Manhattan's new way of thinking

Two years after 9/11, it's lost jobs, lost bustle, gained humanity - a city fazed, but moving on.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Mark Sokolow peers down from his new office into the hole where the World Trade Center once stood, he's filled with an incongruous mix of emotion. There is a deep sadness for the lives that were lost and frustration over the terrorists' still-present threats - both here and abroad. But today, in this new workplace redolent with the scent of fresh carpet and polished mahogany, he is also thrilled.

"It's exciting to feel you're part of the rebuilding of downtown," he says.

Two years ago, at 8:47 a.m., Mr. Sokolow was at his desk in Two World Trade Center on the 38th floor going through e-mail when he heard a loud noise. At first he thought one of the window-washing machines had broken loose. A short time later, though, a colleague rushed up to tell him one of the towers was on fire. He calmly descended 38 flights of stairs, until reaching the bottom, when he felt the building shake. He burst into a run - just as a half-mile of steel and concrete collapsed.

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Thus began a two-year odyssey that has transformed the corporate lawyer, much as it has the city he's worked in all his adult life. On the surface, Sokolow is very much the same as he was on that fateful fall morning. He still wears his trademark dark suits, finessing the arcane details of corporate deals in an office a few hundred yards from his old one.

Yet he is also different, with an enlarged sense of humanity, a clearer connection to his family and religion, to co-workers in cubicles nearby, and even to victims of terrorism from Israel to Indonesia. He's gone through something of a rebirth.

Similarly, New York in many ways looks the same today as it did on Sept. 10, 2001, except for that expansive hole on Manhattan's lower edge. The subways are packed again with people with somber looks. Restaurants around the World Trade Center site cater to their usual polyglot clientele. Rents and real estate prices have returned to their robust levels. Even George Steinbrenner is back at it, using unsubtle antics to pressure another Yankee manager.

Yet New York, too, is not the same. The economy, though improving, is still struggling to recoup thousands of jobs lost in 9/11 and the subsequent recession, despite a nascent resurgence on Wall Street. The city's finances remain precarious, even with bold but controversial moves by New York's businessman-mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

The city exudes a more developed sense of community. True, cabbies still intimidate the most hardened. But, as the recent blackout showed, New Yorkers respond to emergencies with a greater calm and compassion.

Still, beneath the surface, an unease persists over the possibility of another attack, even as the raw emotionalism of 9/11 recedes from daily conversation.

"People are a little less edgy and a little more considerate, a little less aggressive and a little more focused on important things rather than just financial rewards," says Kenneth Jackson, president of the New-York Historical Society.

That New York has rebounded to this extent is not surprising: This is a city with a history of monumental tragedies, from a fire that destroyed a third of Manhattan in 1776, to deadly Civil War draft riots that brought on near anarchy, to a 1920 bombing attack that gutted Wall Street.

The history of America is a history of moving on. New York may epitomize that more than any other city, in part because of the rebirths of the past and in part because, as a hub of commerce, it can't wallow in tragedy too long.

As Mr. Jackson puts it: "The city is resilient and it's learned from that experience."

* * *

In the two years since 9/11, New York has gone back to work, to the extent there has been work to go back to. A major focus of city leaders remains finding a way to replace the 240,000 jobs that have disappeared since 2001.

More than 100,000 of those job losses - and $83 billion in economic output - are directly attributable to the 9/11 attack. And it's downtown, in the once-thriving financial sector, where the effects are most palpable: 70,000 jobs simply vanished. And despite the increase in tourists and hard-hatted construction workers, only a portion of the briefcase crowds that once packed the intersection of Church and Dey Streets has been replaced.

"It's clear there's just been this huge amount of activity just sucked out of lower Manhattan," says James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank here.

The jolt of 9/11 quickened trends already challenging the city's economy. When Sokolow's law firm, Thatcher, Proffitt & Wood LLP, returned to downtown this month, it rented the traditional 500 square feet of office space per employee at the World Financial Center. But many companies that have reopened offices are renting only a fraction of their old space.

That's because after the attacks, they learned employees could work at home: Now two workers can share one space on their alternate in-office days. Called "hoteling," the phenomenon is responsible, in part, for a 13 percent vacancy rate in office space downtown.

Another challenging trend is the belief among many corporate giants that it's no longer wise to concentrate all operations in one location, particularly in lower Manhattan. Almost every major company here now has an alternate campus outside New York. Even insurance giant New York Life recently bought a building in Westchester, north of the city.

"That's a new way of thinking," says Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a business group that promotes the city as a center of commerce. "Before 9/11, a building in New York was the safest place to work from the underwriter's point of view. Now it's the most dangerous."

Still, because New York is the world's bank vault and trading pit, many companies want to keep a major presence here. That's the case with Sokolow's law firm, one the city's oldest and largest, calling downtown home for 150 years. Paul Tvetenstrant, the managing partner, calls their move back the "final chapter in our recovery from 9/11."

Behind all this lies a fundamental question: whether the forces that make New York New York will prevail over uncertainties that have caused some companies to flee.

"It's not as if the city is going to collapse," says Fred Siegel, a New York political analyst. "The question is what kind of long-term future do we have? [It could be a] slow erosion of financial dominance."

* * *

Even tourism, a pillar of the economy, has changed significantly since 9/11. International business travel is down 10 percent, and there's a corresponding dearth of free-spending foreigners who once dropped an average of $800 a day.

Still, millions of Americans - from Arkansas to Ypsilanti, Mich. - have been making pilgrimages to New York, part of a new-found fealty with the city since the attacks. They will help push the number of visitors in New York this year to an estimated 36 million - almost as many as in 2000.

John Stark came from Abington, Mass., with his wife and friends to see ground zero. When he was in New York last year on business, he said he didn't have the fortitude to see it. But his neighbor, Jeffrey Coombs, was killed on Flight 11. So as the second anniversary approached, Mr. Stark felt the need to see a memorial plaque. "There it is," he says, pointing to his neighbor's name. "People can't articulate why they come, but they need to. It's still so hard to comprehend."

* * *

Bruce Rusoff still worries that New York will be the target of

another terrorist attack, which perhaps isn't surprising. Mr. Rusoff is an elevator mechanic at the Deutsche Banc Building. A central stop on the guided tour of the city these days, it stands still shrouded in black at the edge of the trade center site because it's caught in an insurance dispute.

Two years ago, Rusoff was 400 feet from the south tower, about to call his wife, when it imploded in a "tornado of metal and glass." "If I didn't dive into a three-foot door frame, I don't think I'd be here," he says.

He was back at work 10 days later. Today, leaning against one of the ubiquitous metal police barricades, Rusoff is anxious about the future even as he still struggles with the past. He thinks the city needs to do more to prevent another attack, though he's imbued with New York pragmatism. "This area was beautiful," he says. "Now take a look. Of course it bothers you. But you don't lose sleep over it. You've got to go to work in the morning."

Rusoff's sentiments, though intense, do reflect common views: Though security precautions have reassured many New Yorkers, 68 percent still fear the city will be attacked again, according to a recent New York Times poll. More than 30 percent say their lives have not retuned to normal.

Many also harbor a greater sense of solidarity with other victims of terror around the world. Sokolow, for instance, visited Israel four months after 9/11. He, his wife, and two daughters were injured in an attack by a suicide bomber. "[You] can be a victim of terror anytime, anywhere," he says. "We have to be more vigilant in our fight against the terrorists."

* * *

Three blocks from ground zero, in Battery Park City, a thriving neighborhood has reemerged. With the sun glinting on the Hudson, and a fresh breeze sweeping across the promenade, it's a symbol for the city's embryonic resurgence and natural resilience.

Despite the dire predictions of a mass exodus, New Yorkers have shown a surprising dedication to community. And while the overt camaraderie that marked the city immediately after the attacks has faded, it hasn't disappeared - as evidenced by the many block parties during the August blackout.

Another indication of the renewed sense of community can be found in a flourishing real estate market. Within months of 9/11, condos and co-ops were selling at record prices. The rental market has softened somewhat, but one reason is that so many people have opted to buy.

"Rather than fleeing the city, people fell in love with it all over again," says Pamela Liebman, CEO of the Corcoran Group.

Bond trader Niall Lawlor's affections never wavered. He and his 4-year-old son, Liam, are taking in the promenade. Like almost 50 percent of the original Battery Park City residents, the Lawlors returned here after the attacks.

"It's more of a tightly knit community among those that stayed," says Mr. Lawlor. "We all know each other much better now than we used to."

The vibrancy has attracted thousands new people, too, like Seth and Zoë Elliott. "We had a strong desire to support downtown," says Mr. Elliott, an investment banker who decided to run for City Council to help ensure downtown keeps going. For Elliott and all New Yorkers, there is a strong desire to remember 9/11, but also to move on.

"We can't forget the past," says Sokolow. "But we need to move on. We need to look to the future."

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