Though many BMCC students were not even born, or were children on 9/11, they understand what happened on that day. BMCC is the only college in United States history to have lost a campus building to a terrorist attack. 7 World Trade, which fell on the evening of 9/11, collapsed against the original Fiterman Hall, which was razed and replaced with the beautiful campus building we have today.
I think everyone knows the sequence of these events. 7 World Trade had been damaged when the twin towers fell that morning. BMCC staff on campus say it felt like an earthquake when the towers fell. They say you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, the dust was that thick. People were running in the street, covered with white powder from the unfathomable collapse of two 100-story buildings. Pieces of metal hit the streets. BMCC’s main building at 199 Chambers Street became Command Central for Port Authority, and they set up a triage that wasn’t needed — because there were no survivors.
New York City didn’t look the same, afterwards. Those two familiar sign posts, those high-rise symbols of commerce were gone in the lower Manhattan sky. For months, businesses were boarded up, streets closed.
Our students know what it is like, to wake up and find their city, not the same. The COVID pandemic of Spring 2020 took the lives of too many New Yorkers. It kept us in our apartments, away from our co-workers, classmates and friends — away from our lives. Everything seemed to come to a halt. Manhattan became boarded up, empty. Our students who are essential workers, who had to venture out as the pandemic hit, know that Manhattan felt like a ghost town, before more people started to venture out again.
And we continue to venture out. Restaurants are reopening, barriers along the street are lined with plants, making a wall for outdoor seating. People are appearing on the sidewalk in masks — even small children wear masks. It’s the new look, the new normal.
Our BMCC community members know what it is like, when everything changes. The walk down Chambers Street from the subway, the sound of desks moving as a class settles in — these things have all stopped.
But our students are resilient. They are New Yorkers, either born here or having travelled from across the world and overcome many challenges to be here. They have been preparing all their lives for this harsh time — the Zoom class, the paper they write on their phones, the homework they push through, brothers and sisters and family interrupting their thoughts — and also giving them strength.
Our professors and staff are resilient, too. They reach out by text, by email; whatever it takes, to help a student in need of tutoring or advisement. They plan a class and try to recreate the contact they once made, walking up and down the aisles, stopping to talk quietly with a student at their desk.
All the while, another pandemic is being brought into the light; the pandemic of racism and the society that enables it — but that unjust system is losing its force. It is being shattered by our students, faculty and staff who make their voices heard, who join in the protests, who are gaining the tools that education provides to dismantle an unjust world and create a better life.
On this 19th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, when burning buildings fell to the ground, they say it sounded like an earthquake. And in this Fall 2020 semester like no other, I hear another earthquake. I hear the rumble of our students gathering strength, making change. I hear the future we are making together. We will be stronger than ever, when this time passes. Be safe, take care of each other, and never forget why you are here, what you are meant to learn from this difficult, distinctive time.
Anthony E. Munroe
President, Borough of Manhattan Community College