Since 9/11, whether ‘bustling’ or ‘somber,’ Lower Manhattan undoubtedly transformed

Tim Skillern
Yahoo News
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The most physical evidence of Lower Manhattan’s rebirth in the dozen years since the 9/11 attacks is One World Trade Center, often called the Freedom Tower, which rises 104 stories and 1,776 feet above a 16-acre site in the Financial District. It will be completed in early 2014.

But there are less obvious, and more personable, clues the neighborhood has transformed: The city has encouraged new storefronts, groceries, bakeries, parks, schools, memorials and other public spaces. Attitudes have shifted, too. Long-time residents say they’ve noticed that the staid white-collar demeanor prior to the attacks — “It was what it was,” resident Manon Monsall says — has been infused with more diverse populations, as blue-collar workers, young families and even the ubiquitous tourists have added their own vibe.

More photos: Return to where iconic 9/11 photos were taken and see how those areas have changed

Those differences are among the many Lower Manhattan residents and workers shared this week when Yahoo News asked them how they’ve seen their neighborhoods change. Here are excerpts from what they wrote.

‘The area has had many lives’

On Sept. 11, Christina Fraser was 28, working at 175 Water St. in Lower Manhattan and living in Brooklyn Heights. Her father worked on the 102nd floor of the south tower and because he was late that day, he lived to see another 12 years until his death last month. His company lost 176 people in the attacks. Fraser writes:

Little bits of ash blew over the East River to Brooklyn Heights. It looked like snow. The smell was unbearable, forcing you to cover your mouth and nose.

A week later when our offices reopened, we encountered a very different Financial District: The hustle and bustle replaced by the National Guard. Pictures of the missing posted all over, and knowing it was likely that they were gone. That horrific burning smell. The vulnerability and fear, wondering if and when this would ever happen again. Sections of the towers jutting from ground like shards of glass, skeletons of their former selves. Stores covered in dust.

The most amazing transformation of the downtown area was not the cleanup of the site and rebuilding of the new tower, but the residential neighborhood that developed in this business-only community in the years following 9/11. People were not only over their post-9/11 fear of the city, they were making the Financial District their home. Now the traders and bankers of Wall Street walk among the mothers pushing baby strollers. Office buildings were converted into luxury apartments and new restaurant and bar openings seemed like a weekly, if not daily, event. The neighborhood even gained an acronym — "FiDi" — like SoHo and Tribeca before it. The neighborhood had arrived. Add a BMW dealer, Crumbs bakery, Tiffany & Co. and Pink. It's a bit of Uptown transplanted there.

The area has had many lives: The stuffy financial district it was pre-9/11, the fractured city it was in the immediate days and months following 9/11, and now, the present day FiDi, a new hotspot for singles, couples and young families.

Hurricane Sandy beat this area down once again, but the neighborhood is slowly coming back, and with it a future of hope. And a fancy new skyscraper, which isn't so bad to look at.

Related: The story behind amazing WTC photos

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‘Yes, Evan, that is the I Love You Building’

Michael Henning lived in downtown Jersey City on Sept. 11 and specifically remembers looking across the Hudson River at the twin towers before the attacks and thinking, “What a beautiful day.” He next saw the north tower afire. In the following months, amid the acrid smell of smoke, ash, flesh and chemicals, and the constant roar of jets overhead, he volunteered at the WTC site. Henning writes:

My son was born in April 2007, and although there was lots of talk of rebuilding, there were also a lot of delays. The World Financial Center, across the street from the World Trade Center was back, Wall Street was humming and a smaller office building was close to completed.

A couple of years later, the memorial had opened and my son was turning 3; he was also learning sign language in school and although we lived further away, we had a great view of the Freedom Tower going up. As it got taller and taller, construction workers added cranes to the top of the building and one to the side. My son seeing this structure emerge from the horizon one day says to me, "Dad look, there is the I Love You Building." I looked at him and he gestured with the universal "I love you" sign for the deaf: your thumb out and your forefinger and pinky pointing straight up — much like the cranes on the building. I looked at him and smiled and said, "Yes, Evan, that is the I Love You Building."

The cranes are down now and the tower is almost complete. Someday I'll be telling my son the story of the World Trade Center, but, for now, all he knows is that building represents love, and I like it that way.

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‘The final destination of a somber pilgrimage’

Manon Monsall lives in Tribeca, six blocks from the World Trade Center site, and has called lower Manhattan home since the late 1980s after moving there from Southern California as a student. Monsall writes:

Before 9/11, lower Manhattan just seemed very straightforward and business-oriented. It was what it was: office buildings, sleek skyscrapers, stores, a few historic edifices, plenty of tourists, and white-collar workers shopping at Century 21. Battery Park and the Financial District always appeared bustling and full of commercial activity, yet it was orderly, even peaceful, right up until that sunlit morning.

Since then, I've seen my beloved neighborhood change significantly.

First (and for much of the past decade), there was the smoldering war zone, Ground Zero, with its vast, gaping hole in the earth. The construction of the Freedom Tower took place only in fits and starts, and for many years we were all waiting with bated breath for the restorative power of that structure to heal us. In the meantime, our lives were all about construction noise, equipment, vehicles, excavation and dust — and you always wondered, grimly, still horrified, what was in that dust. Now, the Freedom Tower is all but complete, with its gleaming surfaces sparkling in the sun and its spire touching the clouds.

But are we healed? No, not even close.

Tourists still come to lower Manhattan, of course, but they come in far greater numbers and with a changed mission. The tourists bring a different "vibe" along with them. It's like our neighborhood is the final destination of a somber pilgrimage. They walk around and you see the look of reverence on their faces. No one can walk around here, without thinking about what happened on 9/11. That one day in history defines this area, which was always historic yet for so long indifferently commercial.

It probably always will be defined by 9/11. There's no going back, except in movies, where you can still see the twin towers skyline innocuously captured on film, for future generations to appreciate.

‘Not only did it survive, it has flourished’

Gregory Vande Hey worked as a babysitter in SoHo in 2001 for Catherine, a girl with Down syndrome. He’d take her to her occupational therapy at an office at the intersection of Murray and Greenwich streets, just two blocks up from ground zero. Vande Hey writes:

Everything was closed for months. It felt like a ghost town or a demilitarized zone.

Then, slowly, things began to appear. First, offices like Catherine's therapist opened. Then, the umbrella and hat shop opened for business. There were street cleaners and sprayers cleaning every day. Week after week, as I walked Catherine to her appointment, the soles of my shoes kept turning white from all of the ash. Months turned into years, and I could still see the white ash embedded in the roads and on the buildings.

Now, 12 years has passed, and a lot has changed. Lower Manhattan has been a construction zone ever since. All of the roads and train stations have been in constant renovations. I wonder how it survived. But not only did it survive, it has flourished. Battery Park City continued to develop and the area is known for Whole Foods and overcrowded public schools. It couldn't be more popular. It's sometimes hard to tell if the faint white dust that still ever so slightly covers the areas around Ground Zero is from the day the towers fell or if it's from all of the construction that has happened in the last 12 yeas.

The completion of One World Trade Center will definitely signify that Lower Manhattan is back. I've visited the 9/11 memorial a few times, and it is overwhelming to imagine a huge smoldering pile of rubbish in its place. Now the Freedom Tower fills the skyline, the symbol of a changed America.

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‘How much we still want to renew and rebuild!’

M.M. De Voe and her husband purchased a Lower Manhattan loft three and a half months before the attacks. They could see the south tower from their living room, its bulk casting shadows on their home every day starting at 2 p.m. After the towers’ destruction, they stayed with friends on the Upper East Side until the National Guard allowed them to return home weeks later. De Voe writes:

We have two kids and are far more concerned about overcrowded schools — of which we have four walkable elementary schools and only one middle school. But even more surprising, we have a new gelato stand from Milan on the corner where the roped-off section of Broadway used to begin. Pace University is about to open a dorm on that corner, and Marriott is about to open a Residence Hotel one block away.

People want to live here now. It's arty; the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council is funding all sorts of open arts events, including my own brainchild, the Pen Parentis Literary Salons. A partner and I thought it would be great to host famous authors downtown — and to our delight, high-end hotels welcomed us in to entertain their guests and locals alike.

How friendly we all still are down here! How much we still want to renew and rebuild!

I used to have to edge the entire length of my block on Broadway single-file through a slow-moving throng of rubbernecking tourists while pregnant and carrying groceries. They were checking to see if the fires were out yet. (They didn't go out until December.) These days, my groceries are delivered by one of the three new gourmet grocery stores in a 20-block radius. My apartment is flooded with light from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. From my rooftop, I can watch the sun set over the Hudson. And soon, I'll be able to take an underground passage from my front door to the Fulton Transit hub and avoid the tourists altogether.

The shadows are all but gone. We are lucky.

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‘Taken over by white-collar workers with fancy button-down shirts’

Eric Holden played bass guitar with different rock bands in Lower Manhattan’s bars and concert venues — notably, the Continental on Third Avenue and St. Marks Place, the Crash Mansion, the Cake Shop and Bowery Electric — before and after the attacks. Holden writes:

Prior to 2001, much of the lower Manhattan area had the look, feel and overall atmosphere of these dive bars. Many of the pubs and popular night spots in lower Manhattan were cheap ale houses that featured inexpensive drinks and informally dressed patrons, along with punk rock music playing over the jukebox.

The neighborhood's tone and personality shifted after Sept. 11, as mass transit improvements seemed to reel more young, educated workers to the neighborhood.

Slowly but surely, the inexpensive dive bars that were once filled with mohawked punk rockers and hipsters with tattoos, piercings and leather jackets seemed to be taken over by white-collar workers with fancy button-down shirts.

As far as the Ground Zero space itself, besides the obvious development of the 104-story Freedom Tower skyscraper, it now appears to be frequented mostly by tourists who wish to visit the site where the World Trade Center once stood. There's a lot of traffic and extremely limited parking in the area, so New York City residents generally seem to avoid it whenever possible.

‘A fierce reminder that America stands strong’

As a high-school student, Vivian Lee remembers visiting her father at work at his Ernst & Young offices prior to the attacks and observing the “busybodies” rushing about America’s financial center, their focus more on creating empires than relationships. One World Trade Center represents for her how that focus has changed in Manhattanites. Lee writes:

Though the placid Wall Street poker faces still remain, I sensed a stronger bond of unity, pride and duty. Everywhere I walked, American flags were blowing high among the skyscrapers, a fierce reminder that America stands strong, despite all its obstacles.

On a deeper level, the barriers between people were knocked down along with the towers. People were no longer strangers, as they opened up their hearts to others. I remember one day after lunch at Sophie's, my dad accidentally left behind his Blackberry. Someone chased him down two blocks to give it back to him. This was something rarely seen before 9/11.

They say disasters bring people closer, and that couldn't be truer. Last year before Hurricane Sandy, my workaholic boss told us to go home early to buy emergency supplies. It seems that 9/11 has instilled a sense of duty to protect our homes and help others do the same.

Now, every time I visit Dad, I am astounded by the sheer amount of tourists in the area. It seems that the cobble-lined streets are bustling once again with people around the world who are attracted by America's newest symbol of freedom.

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