A block from my Manhattan apartment, on a still largely mom-and-pop, relatively low-slung stretch of Broadway, two spanking new apartment towers sprouted just as the good times were ending. A massive ground-floor window on one of them displays a message advertising retail space in white letters against a bright red background: "Locate yourself at the center of the fastest expanding portion of the affluent Upper West Side."
Successive windows assure potential renters that this retail space (10,586 square feet available! 110 feet of frontage! 30-foot ceilings! Multiple configurations possible!) is conveniently located only "steps from the 96th Street subway station, servicing 11 million riders annually."
Here's the catch, though: That building was completed in late 2007, yet it remains an empty, cavernous space of concrete, pillars and pipes. All those "square feet" and not the slightest evidence that any business is moving in. Across Broadway, the same thing is true of the other tower.
And it's not just new buildings having problems, judging by the increasing number of metal grills and shutters over storefronts at midday, all that brown butcher paper covering the insides of windows and those omnipresent "for rent" and "for lease" signs that have replaced window displays.
I hadn't paid much attention to any of this until, running late one drizzly evening about a month ago and needing a piece of meat for dinner, I decided to stop at Oppenheimer's, a butcher shop three blocks from home. The store still had its awning ("Oppenheimer, Established 1964, Prime Meats & Seafood") and the same proud boast of "steaks and chops cut to order, oven-ready roasts, fresh-ground meats, seasonal favorites," but you couldn't miss the "retail space available" sign in the window, and when I put my face to the glass, I could see that the shop's insides had been gutted.
On making it home, I said to my wife, "Did you know that Oppenheimer's closed down?" She replied matter-of-factly: "That was months ago."
OK, that's me, not likely to win an award for awareness of my surroundings. Still, I soon found myself, notebook in hand, walking the neighborhood and looking. Really looking. Now, understand, in New York City, there's nothing strange about small businesses failing or buildings rising. It's a city that since birth has regularly cannibalized itself.
What's strange in my experience, as a born-and-bred New Yorker, is that when storefronts are emptied now, they aren't quickly repopulated.
Broadway in daylight seems increasingly like an archaeological 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 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.
In my neighborhood, at least so far, the banks, the fast-food restaurants and the chain drugstores still stand. It's the small places that seem to be dropping like flies.
Near the corner of 97th Street sits the shell of Alpine Sound Electronics, where I used to buy cheap, waterproof watches for my daily swim at the Y. An emphatic "sale, sale, sale, sale, sale" sign over the door commemorates the store's final moments.
Reminders of more prosperous times are everywhere. A canopy advertising "Moroccan & Indian Home Decoratives ... Aromatherapy ... Exotic Gifts" remains above one empty store. A hand-lettered sign on the door of another reads, "Fedex Please Knock Hard," and a tiny "Zagat Rated 2006 Shopping Guide" decal still adorns the window. On Amsterdam Avenue just east of Broadway, nine of 12 tiny stores on one block are vacant.
Along Broadway, there's a veritable murderer's row of slaughtered neighborhood restaurants. Not surprisingly, even in food-mad New York, people are eating out less often, and our streets, except perhaps on Saturday nights, seem visibly less populated. Near the corner of 91st, Mary Ann's, a festive Tex-Mex spot, bit the dust; just before 90th, the upscale fish restaurant Docks Oyster Bar posted this sign: "Docks thanks you all for your loyal patronage over the years but this restaurant is now closed"; On 77th, Ruby Foo's, a giant pan-Asian joint described by Zagat's as "Disneyfied," has shut up shop too.
New York City is not downtown Elkhart, Ind., not yet anyway. But signs of distress are everywhere. The city's zoos are losing their state funding, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is laying off staff, the unemployment rate is rising fast, property values are sinking, mass-transit riders are facing fare increases as well as major service cuts, and the Greater New York Orchid Society has canceled its annual show.
As I walk past the patches of darkness in my neighborhood, 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 have regularly featured fantasy scenarios in which Islamic terrorists sneak atomic bombs or "dirty bombs" into cities like New York and set them off. But maybe, as on Sept. 11, 2001, we've just been looking the wrong way.
After all, you might say that an economic dirty bomb has now gone off in downtown New York.
In my neighborhood, back on 9/11, you could hear the sirens, see the jets streak overhead, catch the acrid smell of the towers and everything chemical in them burning, and watch those apocalyptic-looking TV scenes of the towers collapsing in clouds of ash and smoke again and again. But if the look then was apocalyptic, the damage, however grim, was limited.
This time around, there's no dust, no ash, no acrid smell, no sirens, no jets, and no brave rescuers either. And yet the effect might, sooner or later, be far more apocalyptic, and the lives swallowed up far greater. This time, the "caves" of the extremists responsible for the devastation were located on Wall Street. They hijacked our economy and did their level best to take down our world.
And they may have come closer than most of us imagine. Alpine Sound and Oppenheimer's, Docks and Ruby Foo's have all disappeared. And more are surely headed toward failure. For the people who owned, or ran, or worked in them, unlike the survivors of the original 9/11, there will be no moving bios in the local papers, no talk of compensation and no majestic memorials to argue about.
For the perpetrators, who, at worst, have gone home pocketing their millions, there will be no retribution. No invasions will be launched, nor missiles shot into homes or hide-outs. None of them will be pursued to their lairs or kidnapped off the streets of New York, or from their palatial mansions, or apartments, or estates. None will be spirited to foreign lands to be imprisoned and tortured. None will be labeled "enemy combatants."
Quite the opposite: In 9/11 The Sequel, the U.S. government is willing to pay many of them and their institutions in the multibillions for their time and further efforts.
In the second 9/11, all the pain and torture is in the neighborhood.
Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute's tomdispatch.com, where a longer version of this article appears. To see other "Postcards from the Recession," go to latimes.com\postcard