NEW YORK -- For Kevin Wolford, the last decade has been a descent from security to loss. Once steadily employed as a roofer in a booming area of Florida, now his unemployment checks are gone, and he’s used up most of his savings and his 401k. He and his wife are separated, partly because of finances.
He blames his problems on the economy. But looking back over the last decade, Wolford feels like he’s been witnessing a national decline—one that began with the attacks of Sept. 11.
More than 1,000 miles away, from his vantage point at the construction site that tourists still call ground zero, Jose Bonilla has a different view. In his last decade he helped wage a war, had two kids, and stayed employed as he joined the crews building the soaring skyscraper that will tower over the trade center. When he looks back at the transformation he has seen since 9/11, he sees rebirth. Like a phoenix rising up from the ash, he says.
For some, especially in the parts of the country most hard-hit by these past years of war, loss and economic hardship, 9/11 seems the moment that everything started to go wrong. That sunny Tuesday morning took root as a lingering fear: What if it was the beginning of a downward slide? What if we were witnessing an empire in decline?
But talk to New Yorkers about Sept. 11, and many will offer a different perspective. In New York, the memory of smoky devastation remains vivid, but the apocalyptic moment has already come and gone. While the last decade has come with bureaucracy and economic challenges, the dark fears that shadowed this city after the attacks never seemed to materialize. The ash and the rubble are gone, and so—for the most part—are the uniformed men carrying machine guns.
When New Yorkers look back now, many see strength and perseverance. It is the fire they walked through and survived.
"There’s even more pride that you get from that—that you made it through that dark time—that cloud," Bonilla says. "That’s one of the reasons we get knocked down, is to learn how to get back up."
In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, lower Manhattan was covered in grey ash from the demolished twin towers while stunned people posted flyers of missing loved ones throughout the city. The rest of America watched the horror on TV, helpless. There wasn’t much else to do; massive blood drives were organized around the country, and folks lined up to donate. Yet few people had been pulled out alive from the World Trade Center debris, so no blood was needed.
A decade later, New Yorkers are no longer stunned, said John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.
"New York got over 9/11 much faster than anyone expected," said Baick, who is also a New York City historian. "New Yorkers are better at compartmentalizing. Nowhere else in the world is there this kind of diversity, tension and strangeness. New Yorkers adapt and adjust remarkably quickly."
While the city of New York picked itself up, the rest of the country also mourned—then mourned again when soldiers died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And mourned yet again when the housing market went bust and when the Great Recession began.
"Maybe in New York, they can see a phoenix rising out of the ashes," said Tony Brunello, a political science professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But to people around here, it’s a world of fear, with no evidence of the recovery."
New Yorkers weren’t spared the hardship of the recession and wars. But their morale might be higher a decade after 9/11 because they see evidence of progress and accomplishment at ground zero, Brunello and Baick said, while folks in places like Florida, Arizona and Nevada felt an ever-worsening string of events over the past decade, with no end in sight.
"The rest of the country is still trying to grasp the meaning of these things, trying to make sense of them," said Baick. "The rest of the country, which was not as affected by 9/11, is still coming to grips with this."
Wolford is finding that getting back up isn’t always so easy.
Out of work yet again, the 54-year-old Fort Myers, Fla., construction worker is back at the unemployment office, trying to puzzle through the newly mandated process of applying for benefits online.
When he first learned about 9/11, Wolford was in a different world. He’d been working for about a dozen years at the same roofing company. Lee County, halfway between Tampa and Miami, was booming. Houses were sprouting up everywhere on what were once orange groves. Unemployment that year hit a record low of 2.1 percent.
Watching the twin towers burn on a hospital TV during a break from his roofing job, Wolford was shocked, sad, but not personally impacted. He figures most people outside of New York felt that way.
Looking back now, it seems Sept. 11 heralded a shift. It’s not the same country that he grew up in, he says. There’s less confidence, less opportunity, especially for guys like him. He has a sense that America’s best days are gone.
"I hear people talking on TV and radio about how we’re the greatest nation," he said. "I just don’t believe that any more."
Columbus Brown Jr., a 46-year-old out of work construction worker, said he used to make upward of $175 a day pouring concrete foundations for homes during the boom. He noticed a slowdown in work right after Sept. 11, 2001, and it gradually tapered off over a seven-year period.
Now he’s lucky to make $175 a week.
These days, he files for unemployment and works the occasional
day-labor gig. He doesn’t have a cell phone, cable TV or Internet. Sometimes he takes his 13-year-old son to the library, so the teenager can help him file for unemployment on the computer.
He lives with his father after he moved out of the apartment he shared with his wife and four children so she could obtain food stamps.
"Before Sept. 11, everything was booming," he said. "There was a lot of work. Now, everywhere you go, it’s very hard. America’s not growing like it used to."
Wolford points to the economy when talking about his own troubles, but thinks that the U.S. as a whole probably began to decline on 9/11. The terror attacks and the housing bust were like one-two punches to America.
Since he was laid off in the housing slowdown in 2007, and then again last year after a two-year stint at a lower paying job, Wolford’s applied for dozens of jobs and had zero interviews. No one needs roofers, not anymore. Lee County was one of Florida’s fastest-growing areas. Until the housing boom crashed, and took the economy with it. By January of last year, the unemployment rate there was 14.2 percent—nearly seven times what it had been a decade earlier.
He’s started looking for work in Orlando, some three hours away
and about the future of places like Lee County. New York, he thinks, will be OK because he believes lots of bankers and rich people live there.
"It’s doing better than Lee County," he says, shaking his head.
For Bonilla, it was a different decade.
He watched the events of 9/11 on a television on a Marine base in Georgia. As he stood in a briefing room with the other Marines, all of them crammed in close to the screen, he saw wide eyes, mouths hanging open, heard whispers of disbelief. He felt scared, shocked, then angry.
They didn’t see the second tower fall. As soon as the first one collapsed, they all rushed to the phones and started calling reservists to make sure their paperwork was ready for the orders they assumed were coming.
"From there, everybody put on their game face," he says. Now he calls it unfortunate, but at the time he wanted vengeance.
Today, he’s rebuilding what he saw knocked down. And from where he stands, there’s work. Everything is picking up. The builders are starting to build.
And Bonilla realizes he’s been luckier than many; New York City, too, has faced a tough economy. But whether it was serving in the Marines in Germany, or on the crew at 1 World Trade Center, he’s had a job.
Bonilla works in the bowels of the building that he—like so many others—still calls the Freedom Tower. Each day, he installs drainage, waste and vent pipes that will one day do the daily work to allow this building to support the population of a small city.
Sometimes he wishes he could work on an upper floor, and whenever he’s been able to, he’s gone up. From up there, looking out at the sweeping view from inside the changing skyline, it seems like he’s in a different city. A silent one. Peaceful.
"Once it gets built this can be another beacon," he says.
"That’s what it is to us."
Far above, amid the dust and the clang of raw concrete and tools, Alignn Edwards grins broadly under his blue construction helmet inside the building that will become 4 World Trade Center. Behind him, a breeze runs through the open netting, and here, above the cranes, there is still a fresh-air view out on the Hudson River and on the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
He, too, takes special pride in rebuilding this piece of land. Like Bonilla, he says that he feels safer now than he did a decade ago—the Sept. 11-inspired security measures at work sites have assured that.
He doesn’t like to look behind him to that day, when he saw people falling from the sky. Even though he watched it on TV it seemed so real. "You got to pretend nothing ever happened," he says now.
Instead, he focuses on the city’s strength.
"There’s nowhere like New York," he says. "We drop, we fall,
we come right back up. That’s who we are."
Bonilla believes his kids—now 2 and 6 -- will be proud of his part in it all. One day. Once they realize that the buildings around them—those massive structures—haven’t just been there forever. They go up—and they fall.
When they do learn, 9/11 will be a "life lesson" to them, he says. His children won’t grow up with a false sense of security, thinking that they’re immune to the violence in the world.
The story of the attacks, and the story of the building their dad helped raise, will teach them another lesson, he says: "Don’t stay down. Get back up when things get tough."
With so many bodies unrecovered, some still view this place as a cemetery of sorts. But to Bonilla, it looks different. Here to one side, the guys sit and rest during their lunch break, while the business-suited people bustle past. There, one hard-hatted man, another worker, points out the different buildings to some out-of-towners who have come to this spot to mourn. There’s the Freedom Tower, he tells them, finger pointing high.
And here Bonilla stands, with his arms caked in dirt from the site, talking fast—the way he says he works.
"I think the grieving period has passed," he says. " We’re looking toward the future."