Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union



Living Near Ground Zero


wreck recovery

It is a sunny Saturday morning at Greenwich and Reade Streets, farmers' market day. There are lines at the fish stand and neighbors chat near bins of apples. In Washington Market Park a handful of small children and their parents kick a ball on the grass or jump into a pile of leaves. Facing north it looks like a typical fall day in Tribeca.

Turn around and the scene changes. Metal barricades guarded by police and National Guard block the street in front of the elementary school that has been closed for three months. Just beyond, at the end of the street, stands a burnt, black shell of jagged metal and a pile of rubble several stories high.

The aroma of wet leaves and cider in the air mixes with the persistent smell of acrid smoke.

Three months after disaster struck, this spot is an apt illustration of the residential areas that surround the World Trade Center site. Is it a neighborhood revived or one with a hole blown through the middle? Or is it both? To the extent that a neighborhood is like a village, this is a town without schools, without a library, without a central post office, and for some, without telephones.

"Our neighborhood was blasted," said Skip Blumberg, a longtime downtown resident, "Some people outside the neighborhood are recognizing it, but most people don't get it."

Many of the people who live in Tribeca to the north, the financial district to the south, and tucked into lofts hidden above store fronts around City Hall, have returned to their homes. Their apartments have been "professionally" cleaned by teams of day hire workers. Most keep their windows closed and remove their shoes at the door to avoid tracking dust inside. Air filters are the hottest item in home furnishing. Three months after they fled from the unimaginable, they have returned to live with the inescapable.

Post Towers

By Ann Farmer

Cathy Langford was in the first stages of labor at her home in a 17-story apartment building at 75 West Street, which was two blocks from the World Trade Center. It was the morning of September 11. Somehow, despite all the chaos and the horror, with the help of her husband, Guy, she managed to get to a hospital. Her baby girl was born safely the next day, and the circumstances surrounding her birth make for a harrowing tale that they hope to tell their daughter when she is older.

But the tale did not end then. The couple worried about what toxic dangers could be in the apartment's air or lodged in the furniture and carpet. Their concerns escalated after tests showed that asbestos fibers had been found within several blocks of Ground Zero. "We're not moving back," Guy says. "I don't want my daughter, on her 21st birthday, to learn that she has only six months to live." The family has moved to New Jersey.

They are not alone. Another tenant, Pete Johnson, is in New Jersey too. Nobod y knows where everybody from 75 West Street has gone, but everybody knows that nobody is in their apartment building, which has a horribly appropriate name -- Post Towers. Three months after the collapse of the Twin Towers, the tenants of Post Towers are still not allowed back. The building itself suffered some slight structural damage, but they are being kept away because of the large amounts of dust and debris that blew into the apartments

That, at least, is what several of the building's residents speculate. They do not know because, they say, the building's managers, J. Hill Associates, have not answered their letters or phone calls. Some tenants believe the company has deliberately withheld key information, including which apartments showed asbestos contamination above acceptable levels. (J. Hill Associates did not respond to our inquiries either).

The tenants, though, have done their best to keep each other informed. They communicate daily with each another through an Internet messaging site. The Yahoo! site, which has about 200 members, has logged over 1,500 messages since it was started on September 16.

The first message, written by the tenants who began the site, encourages the others to "make plans to be out of the apartment for at least another week." But eventually all hopes of a quick return fade into frustration and even disgust. In November, one resident asks if anyone has information on "any apartments for $2,600 a month available in Kabul."

When the members are not struggling to sort out rumors, they discuss the building's cleanup and share tips on which hotels offer discounts and where to find emergency assistance. One person asks repeatedly if anyone knows whether the dry cleaning establishment across the street, which has many of her clothes, still exists.

Managers for J. Hill Associates have also left messages at the site. A recent notice indicated that tenants may be allowed to return on December 15. However, the return date appears to hinge on results from air quality tests being conducted by environmental groups.

J. Hill Associates also recently logged on to say they are giving all returning tenants a minimum 20 percent rent reduction and allowing them four months to break their lease with no penalty. But many tenants don't think that is enough, given declining rents across Manhattan.

Residents are wary about what they may face if and when they return. Graphic designer Bill Kobasz, for one, expects a dramatic decline in his quality of life. Many restaurants and other businesses that made Tribeca a vibrant neighborhood have gone of out business. "And we're going to be living in a noisy construction zone for the next ten years," Kobasz adds, referring to whatever building eventually begins at the World Trade Center site.

David and Ann Loring (and one of their cats) have been in the Tribeca Grand Hotel, living out of the suitcases they were toting on September 11 when both were out of town on business. David Loring says he and his wife are anxious to say good-bye to the hotel and be united with their other cats and one bird. However, they have mixed feelings about returning to the apartment to where they had moved just four months earlier. "Whereas my wife and I used to have a beautiful view of the World Trade Center," says Loring, "our apartment windows now look out on a scene of ruins that are a constant reminder of all people that perished that day."

"You have this feeling that you should look at it, that you need to look at it," said Karen Bender, a writer who lives at Independence Plaza, "It's a weird balancing act. You want to honor the people who died, but you don't want your life defined by it."

Little by little that life is returning to normal. Most subways are running and much of the bus service has resumed. Preschools have started up again, although some are in makeshift temporary spaces.

But normal has also changed. There are persistent worries about the air quality and the dust being spread by the rubble removal. At several meetings, worried parents questioned doctors and scientists about long-term health effects. The answers were often as murky as the air itself. Repeated testing by government and private companies have found the same results, the levels of asbestos, dioxins, PCB's and other potential hazardous substances are below the acceptance range, but there are occasional spikes. And the experts add, there are some things we don't know yet.

A panel of pediatricians advised parents that they should not necessarily leave the area, but that they should limit the outdoor activities of young children. It is the air that has kept some residents away. Blumberg, a video producer with an 11-year-old son, has sublet an apartment in Brooklyn. "I don't need the EPA to tell me if the air stinks," he said.

For others, especially those who work in their homes or nearby studios, the biggest worries are financial. The available grants and loans often don't apply to artists, therapists, and others who do not readily fit into the usual business categories. Suellen Epstein has run tumbling classes for children in her Murray Street loft since 1978. Normally at this time of year, she says, she would have 16 to 18 classes a week. With many families still displaced or just moving back, she now has five classes, only two-thirds full. The children who would have come to her after school classes, now go to school out of the neighborhood.

She has been unsuccessful, she says, in getting financial aid for her business. "I am not an industry that gets any assistance," she said, "There is no reason I should be overlooked. I run a business that supports the community."

Lydia Dona an artist who lives at Duane and Hudson Streets says her home is fine, but her studio at Warren Street and West Broadway still has no telephone service. Her assistant quit after getting medical advice not to come to the area. Getting trucks in to move artwork has been unpredictable. Since the attack exhibitions have been canceled. "I have no income," she said, "Who knows how long it's going to last." She has been steered to apply for a SBA loan, but is reluctant to take on debt while customers are scarce. "No artist wants to take out a loan given what's going on."

New York State has been giving grants only to retailers and services businesses, such as dry cleaners or barber shops. In mid-November the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) started offering grants to non-retailers. Upon applying for an SBA loan a non-retailer can receive a grant of 15 percent of the loan requested up to $2,500. If approved for a loan, the city will kick in another 15 percent up to a total of $10,000 in grants.

Because the city plan is so new, it is too soon to tell who will qualify, but the rejection rate for SBA loans has been higher than in other disaster situations, according to both a representative of the EDC and Beth George, deputy chief of staff to city council member Kathryn Freed. In some cases, said George said, artists and other single practitioner businesses don't have the assets or collateral to secure a loan. "These people need grants not loans," she said. She hopes the Red Cross may provide assistance to those who fall through the cracks. "This is not a normal neighborhood," said Dona, "They cannot deal in conventional terms with unconventional businesses."

It is exactly because it is not a normal neighborhood that so many of the residents moved here in the first place and now are determined to stay. But some feel overlooked, even as reporters camped in front of their buildings or perched on their roofs. "You always worked with people's misconceptions," said Hartmann, who has lived in the area for 19 years, "from what you read you'd still think nobody lives here except in Battery Park City."

Residents also live with the psychological effects of hearing the planes crash, watching people jump from the flaming buildings and running for their lives when the towers fell. Psychologist Elizabeth Saenger, Ph.D, runs support groups in Independence Plaza for tenants who still have trouble sleeping or quelling their fears. "When people are traumatized they take longer to recover if there are reminders like sights and smells," she said.

Although their last view of the towers were filled with horror, many residents have memories of the World Trade Center complex as a vital piece of the neighborhood. "I did all my errands at the World Trade Center," said Dona, "the World Trade Center was for me a major part of my life, without working there." The Borders book store was a gathering spot for children at Tuesday morning story time and the concourse served as an indoor place space on cold or rainy days. The plaza was a place to stroll and hear free music on summer evenings. Bender remembers that it was when she was sitting near the fountain with her husband Robert that they decided on their son Jonah's name. Others speak of it as a lost friend or a lost limb. "There's like a whole part of my body that doesn't exist any more," said Epstein.

Still, most residents do not seem to want to rebuild the towers as they were. "Let's not be stupid about the way we do this and the kind of danger we put people in," said Hartmann. While residents recognize the economic need of replacing lost office space, they would like something more -- a symbolic area with a chapel for every faith and a new mall of stores. Bender would like a new indoor playspace for children. "It would be nice if they could do something that's not just about capitalism," she said.

Perhaps the most frequently expressed wish is for a park. Blumberg, who heads a group called the Friends of City Hall Park (which remains closed), has written up a proposal. "The sanctified park can send a strong message of peace to all the peoples of the world and to future generations," he wrote, "And a green space offers us what downtown needs most: fresh air and peace of mind."

Click here to read Madelyn Wils' "Give Us Back Our Neighborhood"


Down and Out


Laura DeMaio put down the phone with a pained expression on her face. Someone had just called her for help with a mortgage payment and had not even thought to apply for unemployment insurance. He had lost his job at the World Trade Center. "I thought I'd just get another job," he told DeMaio.

"That's the typical response I get," she said. "Most people don't even realize the economy is so bad, that they probably won't get a job so easily." DeMaio is a social worker at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, where I am the executive director. She handles dozens of phone calls every day, giving out emergency cash assistance. Requests are typically for the most basic needs -- coverage of rent or mortgages, outstanding medical bills or health insurance premiums, utility bills, food.

She administers to people who have always lived on the edge of poverty. But these days, she is receiving more and more calls from 9/11 victims. It is their needs, we know, that will eventually overburden the entire system


Americans have shown themselves to be extremely generous, sending more than one billion dollars so far to New York after September 11. But New York charities are nevertheless taking it on the chin, caught in a double-bind, and things are only going to get worse.

As we know from the experience in Oklahoma City, when government aid tapers off, victims and their families will continue to require various forms of help, especially mental health counseling. These needs will be compounded by the recession, which will require them to look for job re-training, food aid, child care, and in some cases, shelter.

But ironically, according to advocacy groups, both private and public dollars are being diverted from these regular services, to newly created charities specifically devoted to, in the words of Melissa Aase of University Settlement House Project Home, "disaster funds, trauma, and the fallout of the WTC disaster."

With so many funds for victims, there has developed a kind of donor fatigue for other causes in New York, a city that is well known for its social consciousness and its glittering benefit season. In fact, public perception of priority needs at this time is intensely focused on victims of September 11, with little thought to long-term social service needs in a weakened economy.

The recession, the immediate and feared future losses of revenue, donor indifference, and severe budget cuts are putting nonprofits into survival mode. It is prime benefit season, yet most are being cancelled, or the turnout is so low that charities are taking unexpected financial losses. With few funds available for operations, the overall feeling in the nonprofit community is that within the next year, many New York charities will be forced to pare down key programs and services.


This would be a sad predicament for the people of New York at this time in particular. Social service needs were already enormous prior to September 11. Now, poverty continues to deepen. Nearly 20 percent of New Yorkers live at or below the poverty level. Homelessness is predicted to escalate. Welfare time limits are fast approaching. And, HIV/AIDS is continuing to devastate our neighborhoods, especially communities of color. The poor in fact, are at greatest risk, with the recession hitting low-wage workers most, according to economists.

In the city, job losses from September to October are estimated at over 100,000, and in October, unemployment rose to 5.4 percent. A dire prediction is that the unemployment rate may even reach 7 percent by the end of the year, nearly twice as high as it was a year ago. This does not bode well for low-skilled workers. Nor is it encouraging for people who worked at the World Trade Center and who have now joined the ranks of the unemployed.


The argument that now is the time when low income communities are most in need of government assistance has not gone over well with city or state officials. In anticipation of huge revenue losses because of the attacks and the recession, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani very quickly announced that city agencies would face budget cuts of up to 15 percent. Many agencies do not know how they will be affected. Some are holding to last year's spending levels, but others are operating as if the money will not be there at all. That translates into more job losses. Agencies are getting ready to cut staff. In many cases, loss of a staff person could mean that an entire program is dismantled.

In Albany, where member items (the money given to individual legislators to allot at their own discretion) sometimes fund entire programs, the news is little better. On top of a budgetary process that would be comedic if it were not such a sham, the state barely passed re-appropriations of funds to pay for last year's contracts. At the last minute, the governor, senate and assembly agreed to provide $200 million for social services. That may sound like a lot of money, and in truth, no charitable organization wants to appear callous or insensitive to fiscal policy choices at this time. However, $200 million will not go nearly far enough to meet already existing needs.

Normally, the state spends $500 million a year on social services. That leaves many nonprofits wondering how they are to cope with increasing demand. Those working with the most vulnerable population hope that the city does not return to the crisis from which it worked so hard to extricate itself in the 1970's. Nonprofits have always been a crucial safety net for New Yorkers, but they require investment from both government and private citizens to offer the kinds of services we all hope none of us ever require.

While nonprofits encourage city and state governments to take a second look at the quandary of the social services sector, New Yorkers must rally round the charitable nonprofit community. Each person's involvement and support of the nonprofit sector, however small, provides the lifeblood for our larger community - and indeed, our ability to emerge from this recession and the recent disaster as a stronger, more vibrant city.

Dr. Megan McLaughlin is the executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies


Does Transportation Really Deserve Top Billing Downtown?

If you ask any public official or civic leader what the top priority is for planning the city's rebuilding after Sept. 11, they will probably say transportation. Improving transportation downtown is a major part of the recommendations of almost every civic group dealing with the effects of Sept. 11, from the Civic Alliance to the principles of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation itself. However, spending a large portion of the money that the federal government gave the city after Sept. 11 on transportation improvements may not be the best idea for New York City.

Of course, what was destroyed must be restored. But we should think twice before funding ideas such as creating a third major transportation hub in lower Manhattan, a moving walkway to connect remote subway and PATH stations, a major underground shopping mall alongside it, a bigger PATH station, new ferry terminals and bringing West Street underground.

In one recent estimate by Forbes Magazine, restoring the transportation system to pre-September 11 condition will take $5 billion of federal assistance, but another $7.3 billion will be sought to make improvements, and additional local and state funds will undoubtedly be needed for what is proposed. A major rationale for channeling so much of the available funds into transportation for lower Manhattan is that fixing transit infrastructure anywhere benefits everyone. That isn't necessarily the case. The proposed improvements will not benefit all equally. They should become a priority for public investment only if transportation improvements truly trump other needs for improvement throughout the city.

Even if one decides that transportation should be the main priority, putting these sums into a spanking new transportation hub at one end of Manhattan, in addition to the two hubs that already exist in midtown, is not the wisest use of transportation money. From a planning perspective, building a major new hub at one extreme end of the most densely crowded part of the most densely crowded borough of the city also does not make sense.

There are many other transportation facilities throughout the city that need these funds. The subway system desperately needs upgrading in many areas. More-and more modern-buses are needed. The East River tunnel connection is languishing for lack of funds. Bicycle users are badly under-served. Rail access to the Upper West Side and hubs in Jamaica and in Brooklyn are all expansion options. Each would serve a different set of users, with different income levels, ethnicity and gender. Social justice concerns should be a key consideration.

The most misguided transportation investment is the proposal to bury West Street next to Battery Park City in a tunnel. This project's benefits are narrow, affecting primarily the Battery Park City neighborhood, the highest-income enclave in lower Manhattan. According to a Crain's New York report, the cost is now being estimated at $2 billion for a ten block tunnel. Even some public officials are beginning to have doubts. "It is a good thing, but what is the price tag? If it came in at $2 billion or $3 billion then don't do it, because you could find more essential uses for that money," Congressman Jerrold Nadler told Crain's New York. That's exactly the question that ought to be asked of every proposal for infrastructure improvement.

There are other pressing needs throughout the city. Every serious economic study of New York City's future emphasizes the importance of education, for example. Many studies have also recommended business and infrastructure development in New York's other major business and commercial centers. If this is combined with community development plans, it could expand employment opportunities, decongest southern Manhattan, reduce commuting time and ameliorate environmental pollution. Affordable housing is also desperately needed in the city; even the modest proposals of Housing First suggest $10 billion as a 10-year price tag. We should not idly decide to sink billions into up-grading lower Manhattan infrastructure rather than using it to help meet some of these other needs.

Before we decide to devote so much of the Sept. 11 funds to add new transportation to lower Manhattan, the City Planning Commission should take a long-term, comprehensive look at the city's transportation system, its educational system, its environment, its economy, its housing, and make grounded recommendations as to priorities. Its role should be much more central than it now is. Before putting new transportation for lower Manhattan first, it is time to pause and consider the needs of the city as a whole.

Peter Marcuse is a professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: East New York Rezoning, One Year Later East New York Rezoning, One Year Later Gotham Gazette: City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program Gotham Gazette: Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight Gotham Gazette: De Blasio Attempts to Clarify Latest Media Insult De Blasio Attempts to Clarify Latest Media Insult


The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.