It was a day exactly like today. A clear blue, bright and sunny Tuesday. When the first plane hit the North Tower, I was getting coffee at Michelangelo's coffee shop on State Street. As I walked the block and a half to my office at the Churchill Building, I ran into a state senator I knew who said, "Did you hear about the disasters?"
I had no idea what he was talking about. I followed him into an office of a mutual friend and we watched in awe as the second tower was hit.
I went through the rest of the day numb and stunned, trying to follow my schedule, which included a trip to Milwaukee to give a speech. When I got there it had been cancelled. Of course it would have been. But in those early hours, it wasn't clear just what was happening and the perfect September weather and the distance from lower Manhattan made it all seem unreal.
At that time, I was the executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. I was thinking and reading and writing and speaking a lot about cities and just starting to consider a run for mayor.
After the initial numbness and shock at the incredible human tragedy of it all, I started to think about what this might mean for cities. Would this be the end of skyscrapers and, for that matter, would people want to flee cities altogether because they felt like easy targets?
The answer has turned out to be no. The World Trade Center has been replaced, appropriately and defiantly, by even taller buildings. And in the last census, we discovered that for the first time since the 1920s, more central cities are growing faster than their suburbs than the other way around.
Cities are durable places. A lot has been thrown at them in the last century: racial strife, crumbling infrastructure, crime waves coming and going, pollution, freeways tearing through neighborhoods, tax base erosion, and more.
And yet the projection of American cities is generally upward. Racial tensions are a long way from over, but they're better than they were a generation ago. Crime is near all time lows. Most air pollution problems have been all but solved. Some cities are healing the scars created by inappropriately placed freeways by tearing them down as they reach replacement age. And cities are attracting bright, young entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and wealth in the city because that's where they want to be.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a horrible day. Much of what followed wasn't pleasant or pretty. But American cities did not crumble or fade. They became better and stronger and taller.