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N.Y. values do about-face

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The World Trade Center has been destroyed, but this has also been a crushing defeat for irony, cynicism and hipness.

Here in New York, the city that gave the world "Seinfeld," "Sex and the City" and Studio 54, the victors now are sincerity, patriotism and earnestness. Consider these snapshots from the new New York, where post-modernism is post-facto:

Friday night in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village: This is the place where, in the past, every bohemian came to dig the scene, every radical came to raise the rabble, every college doper came to score a joint. There's a folk singer, Adam Tucker, 31, leading a gentle sing-along; he's scruffy, all right — long hair, hasn't shaved in a while, wearing a "Rent" T-shirt. But he's got a U.S. flag fitted into the frets of his guitar.

Others have U.S. flags stuck in their pockets, sewn onto their jackets, made into kerchiefs on their heads. Just about everyone has a ribbon or some little insignia of respect and remembrance. I ask myself: When's the last time I saw a flag — a U.S. flag — here? It has been a while. Like never. But now, everything's changed.

Saturday night, along the West Side Highway at Canal Street: This is the edge of the security perimeter that cordons off the blast zone and the relief effort. A crowd has gathered here by the Mobil gas station, standing respectfully behind the police line. They're New Yorkers, which is to say they're everything: young, old, black, white, straight, gay — and everything in between. But most are young and cool, or at least formerly cool. This is, after all, the West Village, which is heavily gay, and TriBeCa, which is totally trendoid. But they have one thing in common: Every time an emergency worker walks or drives in or out — and there are hundreds of them — the crowd erupts in cheers.

Ask yourself: When was the last time Manhattanites energetically "huzzahed" blue-collar workers? Most of these working stiffs probably haven't been applauded since their wedding, or since their team won the Benevolent Association softball championship. Guys who were lucky to have finished high school aren't used to being looked up to by New York University graduates who make careers out of stocks and semiotics. But today, it's different.

The difference, of course, is that thousands of people have been killed. No doubt some of them were ironic, cynical and hip. Some surely watched "Seinfeld," the sitcom that bragged that it was about nothing, that it would never indulge in hugging and kissing. Sex was OK, but no hugging and kissing.

But the World Trade Center was about something. And there's been a lot of spontaneous nonsexual hugging and kissing on the not-so-mean streets of this sad city.

When the explosion happened, the city was covered with dust. I wonder what that ash is made of. I'm no scientist, but it seems to me that if a pair of 110-story buildings become twin roaring furnaces, burning for a time at a couple of thousand degrees Fahrenheit, then that ash must include human remains.

Of course, the city will eventually revert to form, mostly, sort of. But ask yourself: Was Gettysburg ever the same after those three bloody days in July 1863? Or Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963? Not many folks cut up or crack wise in such places. Manhattan will have a formal memorial soon enough. It will be a place of hush. A place where, as Shakespeare wrote, memory holds its seat. But physical locales aside, the mental landscape has been reordered. And because Manhattan is arguably the most influential content provider on the planet, the wounds, and the healing and the scars, will be felt everywhere. "Seinfeld" won't disappear, of course; it'll be re-run, somewhere, forever. But everyone now knows that there's more to life than nothing, that some things really matter.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.