The Impulsive Traveler: A neighborhood of survivors at Ground Zero


Construction continues on One World Trade Center as the memorial footprints of the twin towers are seen on August 12, 2011 in New York City. (Mario Tama/GETTY IMAGES)
September 9, 2011

It’s mid-afternoon on a drizzly day in Manhattan’s financial district. At the Syrian and Lebanese restaurant Alfanoose, honeyed pastries and date-filled cookies fill display cases of clouded glass. Plastic bowls of chunky lentil soup come topped with mounds of crisp fried onions. And the falafels — fried to order and wrapped in thin pita with a delicious combination of pickles and hot sauce — are widely believed to be among the best in New York.

Delectable as they are, however, the dishes themselves are not what’s remarkable about Alfanoose. What’s remarkable is that the place exists at all, pushing along day after day, 10 years after the terrorist attacks that felled the nearby World Trade Center and rattled this old New York neighborhood, which has fought hard since then to survive.

“We are New Yorkers,” said Mouhamad Shami, who opened Alfanoose in 1999 and chose to keep the restaurant going after Sept. 11, 2001. “We couldn’t just close the place and walk out.”

The warren of narrow streets around Ground Zero is filled with stories like Alfanoose’s. Some have happy endings; others, not so much.

Directly across from the construction crews piecing together the Sept. 11 memorial and the buildings around it, a stately Century 21 department store throbs with shoppers looking for deals on Calvin Klein frocks and Yohji Yamamoto blouses. Nearby, Evelyn’s Chocolates, a homespun store beloved for its chocolate-covered pretzels and raisins, is unfortunately shuttered. As is Moran’s, a once-popular Irish bar housed in a quaint old chapel. But the tiny Mexican restaurant Tajin still serves hearty tacos rancheros paired with house-made watermelon drinks. Trinity Church Wall Street, which was a staging area for rescue workers after the attacks, remains a lovely Gothic Revival respite amid a thicket of towering office buildings.

This scene would have been hard to imagine on Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, the neighborhood resembled a war zone. Firefighters and police officers filled the streets. The closer you got to Ground Zero, the more you found yourself wading through paper that had showered out of the towers — office memos and business cards, some singed at the edges. A normal future seemed impossible then.

But the neighborhood rebuilt, even though it wasn’t easy. Shami recalled his first months of business following the attacks. People, he said, would come in off the street and call him a terrorist, tell him to “Go back home.” But his regulars rallied around him. “Some of them made it their business to come in and stay with me until I closed to make sure I could leave safely,” he said. “That’s what made me more determined to stay.”

Less than two months after the attacks, I saw an early sign of life returning to the neighborhood. Walking along Greenwich Street one afternoon, just a few blocks from Ground Zero, I spied some people disappearing behind an unmarked door at the back of an Italian deli. Following them, I found myself in a dark sliver of a bar packed with men in suits and workers taking breaks from clearing out the twin towers site. Behind the counter, scantily clad waitresses poured ample beers and cocktails. Music blared from all directions. Years later, Cordato’s is alive and kicking: At 4 p.m. on a recent weekday, the bar was filled with patrons as mesmerized with their beers as with the bikini-topped waitress making her rounds.

In recent years, Cordato’s has been joined by some upscale additions to the neighborhood. At the Setai Club and Spa a few minutes away, you can now get $285 facials and $95 pedicures. And the luxe Sho Shaun Hergatt Asian-French restaurant just a floor below serves up $15 yuzu-sparkling wine cocktails and foie gras torchons. A few blocks north of Ground Zero, on Murray Street, there’s Takahachi, a neat Japanese bakery with pastries as inventive (strawberry-shiso muffins, edamame-corn buns) as they are pretty.

One of the area’s most intriguing buildings has also undergone a recent makeover. Fraunces Tavern, located in a squat brick building on Pearl Street that dates back to the 18th century, is where George Washington said goodbye to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War. More recently, it’s been better known as a dive bar and so-so restaurant. Earlier this year, the Irish Porterhouse Group took it over and redid the place. Stopping by for drinks on a recent evening, we took in an Irish band filling the bar with lively fiddle songs. The setting is hip Dublin, but the food still has Old World touches: shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, house-made sausage rolls.

To toast the end of our first day of sightseeing, my sister and I chose a spot that similarly embraced the old and the new: the W New York, which opened last year. In its plush lobby bar, filled with colorful throw pillows and sleek, dark couches, Daphne and I sipped champagne cocktails jazzed up with blackberry puree and fresh mint. With its army of chic black-clad waitresses and a DJ setting up in a corner, this W bar felt similar to many others. Settling into our sofa, however, we were reminded of exactly where we were. Outside the large windows we could see the gaping hole of the old Deutsche Bank building and Ground Zero beyond that.

Helping tourists understand the neighborhood and its recent history is the Tribute WTC Visitors Center, where $15 will get you a guided tour of photos and paraphernalia that tell the story of Sept. 11, 2001. (But I was startled to see the gift shop selling $9.95 holiday ornaments commemorating the event.)

But the best way to appreciate this neighborhood may be to take a walk along Battery Park. Ellis Island, the enduring symbol of our polyglot nation, is just across the water. Not far beyond that, the Statue of Liberty stretches high into the sky. (Gigino’s, an Italian restaurant with a sweeping view of New York Harbor, turned out to be a neat spot to take in all these sights over a glass of wine.)

In the park, I wended my way past nannies on cellphones and tourists pausing every few steps to take another picture. and I stopped at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which has a new exhibit — “Yahrzeit: September 11th Remembered” — that features photos from the day and documents the Jewish community’s response to the attacks.

On the third floor, I paused to take in the “Voices of Liberty” installation, filled with benches overlooking Battery Park and the harbor. Bright sunlight flooded the room. Outside the window, in the park below, girls in bikinis sunned themselves on towels. Joggers jostled with rollerbladers and bikers for sidewalk space. Ferries filled with tourists inched their way across the glistening water.

Life, as it always has, went on.

Tan, a freelance writer in New York, is the author of “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.”

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