Commentary: New Yorkers of the World Unite
By John Rossant
French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine has at times been a prickly critic of the U.S., terming it the world's "hyperpower." But when it comes to New York, Védrine--like so many of his compatriots--is an unabashed devotee of the Big Apple. As soon as Védrine heard about the terrorist attacks on September 11, he rushed back to his offices along the river Seine and huddled, transfixed and horrified, around a television monitor.
His first thought was of his many friends in New York, and over the next hours, he and his aides frantically tried to telephone and e-mail Manhattan; only that evening would Védrine be assured that all, luckily, were safe and sound. "Watching those images of fire and airplane missiles, of bodies falling into the void, I thought back of all my trips to New York, almost twenty in the last twenty years," Védrine recalls. "In my head were all those walks, restaurants, parks, museums, galleries, films, the dog days of summer, the snow and the wind. I relived my arrivals in that city of cities, each time with the same emotion."
Everyone has two homelands, the incurable francophile Thomas Jefferson used to say: his own and France. A little over two centuries later, it could reasonably be said that every civilized European, probably every cosmopolitan citizen of the world, has two cities: his own and New York. No other world city comes close to New York in combining financial might, cultural firepower, and sheer urban electricity. The whole world benefits from the resulting sparks. In petitioning Washington for massive federal aid for the city on Oct. 9, New York Governor George E. Pataki and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani underscored the importance of New York for the U.S. But New York is vital for the world, and there's no doubt how most Parisians, Londoners, and Berliners feel right now: Do whatever it takes to bring the city back.
Feelings like that are one reason Mohamed Atta and his fellow hijackers couldn't have chosen a better target for maximum impact than the World Trade Center. They could have blasted those jets into a landmark in another American city. The country would have been savaged and the world appalled. But in some deep way, the attack on New York was an attack on the world. "The fact is that cosmopolitan people--especially younger people--in Paris or Frankfurt know New York almost as well as they know their own cities," says French banker and philosopher Alain Minc. "You could argue there is more in common between New York and those cities than between New York and the American heartland."
It's hard, sometimes, for Americans to comprehend the almost mystical appeal New York holds for much of the rest of the planet. As a place where nationality largely doesn't matter, New York is for many a refreshing change from their own tradition-bound countries. "When we Europeans go to New York we melt into the city, we are diffused into it," says Paolo Moroni, the head of Milan-based furniture group Sawaya & Moroni, who travels to Manhattan around four times a year. "Here in Europe, I remain an Italian if I go to France or Germany."
Moroni is confident New York will be able to get over this most painful episode in its history--he's already planning his next trip. For him, after all, as for so many other international business people, New York is the place where you most want your products to be seen and sold. Védrine, too, is optimistic for the future of New York, "this power station of the world, where so many universal dreams are embodied," he says. It's not just America that needs New York. It's the world.
Europe regional editor Rossant covers European politics from Paris.