The catastrophe of 9/11 remains stubbornly with us. This is a good thing in a sense, because the lessons it holds for us — of courage, steadfastness and compassion — will see us through the pandemic and whatever other challenges come our way.
The notion that 9/11 was a passing speed bump is infuriating and ignorant. The terrorist attack’s poisoned residue endures despite downtown reconstruction and renewal.
Twenty years on, cancer and respiratory ailments plague up to two-thirds of firefighters and other emergency workers who toiled amidst the toxic ruins. For the several thousand victims, 9/11 has yet to end.
“Ground Zero” frustratingly remains a work in progress. The planned tower at Two World Trade Center remains unbuilt, camouflaged with an art installation and a beer garden. A long-sought performing-arts center is years behind schedule. The Westfield retail mall at the leak-prone Oculus sometimes seems to have more vacant storefronts than shoppers.
Some have lost patience over the pandemic — 18 months already! When will it end? But it took many years for the post-9/11 rebound, however imperfect and incomplete, to coalesce.
The atrocity claimed nearly 3,000 lives, destroyed beloved landmarks along with 14 million square feet of prime offices, and disrupted subways for years after. Yet the seeming death blow to lower Manhattan proved the impetus for epic renewal.
Credit, in part, more than $20 billion in direct federal aid in the form of grants, tax-free reconstruction bonds and other kinds of breaks for developers and businesses.
Younger New Yorkers might be unaware of the bitter infighting and false starts that made it seem the World Trade Center site might remain a pit forever. There were epic battles among politicians, real-estate developers, government agencies, architects, bureaucrats and bean-counters.
But for all their differences, New Yorkers shared a commitment to rebuild and to make lower Manhattan new again — and it was this resilient spirit that ultimately carried the day.
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The warring factions wrought an imperfect but viable rebuilding plan. Developers Larry Silverstein and Douglas Durst built four successful office skyscrapers.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers and hordes from afar voted with their feet. The pre-9/ll population below Chambers Street of 32,000 swelled to 64,000 by the end of 2019 — bucking forecasts that no one would want to live or work there again.
The residential influx owed something to the new office skyscrapers that replaced the beloved but inefficient Twin Towers. The new buildings’ advanced electronic capacity, energy-conserving features, column-free floors and floor-to-ceiling windows not only drew tenants such as Condé Nast, Spotify, GroupM and Moody’s Corp. They also accelerated the obsolescence of old commercial buildings that were useless for offices but perfect for apartments — such as the landmarked former AIG headquarters at 70 Pine St., which became 660 luxury rental units.
The state and city created new parks. Hotels and restaurants opened. The MTA built a gleaming Fulton Transit Center to brighten the infamously grimy platform labyrinth. A new seaport geared to New Yorkers’ tastes replaced its tacky, tourist-trampled predecessor.
The changes were made possible because elected officials, business titans and ordinary citizens were determined to win back the ground taken away by terrorists, and to make it better than before. By the start of 2020, downtown below Chambers Street was in much better shape than many thought it would ever be after 9/11.
Of course, COVID-19 knocked the wind out of the recovery. An invisible germ, not suicidal terrorists, haunted our dreams. Some 40 percent of lower Manhattan’s population moved away from March to December of 2020. More than 1,400 luxury condos remain unsold. The downtown office market suffers Manhattan’s highest vacancy rate of 20 percent.
There are nascent signs of renewal, as there were in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, when — despite predictions of a permanent “ghost town” — more companies stayed than left. Today, too, firms are renewing leases. Residents are coming back; today, there are only 16 percent fewer than before the pandemic, according to the Downtown Alliance, which forecasts a full recovery next year.
As bleak as things look in these pandemic times, they seemed even darker when all eyes were on the skies and a mass grave and streets covered in ash seemed to bury hope. New York City lived again. Let the memory of what we’ve accomplished since then inspire us anew.