THE GREATEST GENERATION

I often long for the “good old days.” Not because I miss “Pee Wee” Reese and Jackie Robinson, John Wayne, Ed Sullivan, and Frank Sinatra, though I do, along with the “old-fashioned” values and morals they represented. No, it’s because in the ’40s, The Greatest Generation punched the Nazis right in the nose. In the ’50s, Eisenhower stretched a gleaming interstate highway system 42,000 miles from sea to shining sea. In the ’60s, young J.F.K. promised we would launch humans to the moon, and, astoundingly, before the ’70s began, humanity took that giant leap into a new and thrilling era.

At the turn of the 19th century, my own grandfather, an immigrant from Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi in the Avellino province of southern Italy, stepped anxiously along with millions of other émigrés from Italy, Ireland, Asia, and Eastern Europe through the gateway of a red brick castle on Ellis Island. Destitute, hopeful, hardworking, and ambitious, these people would design and build all the critical infrastructure of the U.S., and without complaint. All the bridges, tunnels, subways, and skyscrapers that still define my city – America’s city – New York.

Your city, too.

As a people, we’re no strangers to such Herculean engineering projects. We’re experts at bringing America back to greatness. Starting centuries ago, we laid out the rails – 107 billion pounds of steel – for train travel. From east to west, city after city rose from the desolate and unforgiving landscape—Boston, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco, and everything in between. Towering dams. Half a million miles of electrical transmission lines. Immense aqueducts, “water tunnels,” like the one in NY with a storage capacity of 550 billion gallons.

True grit, vision and ingenuity. Such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s when he looked at swampland in the middle of Manhattan and built, from the ground up, an 800-acre idyllic retreat – America’s most visited urban park – for the public’s health and recreation. Without the respite I have felt there, there were days – especially in the fall of 2001 – I might have gone crazy. Or again in 1968, when the builders of the first World Trade Center (W.T.C.) site had to figure out what to do with the 1.2 million cubic yards of rock and dirt they’d excavated for the foundation. Should they just heap all that crap into the harbor, or jam up local landfills?

Instead, in concert with David Rockefeller’s urban renewal mission, they conceived the idea of using all that fill material to expand the Manhattan shoreline across West Street to enlarge the city itself. That’s how Battery Park City, a 700-foot, six block, 92-acre add-on, arose as though straight out of the Hudson. Restoring America’s conservative core values from the ground up.

And speaking of which, more recently, we found ourselves having to reconstruct much of the downtown of America’s City after terrorists annihilated its heart in one unimaginable attack. That’s where I come in, but more on that later.

Vision. Consider again that audacious “moon shot.” Or Edison and Tesla’s competing wonders of modernity. Or how about watching the Roebling couple’s masterpiece erected between Manhattan and Brooklyn, over which 120,000 cars pass now every day?

Somebody had to dream these things, necessity often being the mother of invention. Only then could the likes of Washington Roebling and his wife, Emily – the first female field engineer – start building caissons and stringing cable. Only then could we band together, roll up our sleeves, and get to work under skillful leadership. We had to gather the facts, truly understand the problem. We had to take the long view like those falcons get when they wheel above the city. We had to triage our priorities, not get mired in the trivial. Along the way, we had to overcome obstacles and let criticism roll off our backs—or understand that our detractors were right after all, and we had to return to the drawing board having learned from our mistakes. We had to adapt to unforeseen glitches in our plans. We had to compromise.

It’s time to do that again. Right now. To rebuild America from the ground up.

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