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On September 11th, 2001, I was happily settling in to a year's residency at the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers (directed by Peter Gay). My intention was to work on the history of New York City in the twentieth century—a follow-up volume to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford University Press), which I had co-authored with Ted Burrows. I had just plunged into the Second World War and was reading about U-Boat attacks in New York harbor when the World Trade Center was destroyed. In the following days I wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times City Section, in which I tried to provide some perspective on the shattering events. I noted that our city had experienced other disasters over the course of its 400-year history, and not only survived them but often turned catastrophe into opportunity, emerging stronger than before.

Over the ensuing months, I participated in the swirl of discussions about how the wounded city should react to its current crisis. The Gotham Center for New York City History, of which I am Director, organized public conversations that set present events in historical context. The inaugural Gotham History Festival, which took place in October 2001, brought thousands of people together to celebrate the city's past and ponder its future. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani issued his first post-attack proclamation declaring the Festival—which took place at our home base at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and in venues all around town—to be New York City History Week. Afterwards the New York City Council hailed the Festival for having been a useful part of the healing process. Similarly, the Gotham Center (ably generaled by Associate Director Suzanne Wasserman) deployed our website (') to provide temporal perspectives and a platform for ongoing discussion about the city's plight and prospects, and developed a curriculum for the public school system, called New York Challenged, to set the tragedy in a historical continuum.

As I shifted from reading about the forties to writing about our own time, it became clear that a wide range of organizations and individuals were energetically churning out ideas not just to repair or rebuild our city, but to improve it. I decided I might make a useful contribution by summarizing and making accessible the burgeoning number of proposals for future action, and situating those initiatives in the city's history. Naturally the result, written in the heat of a troubled moment, is less a historical account than an intervention in an urgent public debate. I hope and expect that this collective conversation—and subsequent collective action—will revivify New York, for all of its citizens.

Brooklyn, New York
July 2002