This is how I remember New York City in 2002. I was 19 years old and had just moved to Manhattan from my family’s farm on Long Island. It was the first summer after the September 11 attacks. Workers were removing the last of the debris from the collapsed Twin Towers. The city felt both immense and fragile compared to the groundedness of my childhood home.
On weekdays, I worked in Arnold Newman’s photography studio. After hours and on weekends, I walked through the city’s five boroughs with my camera. When someone made eye contact with me, I asked if I could make a portrait of them. At first, I assumed people would respond with caution. I was a stranger. The city was recovering from an event that shook its sense of security. Yet, most people said yes and looked straight into my camera lens. I am grateful they chose to trust me.
Interview with Desiree Blakis
I grew up in Greenpoint with my mom and grandmother. We lived on a typical Brooklyn block, all houses and apartment buildings. There was a bread factory nearby. I remember it smelled so good and we’d sometimes get free bread from them.
We were the only Costa Ricans in Greenpoint. Everybody was either Puerto Rican or Polish. My grandmother came from Punta Arenas, a small beach town. The water there was hot and clear. Everybody knew each other. There was no fast food place, no movie theatre, nothing. Just the beach and that’s it.
Living in New York, we learned new cultures. Like how to make rice the Puerto Rican way, which was completely different, or pork shoulder. I met Dorota when her family moved in next door on Eagle Street. She immigrated from Poland when she was five, and at first she didn’t know one word of English. Nothing. So we ended up teaching each other our languages. I learned a lot of her foods and how, in Poland, she lived on a farm with pigs and cows and horses. My family would go back to Costa Rica every summer, and we took Dorota with us three times.
In Greenpoint, we were always hanging out outside. Kids would play manhunt or handball or tag with us. We were really big on rollerblading around the neighborhood. There were no phones. We just lived in the moment. We went to Coney Island a lot in the summer. During the day we went to the beach and then at night we would go on the rides. Coney Island was the closest beach to Greenpoint. The water was always freezing cold.
In third grade we had the strictest teacher ever. The littlest thing and she would make us stand and look out the window in complete silence. Our view from the school was the whole city. On 9/11, me and another student got in trouble. And while we were facing the window, we literally saw the plane go through the tower. We started screaming, “Oh my God! Look! A plane crash!” And our teacher told us to stop because she thought we were trying to get attention. We were like “No! Just look out the window!” And then she walked over and closed the shades. She wouldn’t even look. “Now you’re staying there longer.” And we stood there, looking at those dark brown shades. I was so mad.
Five or ten minutes later, the principal called over the loudspeaker that the school was going to close. My mother picked me up. I honestly didn’t understand what was happening, so I asked, “can I play outside?” And my mom said no. I didn’t get why. Once we got home she turned on the news, and we watched that all day.
– Desiree Blakis, Brooklyn, New York 2020
Interview with Stephen May
I’m born and bred here. Yonkers, just north of the Bronx. Even before I could drive, we’d cut school to take the train into the city. When I was a kid, my dad was in the ladies hosiery business. We would go around to the stores and the pharmacies, to fill them up and count what they sold. We used to pass the Market Diner at 43rd Street and 11th Avenue. The guys who owned it were from Yonkers. I would say, “Dad, strawberry shortcake!” and we’d get a slice, and we'd sit at the counter and eat it together.
In the late nineties I opened up a juice company. It was called Doctor Squeeze. It was a PR marketing machine. We gave out t-shirts and tank tops. We were in People Magazine, a full-page spread. We went crazy. We traded on NASDAQ. I couldn’t believe it.
We had a juice bar on 23rd and 5th, looking downtown. I was working there, and our nanny had just brought my son Max over. Standing on the corner, we actually saw the tower fall. I felt something like a pressure, like a hard wind in my chest. I just lost all air, exhaled everything out of my lungs.
You’re looking at it. You’re seeing it. But it doesn’t register in your head. It doesn’t make sense, it’s like a movie. It’s beyond your realm of comprehension.
There was a massive river of humans coming up 5th Avenue. Thousands of people walking uptown, covered in dirt. Just to get away. I said to our nanny, “you’ve got to get home. I gotta figure this out. But you and Max got to get home.” I went back into the store to put on the TV, to figure out what was happening. We didn’t know. I gave away the rest of the juice we had for free. I locked up and was going to go downtown to help, but my wife said, “No, you can’t go down there. You’re a father and husband.” I’m glad she said that. I went home.
We were all in shock. Right after, you couldn’t judge people because they were all shell-shocked, upset, angry, and scared. You know, you realize there are things that are out of your control and you have to face that. So at the juice bar, we were friendlier. Like, somebody would come in and go, “Yo, man, I asked for no ginger,” and I’d say you got it buddy, I'll make a fresh one. We all needed more rope.
People started to scratch their way back. A week or so after the attacks the Yankees played the Mets. They wore NYPD and EMS and Fire Department hats. Everybody cried together. We were all New Yorkers. We all got attacked. It was like we were on one team. Everybody had a common goal. Let's all help one another and let's get back. I will never forget that ball game.
– Stephen May, Manhattan, New York 2020
Interview with Shalena Laiz
I grew up in Far Rockaway. Queens is more of a rural area, not a lot of people. But during the summertime, my cousins and I would stay with my grandma. She lived on 129th Street in Harlem. She had 8 daughters and 26 grandkids, so during that time, I’d say it was a good 12 of us staying with her. Grandma had a five bedroom apartment and we’d all sleep on cots or in bunk beds.
We had a lot of cookouts. We’d go food shopping at Associates Market on 135th, prepare some of the food in my Grandma’s house, cook the hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill outside.
Sitting on the stoop was the best thing in the world, not gonna lie. Every brownstone has their cement stairs. You got the people sitting on the side laughing, drinking juice, listening to music. We would jump rope, or get on bikes and ride around the block. The ice cream truck would come. If there was a block party, they would open the fire hydrant and we would be able to play in the water.
On 9/11 I was in the living room, watching TV. My sister and I thought it was a movie, when we saw the first plane hit the tower. The news started saying, “We're under attack, we're under attack,” and my family started to get really frantic. And that's what made me realize this is real. Something is actually going on. My grandmother left to pick up my younger cousins because the schools were closing down. I just remember my sister crying. Everyone was just so scared.
My mom was working downtown on Wall Street for the Department of Consumer Affairs. We thought she was at work. She was very, very close. But by the time that everything happened, when her shift was supposed to start, the subway had stopped and she couldn't get there. Thank God for that.
It took years to get back to normal. I had very diverse friends from different boroughs: Queens, Bronx, Manhattan. Walking around NYC, especially with friends who were Middle Eastern, was very uncomfortable. It was like we were supposed to live in fear of one another, because of something we couldn’t control.
The summers brought everyone back closer together. The cookouts - friends in the neighborhood would come and hang out and play with us. There were a lot of block parties, a lot of fundraisers, and a lot of memorials where people were very compassionate because you didn't know who was affected by it. I'm sure for the people who lost someone, things didn't ever get back to normal for them. That’s something they had to live with.
– Shalena Laiz, Bronx, New York 2020
Interview with Robyn Moreno
In 2001 I was living in Israel, studying for my Master’s Degree at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was during the Second Intifada and there were massive terrorist attacks with bombs exploding everywhere. I remember arriving at my (then) husband’s place on Jaffa Street, a very busy street in downtown Jerusalem. A bomb had just exploded inside a public transport bus, minutes from where he lived. I remember the carcass of the bus being towed down what had, since the explosion, become an empty, sorrowful street. To say that it was a scary time is an understatement, because anything could happen at any time. But I had to live my life.
I was in my dormitory when I first heard about 9/11. I got a phone call from my father and he said, petrified, “Are you okay?” My response was, "Yeah, why?" And he told me what happened. We didn't have a television in the dorm, so I had to go across the street to a student lounge. They had a big screen TV and a bunch of fellow students and I watched the whole thing, shocked and traumatized. I got a lot of pressure from my parents to come home to Vancouver. They were scared. It felt as though the whole world was coming to an end. There was a fear that Israel would be next in line. Despite the pressure, I stayed in Jerusalem.
I knew my husband for a very short period of time before we decided to get married. We were young. It just felt like the right thing to do. Bombs were going off. We had to be careful. We just never knew where or who the next target would be. We didn’t want to be alone. Particularly at times like this, there is a great need to have someone who will be your pillar and guide you.
We left Israel to visit New York so I could meet some of my husband’s family who live there. That same summer, while we were overseas, the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria at my University was bombed. I used to eat there all the time. Nine people - four Israelis and five foreign nationals - were killed and 85 injured. I will never forget the fear and anger that overcame me when I heard.
I live in Israel again now, just north of Tel Aviv in a place called Ra’anana. Life is very different, that’s for sure. Instead of bombs there’s the pandemic. Before, if you went to the shopping mall, the Security Guards would ask, "Do you have any weapons on you?" Now, instead, they just say, "I want to take your temperature." They don't even check for weapons anymore.
I don’t know when we will be able to look at strangers with trust again. With the Intifada or 9/11, everybody was watching out for everyone. The enemy is invisible this time. But maybe it's one and the same. It all generates fear and paranoia. It’s a hard dichotomy: when you're scared of the person you're standing next to, yet you want to be empathetic.
– Robyn Moreno, Ra’anana, Israel 2020
Interview with Eleanor Kuntz
I arrived in Brooklyn at my friends’ house on September 10th, 2001. The next morning I got up for the first day of my first real job, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I was on the phone with my new boss. His wife kept calling him and calling him. He said, “This is very unusual. I'm gonna see what's going on.” She was calling to inform him that the first plane had hit the first tower. And it clicked for him and he said, “You're in Brooklyn. You have a good view. Go on your roof. Craziness is happening.”
My friends and I went on the roof, and we saw the second plane hit the second tower. We didn’t really know what to do except walk towards the bridge. People were just flooding over. Women carrying their shoes. People covered in gray ash. It was raining ash and pieces of paper. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. You had people buying all the water in the grocery stores, bringing their shopping carts out in the street, and just handing bottles out. I had never witnessed that kind of disaster and hurt, and also an outpouring of love and care at the same time.
At that moment, people were really open to one another. Walking over the bridge, a stranger and I recognized each other but couldn’t place where from. She was very tired and I had some water, so we just sat and chatted. We realized we knew each other, from elementary school. Then I saw another woman, who’d graduated from my college just a couple years before me, walking across the bridge.
It was a very surreal moment, living in NYC for the first time, living through a tragedy, and then seeing people from my past lives. That coming together of community made the city feel more friendly, even though it was huge and daunting and unknown.
My best friend and I moved into a tiny apartment on 4th Avenue, in the weird no man's land between Bed-Stuy and Park Slope. When they were cleaning up the 9/11 site, all of the dump trucks would drive down my street with the debris, caravans of thirty or so dump trucks every evening.
The summer after 9/11, people were outside a lot. New Yorkers live outside of their apartments, out in the city. It didn't matter how small our place was because the whole city was really our home. I remember the Pride Parade that year. There were thousands of people. It was so colorful, with every kind of person, from your boring, jeans-wearing lady all the way to drag queens with feathers and sequins and rainbows. It was every flavor of everybody, brought together again, but to celebrate this one joyous thing.
– Eleanor Kuntz, Occidental, California 2020
Interview with Abu Huraira
My dad came to New York City in the 1980s from Hail, Pakistan. Hail was a small village where some of the houses were hand-built from clay, and all the cars had manual transmissions. It wasn’t a bad or necessarily poor place, just less developed and more traditional.
In New York, my dad found a bunch of odd jobs: pumping gas, security guard, driving a taxi, anything to save money and be able to travel home. He had his arranged marriage to my mother, in Hail. In 2000, when I was nine months old, we got the approvals and documents needed to fly our whole family over here.
We lived in Jamaica, Queens, in an apartment building on Cedarcroft Road. The community was mainly Pakistani people. If not Pakistani, then South Asian or Middle Eastern. We were five people in a one-bedroom apartment. It was dirty. You'd wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and you'd flip on a light to see roaches scamper off the walls. Jamaica was always awake, no matter what time of day. We'd hear gunshots, we'd hear sirens, we'd hear yelling. My dad would tell us, "Don't play outside the building."
On 9/11 my dad got up at four in the morning, still half asleep, and took a shower. In the taxi, he picked up someone from JFK Airport and drove them to Manhattan. He was downtown, heading away from the World Trade Center, when a flood of police cars and fire trucks and ambulances started speeding past him. He noticed at every firehouse the garages were open, the trucks were gone.
I don’t remember 9/11. I only remember a few years later when I was five or six, we were at the memorial with my aunt. Her boyfriend, Sean Hanley, had been killed in one of the Towers. I have one distinct memory of Sean taking us to his firehouse and putting me in the front seat of his fire truck. I mashed all the buttons and flipped on the siren. Every time I've gone back to the memorial, I look for his name.
Every September 11th, I’ve felt that same pain that Americans all over the country felt. It almost makes me cry, even now, thinking about it. I always felt closer to the victims, yet I was grouped in with the perpetrators. I remember prejudice coming from other kids, in particular from kids of similar pigmentation. Indians or South Asian kids who weren’t Muslims wanted to distance themselves from us. “Oh he’s the Muslim, he’s the terrorist, not me. I’m Hindu.” I didn’t ever really blame them. I knew they were only doing it because they were scared of facing the same thing.
Despite the prejudice, my father and I are still hugely patriotic. Now, I don’t love every part of America. I don’t love everything that people think here. But I do love that you’re able to think what you want. That’s not true where I came from. Getting an education, the freedom to marry who I want, the freedom of speech, there are just so many things that I'm thankful for, being here.
– Abu Huraira, Potsdam, New York 2020