Living Near Ground Zero

By Etta Sanders
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

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"

###

Check out the Feature Archives!