invention. Only then could the likes of Washington Roebling and his wife, Emily – the
first female field engineer – start building caissons and stringing cable. Only then could
we band together, roll up our sleeves, and get to work under skillful leadership. We had
to gather the facts, truly understand the problem. We had to take the long view like
those falcons get when they wheel above the city. We had to triage our priorities, not
get mired in the trivial. Along the way, we had to overcome obstacles and let criticism
roll off our backs—or understand that our detractors were right after all, and we had to
return to the drawing board having learned from our mistakes. We had to adapt to
unforeseen glitches in our plans. We had to compromise.
It’s time to do that again. Right now. To rebuild America from the ground up.