By Thane Peterson
Last Friday (Sept. 28), a stage full of Broadway performers gathered on Times Square to sing New York, New York for a TV spot. The Broadway hoofers, including Glen Close, Nathan Lane, and Matthew Broderick, are urging Americans to start visiting New York City again in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. You'll probably see a lot of the ad, which will start airing nationally in the next few days.
I visited last week, and here's my two cents' worth: Take the stars up on the offer if there's any way you can. New York could really use the boost. Many hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other cultural institutions are hurting because of the fall-off in tourism. Yet there's little reason to stay away at this point. Most of Manhattan wasn't directly affected by the tragedy, which occurred on the south end of the island.
If anything, it's a good time to visit. The crowds are smaller than they normally would be and New Yorkers, chastened by the tragedy, seem a lot more polite than usual. I had expected to feel ghoulish visiting the city so soon after the tragedy. But in the end it felt reassuring to visit familiar places and find them unchanged. It can be oddly soothing to visit the scene of the tragedy and pay your respects to those who were lost.
Despite heightened security, getting into New York is easy. In reality, all the new security measures -- annoying and time-consuming as they are -- mean flying is probably far safer now than it was a month ago. If you're driving, there seem to be few delays for cars coming in via the Lincoln Tunnel. If you drive in on a weekday morning, just be sure there are at least two people in the car or you will be turned away.
You won't be able to waltz into any Broadway play you want to see, however. The theaters that seem to have plenty of extra tickets are musicals, which depend heavily on tourists but seem too bouncy to watch in times like these. The cast of Kiss Me Kate, for instance, took a 50% pay cut to keep the show alive.
If you're thinking you can easily slip into a hot show like The Producers, forget it. I tried and was informed at the door that the play is still "seriously sold out." The earliest dates available are in the spring. Urinetown, the hot off-Broadway play that recently moved uptown, also is tough to get into.
For lovers of classic theater, a good alternative -- given the somber mood of the city -- is a new production of Dance of Death, a black comedy by the angst-ridden Swedish playwright August Strindberg. It stars the English Shakespearean actors Ian McKlellen and Helen Mirren, who give brilliant performances as an embittered couple locked in an endless marital battle. It's at the Broadhurst Theater, at 235 W. 44th St. -- right across from where The Producers is playing. Even there, though, it's probably a good idea to book in advance. The play is only in previews, but it was almost sold out the night I attended.
The relative lack of crowds also makes it a good time to wander through the permanent collections at museums like the Met, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum. For a grieving city, the best art exhibition up right now may be the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints," which includes most of the 61 drawings known to exist from the Flemish master, as well as a number of prints.
It's a rare opportunity to see the body of work of one of the greatest artists in history gathered in one place. Since Sept. 11, several critics have also noted that Bruegel's frightful depictions of evil and cruelty amid the everyday routines of 16th century village life seem somehow to put the tragedy in context.
Even if you don't intend to visit the rubble of the World Trade Center, you may find yourself drawn there. "I was very moved by it," says Susan Jones, a lecturer at Oxford University who visited the site with her husband -- Dan Carey, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway -- a few days after arriving in New York Sept. 24 for a family visit. "I felt something akin to shock at seeing the place and realizing, 'This is where it happened,'" she says.
Walking south on Broadway toward the site is still shocking. Motorized traffic is stopped by a police roadblock at Canal Street, several blocks away. But there's a constant stream of pedestrians walking down. There's no jostling and very little talk. You can make out National Guard troops along with the police, and the smoke from the fires still burning in the ruined buildings stings your eyes.
Starting at Dey Street and for several blocks south, you can look over the police barricades and from about a block-and-a-half away survey the scenes of devastation so familiar from TV. Most of the dust and debris have been cleaned from the streets around the site. But there are a few places -- such as an empty jewelry store on Broadway -- where you can still see the thick white dust that once blanketed the area.
The police, troops, and local residents seem to understand that most people come not to gawk, but as a sign of respect and mourning for the victims. "In general, the atmosphere is very respectful," Carey says. The police simply ask that people keep moving and don't take photos. "This is a crime scene," a policeman explained to one man who was pulling out his camera.
Normally, I wouldn't feel comfortable visiting the site of such a tragedy. I'd fear seeming voyeuristic and uncaring. I went because of an e-mail I got from an old high school friend from Illinois who now lives in Manhattan. "I cannot be overdramatic," my friend Rhonda Cohen wrote. "Please come witness this wreckage before the evidence is erased. This is a sacred burial ground and can never be anything else." Having been there, I have to agree with her that as many people as possible should bear witness.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht