After Attacks Changed the World, The Recovery Changed a City
Near Ground Zero, a New Version of Life Goes On

By Michael Powell and Michelle García
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 9, 2006

NEW YORK -- You're sitting in the center of the fabulousness. The stinky old Fulton Fish Market is gone, and cobblestone streets are lined with boutiques and $1 million condos with floor-to-ceiling windows, and the sky is that razor blue.

Almost like that day.

Five years ago, this neighborhood in downtown Manhattan, a few blocks from the twin towers, was covered in half a foot of gray ash. Now, Jason Lowney, 28, and Patrick Darragh, 24, down drinks and talk that emphatic guy talk, and Sept. 11 feels pretty distant.

"People thought downtown would be a ghost town," says Lowney, a husky and dark-haired insurance adjuster. "I think it's stronger ."

Darragh nods. Then he lets slip that his uncle was on the 80th floor of the South Tower and died that day. Darragh wanted to migrate here after college.

"It was like a defensive thing," he says. "You even saw it immediately afterward. . . . New Yorkers never had any apprehension."

Some days the hole in the heart of this city appears healed over. The braggadocio is back and the jackhammers rattle near Ground Zero. The scar that is the 16-acre hole is still there, a monument to political paralysis. But a forest of blue condominium towers rises, Hermes and Tiffany are opening shops downtown, Goldman Sachs is throwing up a 43-story office tower, and those Viking-stoved, Jacuzzi-ed lofts still attract high-roller bid-a-thons.

More than 5,800 apartments have been built in Lower Manhattan since 2001, and the median residential sales price has jumped 75 percent. Big corporations -- the Bank of New York, Goldman and Moody's Investors Service -- are building millions of square feet of new office space.

"The luxury stores are moving in, and with luck we'll soon . . . start building at Ground Zero," said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, which represents the city's largest businesses. "A lot of major corporations have committed to staying in place, and that wasn't at all clear in 2001."

So if you measure health by beautiful offices and million-dollar lofts -- and what upper-middle-class New Yorker hasn't these past five years? -- you might conclude that all's swell.

Then you walk to the corner of Barclay and Church streets, where five years ago a cluster of cops and waiters and reporters watched the city's biggest tower fall out of the sky. No one moved, it wasn't real -- and then everyone ran as 30-story clouds of ugly gray smoke and dust and biomass rocketed up Church.

Nearby there is an outdoor exhibit of photos of Ground Zero, beautiful photos of women in tears and St. Paul's Chapel, spire lost in that cloud of dust, and firefighters huddled in the darkness around the remains of one of their own. A sturdy cop looks at the photos and wipes at his eyes.

Congenitally contentious, Bill Dobbs is a war opponent, a fighter for gay rights and a tilter at windmills. He might be expected to cast a querulous eye at the memory of the twin towers, those monuments to David Rockefeller's capitalist vision. But he is also a New York chauvinist, and he admired the towers' brassy size and yearns for something like them to rise again.

"I loved those towers -- when the other buildings quit, those two just kept going," he says. "Look across the harbor from Staten Island -- God, it's horrible to see our skyline now."

Then there is the air. So many firefighters and police officers and paramedics and construction workers and good Samaritans pawed through the wreckage and tended to the rescuers and vacuumed out the high-rises that still stood. Andrziy Nereci remembers feeling like a hero. On the edge of Freedom Plaza, on the south end of Ground Zero, this Polish man with a bushy blonde mustache points to the skyscrapers he wiped clean of toxic dust: the Verizon building and Bank of America. He was handed a flimsy paper mask, he knew it wasn't enough.

"I risked my life and health," he said. "When we went to the 15th floor, the building could have fallen down; we didn't know."

Now he and thousands wheeze and cough. Mount Sinai Medical Center studied 9,500 people who helped at Ground Zero and other sites, and concluded in a report released this week that seven of 10 suffer from chronic lung illness contracted while breathing the post-9/11 air. This is the same air that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proclaimed safe. Federal officials also suspended workplace safety regulations for the cleanup sites.

Nereci overstayed his visa; he is not a legal immigrant. City and state officials have resisted paying lots of health bills for workers, but he is the lowest of the low. "In some sense, I regret it," he says. "If I had not worked there, I'd have a life."

Post-2001 New York has not been terribly kind to the $51,000-median-family-income New Yorker. In the first months, city and state officials held "listening sessions," and there was talk of parks and affordable housing.

Plans for parks remain, but it would take a microscope to find affordable housing in downtown Manhattan. Out of $2 billion in federal aid expended at in the neighborhoods around Ground Zero, officials have created 77 units of subsidized housing.

By contrast, bonds issued for redevelopment went to 13 new luxury residential buildings with 4,468 market-rate units, including one that was in the works before the attacks. The state also handed out $539 million in business-recovery grants. Hundreds of millions went to large corporations. Exactly $62 million went to owners of small shops and food stores.

Bettina Damiani lives in Brooklyn and keeps a sharp eye on downtown Manhattan for Good Jobs New York, which has scrutinized the spending. She sees an age-old New York story playing out. "Well, we certainly reinforced the status quo, which is that if the real estate industry is doing well, by golly, we all are," she said. "Here's my motto for downtown: Bring free-market capitalism back to Lower Manhattan."

Less clear is what the years since have done to the ephemera that make up a city's soul. Sarah Fisch is a classic New Yorker, in that she arrived in 2000 from somewhere else -- Texas, in her case -- and is pretty intense about her new home. After the attacks, her little subculture of poets and performance artists flowered.

"They were chomping at the bit," she said. "People performed out of a need to escape and wanting to connect with one another."

Then rents rose so high in Lower Manhattan, the tiny theaters and poetry clubs shuttered. People began to move, to Seattle, Yonkers, wherever. Fisch was broke and sick, and she saw the makeshift memorials in Union Square every day as she walked to one temporary job or another.

"It made me think I'm cannon fodder. I'm the girl in the office while everyone else is out having corporate breakfast," she says.

This autumn she began her second semester of classes. No more starving artist; she wants a PhD so she can get a steady teaching job. She too is the determined face of post-9/11 New York.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company