Revitalization seemed almost inconceivable at the time the grey powdery ash was floating through the air, thick with the smell of acrid smoke still rising from the rubble. It made your eyes sting for months..In less than two hours on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lower Manhattan, the worlds financial district and bustling home to hundreds of thousands of workers each day, was transformed into a ghost town.
Hundreds of companies doing business in the neighborhood were forced out by the terrorist attacks that felled the twin World Trade Center towers and hundreds more left on their own in the aftermath.
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An estimated 14,000 businesses were impacted in some way or another. Many lost their power and phone service for extended periods, others saw their entrances blocked for week or months by debris removal and construction. And just about everyone lost customers.
In all, a total of 754 companies disappeared from Lower Manhattan in the two years following the attacks, according to statistics compiled by the New York Department of Labor.
And why not? Who wanted to work or own a business in a seemingly permanent construction site, the air rife with toxins and the memories of 2,753 people killed in New York that day.
Lots of people, it turns out. But it took some time.
A decade later 8,428 companies call Lower Manhattan home, an increase of 130 over the number doing business there in early September 2001. And while the district is still dominated by financial firms Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), Bank of New York Mellon (NYSE:BK), Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB), Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) are still huge presences diversity is the new reality.
Media firms, for example, are flocking downtown: the venerable New York tabloid The Daily News moved to Lower Manhattan earlier this year and, in a huge coup for the neighborhood, upscale magazine publisher Conde Nast recently agreed to vacate its Midtown headquarters for a million square feet at 1 World Trade Center, the new centerpiece of the mixed-use complex commonly known as Ground Zero.
While the number of employees working in Lower Manhattan remains slightly below that of September, 2001 -- 309,500 now versus 325,000 then -- that should change dramatically as the towering structures rising above Ground Zero start filling up.
Elsewhere in the district, narrow streets are dotted with hundreds of small businesses, many of which struggled through the difficult period after the attacks.
A Dust-Ridden Wasteland
Carl and Milly Gandia opened Greenwich Jewelers at 118 Greenwich St., a block south of the World Trade Center, in 1976, just three years after the complex opened. They prospered and were celebrating their 25th anniversary at the location when the attacks occurred in 2001.
For a full month the Gandias couldnt even get into their store due to its close proximity to the burning piles of rubble. Then it was closed for another nine months because Greenwich Street was a main artery for trucks removing debris from the site. Eventually, structural damage to their building forced the Gandias in 2002 to relocate around the corner to 64 Trinity Place, where the store remains to this day.
The family never really considered leaving Lower Manhattan, said Jennifer Gandia, the couple's daughter, who now co-owns the store with her sister, Christina Gandia Gambale.
It was a very brief conversation. This neighborhood really has been so good to my parents, she said. And we knew it wasnt going to stay a dust-ridden wasteland forever.
The Gandias took advantage of 9/11-related government grants and support programs to expand their business at the new location. One of those programs helped the Gandias build a website to reach customers outside the New York-area. Its been wildly successful. In addition, the Gandias adjusted to the growing residential population in the area by expanding their hours on weekdays and staying open on weekends.
In those first few years it was just a matter of staying alive, surviving, said Jennifer Gandia.
Its a different story today. Greenwich Jewelers recently re-upped its 10-year lease and is expanding its site to 3,000 square feet.
Elan Flowers at 148 Duane Street, a few blocks north of the World Trade Center site, was open that awful day -- and it still is.
The shops owner, Michael Davis, said he lost 60% of his business in the months after the attacks. Like the Gandias, he couldnt get inside his store for several weeks. Then the phone lines were down until December and many of his long-time customers couldnt reach him.
Davis said he went deep into debt keeping the store open as the neighborhood rebuilt itself, and then the recession hit in 2008. Just when Davis was about to bury all that debt tied to Sept. 11 his business fell off again by 40%.
But hes still there.
I stayed because this is my baby. This is something no one could ever chase me out of. Ive been kicked around a lot in the last 10 years but Im not gonna let go, he said.
Elan Flowers had its best year ever in 2010, according to Davis, and hes cautiously optimistic for the future.
Heres why: Lower Manhattan is now a teeming residential neighborhood, vastly different than the 9-to-5 mentality that permeated the district a decade ago and for decades prior.
The amount of people whove moved down here is amazing, said Davis.
A Residential Community
Lower Manhattan the nations fourth largest business district is one of New York Citys fastest growing residential neighborhoods. Its population has more than doubled since 2001, and today an estimated 56,000 people live south of Chambers Street. With more development underway, Lower Manhattans population is expected to reach 60,000 by 2013. The State of Lower Manhattan, Alliance for Downtown New York
Who would have thought on 9/11 that people would have rushed back here to raise their families, and thats what happened, said Janno Lieber, a top executive with Silverstein Properties, a primary developer in the district.
In the aftermath of the attacks, developers were presented with a unique opportunity to renovate old and antiquated New York office space, particularly around Wall Street, into high-end residential properties, Lieber explained.
It happened all through the financial district and it makes a lot of sense. The older buildings were hard to re-do for modern, high-tech businesses. But theyre perfectly suited for recycling into residential spaces, he said.
Once the well-heeled tenants began to arrive, the upscale stores and restaurants were quick to follow.
What youve got in Lower Manhattan is the sustainable city of the future -- affluent people living side-by-side with top-tier office buildings, said Lieber.
International companies opening offices in New York prefer to open shop in so-called green buildings, or ones that are more energy efficient than their predecessors. Virtually all of the new development in Lower Manhattan is eco-friendly, at the insistence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Thats turned out to be an attractive selling point.
We never forget or try act that any of this was for the best & the loss for this city and its people. But we have turned the tragedy into some good things. The rebirth of lower Manhattan is part of that story, said Lieber.
Few New Yorkers would likely have predicted such a robust rebirth for the district in the days and weeks following the attacks. I dont know if any of us foresaw where we were headed in the literal and figurative haze after 9/11, Lieber observed.
The big international law firm WilmerHale is relocating its New York headquarters out of Midtown Manhattan next summer and moving 400 of its employees to 7 World Trade Center.
William Perlstein, a co-managing partner at the firm, described the neighborhood as a very dynamic area especially for our younger lawyers and staff, many of whom live in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The areas public transportation system, with two new mass transit hubs -- one at the World Trade Center and another underground at Fulton Street -- is emerging as perhaps the finest in the city, he said.
Perlstein said many of WilmerHales big financial services clients are now within walking distance, while many of its newer and smaller clients served by the firms growing venture capital practice are also located in downtown neighborhoods such as Chelsea and Tribeca.
A native New Yorker, Perlstein said he never doubted the area would bounce back.
You knew something would go up there, but the idea that weve developed a neighborhood rather than just throwing up a couple of large office buildings is the biggest transformation, he said.