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November 11, 2001

New Yorkers Lose Their Inner Rand McNally


Michael Kolomatsky/The New York Times

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Early human ancestors on the African savanna had to find food, avoid being eaten by predators, and on top of all that remember how to get home again across a complex, dangerous terrain. It was too much, development experts say, and the mind's solution, arrived at over thousands of years, was to divide up the tasks. Thinking about paths and landscapes was shifted mostly into the subconscious, leaving the rest of the brain free for the hard work of earning a living.

People still think that way, according to psychologists. Each person makes his or her own little map of the world, with some places colored red for danger or excitement, others warmly tinted with hues of home and safety. That knowledge is then filed away in the back-office of the mind and off we go, commuting to our jobs, and doing lots of other familiar tasks as well, pretty much on autopilot.

Or at least that's how it worked until Sept. 11. The mental maps of New York — how the region functioned and how people mostly never gave it a thought — were shredded that day, along with so much else. The wounds to the city were certainly real, and the heightened security presence in many places since then offers a constant reminder that the risk of further attacks is probably real as well. Feeling nervous sometimes these days is not abnormal.

But mental health experts say an equally important and overlooked element in explaining the disorientation and anxiety that many in the New York region feel is that they're all still a little lost. Things don't look the same, or work the same, or even smell the same, at least in Lower Manhattan.

Predictability and familiarity — the foundation stones that allow the old subconscious of the savanna to take over through the routine mapped-out stretches of a day — have been shaken.

"We live at the level of our newspaper stand, our route to work, where we get our cup of coffee — that's the intimate personal geography," said Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a psychiatrist who teaches at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "We are privileged to take our environment for granted and think about other things, and that privilege has been taken away."

Losing the old map does not mean that people can't tell north from south, or that New Yorkers are literally unable to find their way because the landmarks of the World Trade Center were destroyed. (Although the New York City Fire Department did have new maps drawn up in the days after Sept. 11, using newspaper stands and other structures as landmarks to guide rescue workers toward the disaster site.)

What a damaged map does, the experts say, is thrust all the symbols and signs of the world, to which people were largely oblivious before, onto the front burners of thought.

A sudden lurching stop on the subway or a siren in the night sends a different signal to the brain now. Driving to work — perhaps to a new location — might take an hour or it might take three. The light on a sunny day in Lower Manhattan reflects in odd new ways on office windows. Route 22 in New Jersey, which once appeared to aim directly for the World Trade towers on the horizon as though homing in on a beacon, is now a disembodied shopping strip that might be in any edge city in America. Going to a park has become sweeter for some, more threatening for others who see danger in every public space.

The distinctive human ability to plan (the word itself is derived from a term of geography, the Latin for "plain") stumbles as well when the maps are lost.

"Being able to predict a stable future is part of the process of why we have mental maps," said Edward H. Steinfeld, a professor of architecture and human behavior at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "I believe it's a tool that people use not only to find their way, but also to say what the future will be like. When those maps are disrupted, it's an attack on our ability to feel good about the future."

The difficulty, or perhaps for some, the virtue, of talking about the subconscious navigation system is that its existence is almost impossible to prove definitively.

Most people, when asked about the damage from Sept. 11 to their inner maps, are likely to look lost right away because the maps — of course! — do not exist in conscious thought. At a time when the local burden of woes seems heavy enough as it is, therapists and experts like Dr. Fullilove may seem to be pointing out yet another problem to worry about, or alternatively, offering to hold a hand that people didn't know needed holding.

But scholars in fields ranging from geography to anthropology say the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that the human sense of order, predictability and stability is linked directly to the shape and texture of the physical world, and particularly to the landmarks that define it and in turn, define us.

The psychological research that led to the definitions of post-traumatic stress syndrome, for example, was largely derived not from war or human violence, but from a devastating flood in the early 1970's in the tiny town of Man, W.Va. The flood washed away just about every recognizable element of the community — from trees to roads and houses — and left many of the survivors shattered by the resulting disorientation.

"The kind of landscape that people orient themselves by is such a familiar part of their world that they really don't know what it means until it's gone," said Kai Erikson, a professor of sociology and American studies at Yale University who studied the Man flood and wrote a book about it, "Everything in Its Path" (Simon & Schuster, 1976). "It's the absence of something rather than the presence that disorients you."

In New York City, some urban scholars and writers say, an attack on the two tallest landmarks had an even greater mental impact because the landscape is almost entirely man-made.

The New York skyline defines a place, they say, but also the identities of the people who inhabit it. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 altered a mountain and a landscape near Portland. The destruction of the twin towers altered the concept of what a landscape is and what holds it together.

The writer Tony Hiss, who has celebrated the mental and physical geography of New York in books like "The Experience of Place" (Knopf, 1990), said he gazes up now at the vaulted ceiling above Grand Central Terminal with a new sense of wonder, both about the building and the people who move beneath it. "It feels more precious than ever, but I feel more that what holds it together is not steel and stone and brass but the collective will," he said. "The city is not only the buildings, but our psychic energies holding it together."

Ordinary New Yorkers are also thinking differently about specific places in the city. In a poll conducted by The New York Times in late October and early this month, nearly half of the 1,172 city residents questioned said there were specific spots that they were going out of their way to avoid, ranging from tall buildings to downtown Manhattan in general. Others said they were being drawn to new locations, like parks or the confines of their own neighborhoods.

Therapists say that in general, time is the only real healer of maps. New routes to work, new places of danger or safety, even an overall higher level of uncertainty about what a day will bring, gradually sink to the level of habit and thus subconscious control, they say.

Many experts say city and regional authorities and employers could help by making sure, through practice, that the proper response to things like bomb threats or suspicious-looking letters becomes ingrained into people's heads. Better announcements on subway and commuter trains about the exact nature and cause of delays would also ease anxieties, they say.

Dr. Fullilove and other mental health professionals and clergy members had also planned to hold a mass walk this fall through Lower Manhattan, which they had hoped would help heal the strained bonds between people and landscape. But she got kind of lost herself, and the walk has now been postponed until spring.

Because of the turmoil in city government, Dr. Fullilove said, the pathway through the approvals process was impossible to follow.

"There's no usual route to the mayor's office, no usual route to permits," she said.

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