I was just nine years old when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers in my home city of New York and forever changed the world as we knew it.
I had just started at the top of a new school year less than an hour’s drive from downtown Manhattan, when students were shepherded into the auditorium and told a little white lie that a few bombs had gone off in New York City, but everyone was fine.
I was too young to understand the gravity of the situation and how much it would shape the world I would grow up in. But I remember the fear in my classmates’ eyes as they thought about their mothers and fathers who had just kissed them goodbye before heading into the city for work, like they did every day, many of them in downtown Manhattan and some in the World Trade Center itself.
I was spared the horrifying images of the towers being hit and pancaking down to what would soon become Ground Zero, with no regard for the lives inside. My brother, two and a half years older, had just started at the combined middle school/high school, where teachers wheeled TV sets into the hallways and were showing the horror scene on repeat.
My parents were at work (not in the city, thankfully), so a friend’s mother picked us up and tried to shield us from the pain by popping a funny movie into the DVD player. When my mom came to get me, I remember feeling a profound sense that nothing was the same. We were caught off guard by a faceless enemy. We were no longer the safest, strongest country on earth. We were not invincible.
I later learned more about the destruction, the lives lost, the heroes sacrificed in the fire. My brother’s best friend’s father was severely burned by an explosion in an elevator as he tried to escape; my mom’s cousin fled across the Brooklyn Bridge and walked miles to safety at his home in Long Island; a family friend had fortuitously missed the train that day for an early morning meeting at the towers.
In the New York-centric advertising industry, there are thousands more stories like these. Creatives, prepped for a pitch, headed to their offices. Media executives were ready to spend the day haggling on upfront deals. Seasoned industry professionals who had grown up on Madison Avenue and recent college grads alike headed to work like any other day.
9/11 changed our world. We started taking our shoes off on airport security lines and walking through metal detectors. We had a collective fear of crowded spaces and a new faceless threat. We sometimes directed that fear unjustly toward innocent people who had nothing to do with the attack but were vilified for sharing religions and nationalities with the attackers.
But, since then, downtown Manhattan has been revitalized into a vibrant neighborhood with new buildings, restaurants, malls and spaces. One World Trade is again a beacon for New York’s strength and resilience. It stands proud next to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Monument that will always remind us of the two towers that stood before it.
The advertising industry, often simply referred to as ‘Madison Avenue’ itself, has flocked downtown to One World Trade in a sign of faith and a declaration that adland doesn’t run scared.
In March 2020, a similar but very different crisis affected not just our city, or our country or the Western World. COVID-19 upended how we work, live, move and interact globally. It isolated us and killed millions of innocent lives too soon.
It’s strange to sit in the second weary year of this unending pandemic, thinking about the first crisis that shaped the better part of my life. But it’s also oddly comforting to look back and see how much the city has rebuilt and flourished from that fateful day.
Because just a year and a half ago, as stores shut their doors and people fled Manhattan in droves, the rumor was that New York City — the home of the ad industry, the center of the financial world and as the country’s most bustling metropolis — was dead.
But just as construction on One World Trade began as soon as the debris from the towers were cleared, New York City, and the advertising industry, found ways to adapt to COVID. People began eating outside and gathering in public parks. Agencies pivoted to working from home and will soon start, hopefully, to refill office seats that have been vacant for 18 months.
As we’ve learned this year, there’s always another crisis around the corner. So let’s never forget the way New York responded on 9/11: with empathy, hope, grace and resilience.