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September 9, 2011

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Some see decline, some see rebirth

FOR Kevin Wolford, the last decade has been a descent from security to loss. Once steadily employed as a roofer in a booming area of Florida, he now has no more unemployment checks, and he's used up most of his savings and retirement account. He and his wife are separated, partly because of finances.

He blames his problems on the economy. But looking back over the last decade, Wolford feels he's been witnessing a national decline - one that began with the attacks of September 11.

More than 1,600 kilometers away, from his vantage point at the construction site at ground zero, Jose Bonilla has a different view.

In his last decade he helped wage a war, had two children, and stayed employed on crews building the soaring skyscraper that will tower over the trade center site.

When he looks back at the transformation he has seen since 9/11, he sees rebirth. Like a phoenix rising up from the ashes, he says.

For some, especially in area hardest hit by these past years of war, loss and economic hardship, 9/11 seems the moment that everything started to go wrong. That sunny Tuesday morning took root as a lingering fear: What if it was the beginning of a downward slide? What if the US is an empire in decline?

But many New Yorkers offer a different perspective. The memory of smoky devastation remains vivid, but the apocalyptic moment has already come and gone. While the last decade has come with bureaucracy and economic challenges, the dark fears that shadowed this city after the attacks never materialized. The ash and the rubble are gone, and so - for the most part - are the uniformed men carrying machine guns.

When New Yorkers look back now, many see strength and perseverance. It is the fire they walked through and survived.

"There's even more pride that you get from that - that you made it through that dark time, that cloud," Bonilla says. "One reason we get knocked down is to learn how to get back up."

Gray ash

In the days after the attack, lower Manhattan was covered in gray ash from the demolished twin towers while stunned people posted flyers of missing loved ones throughout the city. The rest of America watched the horror on TV, helpless. There wasn't much else to do; massive blood drives were organized around the country, and folks donated. But few people survived, so no blood was needed.

A decade later, New Yorkers are no longer stunned, says John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts.

"New York got over 9/11 much faster than anyone expected," says Baick, a New York City historian.

"New Yorkers are better at compartmentalizing. Nowhere else in the world is there this kind of diversity, tension and strangeness. New Yorkers adapt and adjust remarkably quickly."

While the city of New York picked itself up, the rest of the country also mourned - then mourned again when soldiers died in Afghanistan and Iraq. And again when the housing market went bust and again when the Great Recession began.

"Maybe in New York, they see a phoenix rising out of the ashes," says Tony Brunello, a political science professor at Eckerd College in St Petersburg, Florida. "But to around here, it's a world of fear, with no evidence of the recovery."

Start of decline

Roofer Wolford is finding that getting back up isn't easy. Out of work yet again, the 54-year-old Florida construction worker is trying to puzzle through the newly mandated process of applying for benefits online.

When he learned about 9/11, Wolford had been working for a dozen years at the same roofing company. Lee County between Tampa and Miami, was booming.

Houses were sprouting up everywhere. Unemployment that year hit a record low of 2.1 percent.

Watching the twin towers burn on TV, Wolford was shocked, sad, but not personally impacted.

He figures most people outside of New York felt that way.

Looking back, it seems September 11 heralded a shift. It's not the same country he grew up in, he says. There's less confidence, less opportunity, especially for guys like him.

He has a sense that America's best days are gone.

"People on TV and radio say we're the greatest nation," he says. "I don't believe it anymore."

Wolford blames the economy for his own troubles, but thinks that the US as a whole probably began to decline on 9/11. The terror attacks and the housing bust were like one-two punches to America.

Since he was laid off in the housing slowdown in 2007, and then again last year from a lower paying job, Wolford's applied for dozens of jobs and had zero interviews. No one needs roofers anymore, since the housing market crashed. By January of last year, the unemployment rate in Florida was 14.2 percent - nearly seven times what it had been a decade earlier.


For Bonilla, it was a better decade.

He watched the attack on TV on a Marine base in Georgia. He and other Marines crowded close to the screen, in disbelief.

Today, he's rebuilding what he saw knocked down. Far above, amid the dust and the clang of raw concrete and tools, Alignn Edwards grins under his construction helmet inside the building that will become 4 World Trade Center. Behind him is the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty.

He, too, takes special pride in rebuilding. Like Bonilla, he feels safer now than a decade ago - there's better work safety.

He focuses on the city's strength.

"There's nowhere like New York," he says. "We drop, we fall, we come right back up. That's who we are."


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