The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}


Many of us watching the inferno at Notre Dame de Paris felt that 9/11 dread. This week, as nearly 18 years ago, the news channels kept looping the same horrific video of towers collapsing. At the end, the medieval cathedral remained mostly standing while the twin towers at New York’s World Trade Center vanished into a pile of smoking rubble. The outcomes may have been different, but both calamities showed that what we think most permanent may not be.

In human terms, the calamity on Sept. 11, 2001, was of an entirely different scale. Thousands died. The conflagration in Paris miraculously cost no lives.

As an architectural disaster, however, there’s no comparison. Notre Dame is a Gothic masterpiece embodying the spiritual. The twin towers, bland buildings famous mainly for being tall, were dedicated to commerce.

The late historian Lewis Mumford denounced the World Trade Center as an “example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.”

That terrorists had unleashed the massacre at the twin towers made the tragedy especially gruesome. Parisians are relieved that the fire at Notre Dame appears to have accidentally started — but the 2015 terror attack was often mentioned during the fire as a related reason for insecurity. The scars from terrorism and devastation of an iconic structure make Paris and New York sisters in pain.

Medieval cathedrals are no strangers to destruction. Over the centuries, fire and humans have caused enormous damage at cathedrals throughout Europe, and they have been rebuilt. French President Emmanuel Macron said Notre Dame will be brought back as well — though his five-year timetable sounds optimistic.

It took almost 200 years to build the original Notre Dame. Reconstruction on a work dating back to the 12th century would be quite a challenge.

Where the twin towers stood, a 104-story replacement skyscraper has risen. The Freedom Tower took only eight years to build.

Movies and TV offer insight into how a world-famous structure characterizes its city. Notre Dame represents the enduring soul of France. A very good French TV series called “Chef” flashes scenes of Notre Dame, seemingly in every episode. The chef is a Parisian perfectionist trying to defend traditional French cooking against waves of culinary fads.

The catastrophic loss of life at the World Trade Center transformed pictures of the towers into sacred imagery. Before 9/11, movies such as “Wall Street” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” portrayed the twin towers as cauldrons of corporate greed. After 9/11, “The Simpsons” and other shows deleted episodes showing them out of respect for the fallen.

The post-9/11 TV series “Blue Bloods” frequently uses New York’s ornate century-old bridges as backdrops for the Reagans. They seem fit for a multigenerational Irish American family largely employed in law enforcement.

Older structures, be they homely or majestic, also serve as warming reminders of place. About 14 years ago, wealthy residents of Santa Monica Canyon stopped the demolition of a beaten-up gas station dating back to 1924. A tiny business with three vintage pumps, the Canyon Service Station was no cathedral, but the millionaires who passed it every day loved it for always being there.

“On a cold, rainy night, when you’re driving up the canyon and you see the glow of the gas pumps,” one neighbor said poetically, “it literally welcomes you home with open arms. It’s like a lighthouse.”

That is exactly what lighthouses do for sailors coming into harbor. Now imagine the trauma of losing a cathedral that has anchored your town for almost 700 years. Parisians were spared the worst this week, but like New Yorkers, they’ve seen that the unthinkable is possible.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

“Our country is full,” President Trump said in regard to the immigration debate. Is this true? That depends. Some parts seem full, and some parts are definitely not. What the United States does need is a smart conversation on population.

Nearly every point made in this “America, full or not?” discussion bears at least one questionable assumption. Here goes:

— Low population density means we have lots of room to grow. That’s a meaningless measure, ignoring the way we live. Population density may be 301 people per square mile in France and only 93 per square mile in the U.S. However, a far larger proportion of our landmass is barely habitable desert and frozen tundra.

— Cities cannot be full: they can just keep building higher and higher. Many living in cities frozen with congestion would disagree. (Odd how Americans are increasingly leaving those wide-open spaces and crowding into cities.)You have densely packed South Florida. As building cranes hover over nearly every horizon, the region is facing an existential threat from climate change. Scientists predict water levels could rise by 2 feet in the next 40 years. That would imperil water supplies and more than $14 billion in real estate. Vast areas where Floridians now live would be underwater. Meanwhile, South Florida expects to add 3 million more people by 2025.

The subways and streets of New York City are already insanely congested, yet demographers predict nearly half a million more New Yorkers by 2040. San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles are also coping with rapid growth that many residents see impairing their quality of life.

All these cities see home prices going through the roof because so many are moving there. Rather than admit that their population is reaching a breaking point, some argue that leveling old neighborhoods for forests of residential towers will solve the housing “shortage.” But then, the place loses its character, the very thing that attracted people in the first place. And the struggle to move folks from their home to work gets harder. After all, the miles of road and track are pretty much a fixed number.

— A falling U.S. population would be a big problem. How so? Certainly, a collapsing birthrate speaks of lost hope in the future, but that’s not us. But then you hear worries centered on softening real estate values as demand diminishes. Lower prices may be bad for sellers and builders, but they’re great for buyers — especially those squeezed out of the market by high prices.

Rust Belt cities that have seen sharp losses of population may now have more to offer. Their urban infrastructure is already built and largely paid for. And their well-built housing is going for cheap. That is a competitive advantage.

— A shrinking workforce is bad. How so? Not if robots are coming for jobs. Fewer workers would be needed. They can be trained for work the robots can’t do and paid a lot more.

Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon warned Congress that if the U.S. population were to continue growing at its current rate, the nation’s “capacity to educate youth, to provide privacy and living space, to maintain the processes of open, democratic government … may be grievously strained.”

The U.S. population then was only 200 million. Today it’s nearly 330 million.

Nixon advocated a national population policy. A good population policy would consider how many immigrants we need, given our low birthrate, and what sort of skills they should have.

In the meantime, note this: For all the hollering about national head count, the U.S. population is still growing, though slowly. Let’s turn the alarm bells off and talk calmly.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

IMAGE: Photo of New York City skyline during Hurricane Sandy blackout, by David Shankbone via Flickr