I was on a bridge over the East River headed toward Lower Manhattan. The train halted to a stop. A woman gasped. We all looked up.
There was no way to know what was happening. All we could see, out the window, was the towers on fire. (Or maybe just one tower? This part I can't recall.)
All I know is when I got on the train in Brooklyn it was a normal day, and when I got off in Manhattan it was not.
The day is a series of snapshots like these. Going to the hospital to donate blood, lines wrapped around the block. Finding refuge at a friend's apartment for company and cable news, trying to piece together what was going on. Walking all the way back home that night, over the Brooklyn Bridge, because the subways were shut down. A kind stranger offered a bottle of water. The streets were eerily silent. The sky was filled with smoke.
Everyone I knew would be fine. The three people I knew in the World Trade Center, they were not in the building. Francis was safe at home.
But that wasn't true for everyone. Makeshift memorials and "missing person" flyers sprouted up all over the city, reminding the fortunate how many were not.
One person who occupied my thoughts that day is a gentleman named Leslie Robertson. Leslie was the structural engineer of the World Trade Center. I met him a couple years prior, the same way I met Francis -- working at The Skyscraper Museum, just a few blocks from Ground Zero.
Leslie had invited us to his office to share his wind tunnel models, construction photographs, and stories of working with Yamasaki on what would be the world's tallest buildings. We were curating a new exhibition, and like a proud father showing off his children, he was gracious with his archive and generous with his time.
So of course my mind floated to Leslie. What must that have felt like, to have worked so hard to make them safe and stand forever, only to watch them come down?
"They weren't supposed to fall," he would later say. "It was just terrible to watch, painful and horrible."
The next time I saw him, at Cooper Union, he looked shook. And then at another conference not long after, when asked if there was anything he wished he had done differently, he had broken down at the podium and wept.
Architects and builders can be a cocky bunch. So Leslie's humanity really moved me.
It wasn't just the loss of an object he helped design -- it as many rhapsodized on TV. I would follow his press, curious to hear how he was processing all this. In one exchange printed in The New Yorker, he responded to a fellow engineer who had sent a note of support:
"Your words do much to abate the fire that writhes inside
It is hard
But that I had done a bit more…
Had the towers stood up for just one minute longer…
It is hard."
How rare, in public life, to hear a man share vulnerability like that. I'm not sure I had ever fully grasped the awesome responsibility of defying gravity to hold so many people safely in the air.
The day after 9/11, Mayor Giuliani asked all "non-essential" workers to stay home, so as not to tax city systems. This was the first time I understood myself to be "non-essential," an identifier I can claim still today. I don't say that to be self-deprecating, I mean it sincerely: I cannot save lives, I cannot repair buildings. I have very little technical expertise to bring to a crisis, let alone the everyday operations of a big city.
I know my role in an emergency -- to avoid being a burden, to stay out of the way. I'm not a first responder, I'm a second shifter. Maybe even third.
In the months following 9/11, our office at Van Alen Institute became a gathering spot for architects and planners to share ideas for the future of Lower Manhattan. There was a strong movement to restore the neighborhood grid, and to re-introduce ideas of sustainability and community -- in stark contrast to the developer-driven bravado to rebuild "bigger than ever."
We offered some counter-narratives, hosting exhibits and forums on how other cities renewed after traumatic events, often with a little less hubris and a little more humility. My boss Ray Gastil and colleague Zoe Ryan researched places like Beirut and Berlin and Oklahoma City, presenting narratives and renderings. I learned a lot, just following their work.
For my part, the conference I had been working on with Ray before 9/11, with partners at the Port Authority in the World Trade Center -- it moved forward, but with new meaning now. Charles Landry & a crew of city designers from London brought examples of revitalization led by arts and culture and community, not traditional commercial interests. Old news today, but it felt a bit radical back then. A small shift in consciousness.
A year later, I would follow Francis to Detroit, a city with a different set of challenges. From then on, I just knew -- I was so much less interested in what was happening at the skyline than on the street, where the physical and social city meet.
"The problem is with us, not our buildings," said Leslie, responding to a question about the risks of high-rise construction in a post-9/11 world. "And it will be with us for a very long time."
I'm not sure exactly what "us" he had in mind, but I know what comes to mine: Our economic systems. Our cultural values. Our political priorities. How we respond to extremism and fear.
Sixteen years later, I am no more "essential" than I was on that day -- but I believe so strongly that these broader conversations are. Who are the people we'll allow in our country? How will we choose to share space in our cities? When does security go too far?
I want us to lean into these questions, a bit deeper than might feel comfortable -- not just after a crisis, but before. I see the "too soon" comments after Harvey & Irma, and the lasting trauma in New Orleans & Detroit, and I don't want us wondering "But that I had done a bit more..."
It is hard. But have you ever seen a first responder run toward danger? Or a proud engineer admit some doubt?
We can do hard.
Claire Nelson, Urban Consulate
New Orleans, LA