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Oregon Loves New York tells the story of the Flight for Freedom, when 1,000 Oregonians flew across the country to help their fellow Americans in New York City.
It's a story of the best of America and the best of the human spirit.
Average people from all walks of life, all political persuasions, races, colors and religions who just wanted to help.
And every single person made a difference by being part of the Flight for Freedom.
This is a true story. America came together in 2001 on the Flight for Freedom.
We can come together again.
Only a week after the 9/11 attacks, in “little bitty Oregon,” Loen Dozono had the idea of a “reverse wagon train,” a caravan to provide relief and help to the city that had just experienced the largest attack on U.S. soil in American history.
Two weeks after Loen's inspiration and less than a month after the attacks, 1,000 Oregonians led by Portland Mayor Vera Katz got on planes to fly 3,000 miles to New York City to help. It was called the Flight for Freedom. From the beginning, the idea was not just to spend money, although Oregonians certainly did that. It was to let New Yorkers know that the country cared about them.
One in every 3,000 Oregonians, from remote Crescent Lake (pop. 400) to mighty Portland, stepped up. Many who signed on had never been to New York City before, some had never been on an airplane, some had never traveled alone.
This at a time when, as one Oregonian put it, “People were afraid to go to the Dairy Queen.” The travel industry was in tatters and New York City’s economy was in the toilet. Even though New York’s mayor had put out the word for people to come to New York, to not be afraid, nobody was flocking there. As a consequence, thousands of New Yorkers had lost and were losing their jobs due to the 9/11 attacks. America was locked in fear.
Thanks to these Oregonians, housekeepers, bellmen, and other hotel staff were called back to work. Waitstaff, cab drivers, and baristas got work and tips. Actors on Broadway had larger audiences because of Oregonians—and the cast of Kiss Me Kate autographed 100 programs just for them, and met with them after the show.
What the Freedom Fliers did not—could not—have conceived of was the raw pain they would encounter. Neither could they have anticipated the depth of gratitude.
With their conspicuous brilliantly white OR ♥ NY T-shirts and buttons, especially in a city known for chic black couture, the Oregonians couldn’t be missed. And New Yorkers went out of their way to thank them. This book is filled with the stories of these encounters. New Yorkers needed hugs, too, and they got them.
Oregon was the first to step up, and although other communities intended to surpass them, nobody else did what they did.
No other state, no other city, no other county. Nobody.
I know this story because I was there in 2001—I covered the Flight for Freedom for the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe.
Here’s what didn’t matter, and never even came up: race, class, religion, politics, gender identity, urban or rural origins. When we were in the city, New Yorkers kept asking, “Is this some kind of a club?” No. As one of the Flight for Freedom volunteers, Kristen Dozono, aptly described it, “It was the biggest display of random people you could ever find.”
Sometimes New Yorkers needed more: to tell their stories, to cry, to be held. Not one Oregonian ever shied away, no one ever thought it was “too much.” Instead, they moved into the pain and into the need in a spontaneous, and deeply warm and human way.
The trip’s organizers created an opportunity for a highly diverse and democratic group to help New York by making it affordable, by providing scholarships, and by naming former Governor Vic Atiyeh, an Arab American, and State Sen. Margaret Carter, an African American, to head the group’s diversity committee.
In “Some Notes on Oregon History, or If Oregon Can Do It Anyone Can Do It!" you will learn that Oregon is very much like the rest of the country. In fact, the state has quite a racist history; and in 2004, presidential exit polling data showed it to be the most politically polarized state in the country. That Oregon accomplished this amazing effort demonstrates that even in places marked by conflict and distrust—like the United States today—coming together across those things that divide us is possible.
The Oregonians who organized the trip were a superbly talented and competent group. They included transplanted New Yorkers who’d made Oregon their home and together not only did they put together some incredible events: a memorial service at Union Square, ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, dinner for hundreds in Chinatown, and marching in the Columbus Day Parade, they also were a media sensation. They appeared on many of the morning shows and blanketed the news in New York and Oregon. New York’s Governor George Pataki thanked them personally and the stars from Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables serenaded them.
Mayor Vera Katz, a former New Yorker, tirelessly went from event to event and represented the city in national media and in events across the city; she gave the trip a credibility it would not otherwise have had. In a variety of interviews, Katz generously shared her own personal and emotional journey from Holocaust refugee in New York to leading an American city in the Columbus Day parade almost sixty years to the day of her arrival on our shores. On top of that, she was utterly terrified of flying and she did it anyway.
Azumano Travel, the agency that organized the trip, took no commissions and made no money on it. They asked the airlines and hotels to offer low rates. Delta stepped up first and United followed, and Hilton offered its New York crown jewel, the Waldorf-Astoria, for basically the room tax, and covered the cost of receptions, too.
Organizers were hoping they could get 150 people to sign up. And when the numbers kept growing and growing, the corporations stood by their prices. And the $379 price meant that people like the Portland cab driver who saved his tips to pay his way would be able to go. From the beginning, the effort was democratic with a small “d.”
It’s been twenty years since then. Though many of the people who participated in it are gone now, many are still around and available to tell their stories. It’s been an honor to record them.
What needs to be made clear is that this was a moment in which 1,000 persons’ paths crossed. Except for the organizers of the trip, most of whom knew one another, everybody else signed up on their own and showed up on their own. And while those who traveled alone were “adopted” by their fellow travelers, and people of course met one another at various events, I have heard of only two people who stayed in touch for an extended period of time after the event.
It was a moment in time when all of us brought our best, all of us gave our all. Just to help New Yorkers. Just to help fellow Americans.