NEW YORK- Osama bin Laden failed. That's the message thrumming and whirring from a dozen construction cranes hoisted above the skyline in lower Manhattan. Even on a late winter day of pelting rain and slicing wind, the clatter of construction is the dominant soundtrack on the streets at this southern tip of New York City.
If the al-Qaeda leader meant as he said to take out the financial heart of America-and the free world-when 19 hijackers took down seven buildings here on Sept. 11, 2001, then New York's financial district is rebuking him with a vengeance.
Condo cluster high-rises have sprung across from the southwest border of Ground Zero, and developers throughout the financial district-particularly in the neighborhoods of Tribeca and Battery Park City-rapidly are converting existing rentals.
"Back in the 1990s," real estate developer Andrew Heiberger says as if recounting old history, the area south of Canal Street was only just turning into a place for people to live. He and others saw the potential for residential areas geared to the mostly single investors and traders who would value its convenience to Wall Street and the World Trade Center and overlook its glass-and-steel ambiance.
But now the district's sidewalks are chockablock with strollers; side streets are dotted with day-care centers and children's clothing boutiques; Pumpkin Park is Battery Park City's hot toddler gathering point; and there's a waiting list at P.S. 89, kindergarten through grade 5. With what looks like a sudden excess supply of housing, rental rates nonetheless have doubled-from $3,000 a month for many two-bedroom units just after 9/11 to over $6,000 a month today.
The hum in lower Manhattan hasn't drowned out the memory. Few residents have forgotten the uncertainty that followed the terrorist attacks when both jobs and housing in the district looked doomed. When a walk to work meant crossing a war zone steaming with corpses of buildings and the stench of death.
That makes the economic prosperity spreading through all five of New York's boroughs striking. Rezoning has opened the way for a better mix of office space, housing, and industry-and opened up billions in increased public and private investment. The capital influx is leading to, among other things, subway and other transportation upgrades, school renovations, a major redesign of Lincoln Center, and of course the commencement of new construction at Ground Zero. Salaries in Manhattan lead the nation-with an average weekly wage of $1,453, compared to $784 average nationwide. Wages also are growing the fastest in Manhattan, at a rate of nearly 8 percent in 2006.
In the gloomy days following 9/11, when rentals were going at discount, Carl Keyes, pastor of Glad Tidings Tabernacle just uptown, took an apartment for a song in Battery Park City two blocks from Ground Zero. While others moved out, either out of fear or because their buildings were declared unsafe, Keyes and his family moved in.
He had entered the site just after the main buildings collapsed and stayed for the next 58 hours-assisting firefighters, praying for those rescued from the rubble, for the injured and the families of the dead, and realizing the overwhelming long-term needs at the site. "Like everyone around Manhattan and around the world, we knew those were our people in there and we had to do something," he said.
His first response was to organize members of his church to collect saline eye solution, a desperately needed and overlooked item for the hundreds of rescue workers plunging into the dust and smoke. His team, a collection of church members, fellow longtime New Yorkers, other pastors, and emergency workers who turned up from all over the world, would eventually become known as the "Angels of 9/11." They commandeered a boat to bring equipment and supplies across the Hudson River at a time when tunnels, bridges, and street traffic into lower Manhattan had shut down. They eventually brought in 87 tractor-trailers of relief items and served over 130,000 hot meals to rescue workers, firefighters, and health officials working the site.
As their reputation grew, Keyes took in $5 million in spontaneous donations. By the time he left the rubble in March 2002, when he was on hand during the discovery of 11 bodies (nine women and two firefighters who appeared to be shielding them), Keyes had conducted funerals for 113 of the site's 2,749 victims.
Visits to Ground Zero now for Carl Keyes are a complex of emotions. He has witnessed endless waves of grief, been on hand for discovered bodies and body parts, and now says with finality: "I'm done with it." He says most New Yorkers feel that way: "They don't like to think about this hole. They've gotten on with their lives."
Like him, they're impatient with the slow pace of rebuilding, the continued gape in downtown-called "the bathtub"-where the two towers once stood. And they're weary of tourists who continue to pilgrimage there. At Gate 10 where construction workers pass in and out of the hole, a chain-link fence is lined with graphic street-level photos giving a chronological pictorial of what happened in the abyss just the other side of the fence. Even 51/2 years later, visitors stand slack-jawed, many crying, as they tour the site and realize perhaps for the first time the enormity of the devastation. New Yorkers, in contrast, hurry past, heading down steps into the newly reconstructed subway and train station or across the street.
But in reality Keyes is not done with it. "What they don't count on the rolls," he said, "are the living victims and the related deaths. Countless divorces, 16 suicides, 1,300 orphans." And those are just the ones he knows about as week in and week out he continues rounds of counseling for survivors. "For so many there is no end in sight. They are so deeply wounded," he said, including a widow who recently asked, "What day do I take my wedding ring off?"
The gaping hole remains open in part because of these gaping wounds. Family members of 1,148 victims have not received any remains identified as their relatives. Officials laid the cornerstone for the new Freedom Tower in 2004 and at that time expected the building to be completed this year, yet construction has not yet reached above grade. Discoveries of human remains and portions of the towers repeatedly halt construction. Then excavators using ground-penetrating radar and experts from the chief medical examiner's office go to work in new debris fields. Over 1,000 bone fragments have been found and many identified just in the last two years.
In front of the Engine Co. 10 firehouse on Liberty Street, Keyes pauses. There his buddy, retired fireman Lee Ielpi, helped open a museum honoring firefighters and other personnel killed on 9/11. Ielpi's own son, also a firefighter, died inside the towers. And now Ielpi has cancer. This month Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined a campaign to lobby Congress for $150 million to start a compensation fund for 9/11 responders battling respiratory and other illnesses believed related to asbestos and toxic materials used in the construction of the towers.
For so many, said Keyes, "this is still a graveyard. You might wonder why families act the way they do, but when they don't have remains at all, this is where their loved ones are buried."
Artist and longtime Tribeca resident Mako Fujimura (see "Seedlings in Stone," March 24, 2007) pushed to hold the International Arts Movement annual conference near Ground Zero this year in part to draw attention to the tension between past and future. The event drew record attendance of over 400 from around the world and included tours of the site by Keyes and others.
"We have the cultural capacity to get back to work and give back to the world," Fujimura said. For him the tension is an everyday part of life in lower Manhattan few outsiders may comprehend: "I understand the need to move on and to not get stuck. But you cannot forget the faces. Some of them I know. It is a collective wound and it is still visible. People continue to fight for community and resilience-just the fact that we are still here is a testament. You have to remember the comeback is remarkable."