Republicans meet a New York in flux

Yes, echoes of 9/11 linger - but conventioneers will find a resilience bred through time.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Visiting New York for the first time since 9/11, Steve Hostetter aims his tiny camera through a chain-link fence for a picture of ground zero.

"We had to do it," says the Pennsville, N.J., tourist. He and his wife, Nancy, knew one of the 2,752 victims. "We must never forget."

It's a pilgrimage taken thousands of times each day, by thousands of tourists from across the nation and around the world. But Mr. Hostetter's camera doesn't focus on a smoldering hole of destruction. The landscape here is a construction site - jackhammers shattering concrete so that work can begin on a 1,776 foot "Freedom Tower." By this fall, ironworkers will top off a 52-story skyscraper just outside the World Trade Center footprint.

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Now, as an expected 50,000 visitors descend on New York for the Republican National Convention (RNC), they will find a city changing both physically and psychologically. These shifts, more broadly, reflect a transformation under way in the politics and economy of the nation's largest city that is at once creating a new New York and reasserting elements of the old.

As much as anything, this city that has overcome disaster time and again may represent the nation's purest strain of a resilience ingrained in the American character.

"There was anxiety the city would fall off a cliff after 9/11," says historian Mike Wallace of the Gotham Center for New York City History, part of the City University of New York. "But the city is 400 years old, 8 million strong, and it has a tremendous amount of momentum and it's hard to knock off course even with such a blow."

Still, the old towers' shadows loom large, and even in a week of political carnival, the phoenix-like landscape is impossible to ignore. Wary of politicizing the tragedy, cognizant of criticism that it already has, Republicans aren't planning any events around the site. But ground zero - the backdrop to the war on terror - has become synonymous with New York and a symbol of a central campaign theme: Who is best suited to protect the nation?

Many delegates, staying in hotels near the project, will no doubt cross the street and walk through St. Paul's Chapel. They'll see the school children's banners, take in a shrine of 9/11 funeral photos, or read about rescue workers who slept on cots with donated teddy bears.

For months after the attack, massive plywood sheets shielded the site from view. Today, though, the city wants visitors to watch: There are places to look down on the transformation of 16 acres, and depictions of the towers, before and after, hang from mesh-like curtains.

The changes at the site and the symbolism behind it seem to transform those who see it. At St. Paul's, where visitors write prayers and thoughts on a large scroll, messages have evolved from sympathy for victims and celebrations of courage to entreaties for peace. "It's my sense that through their expressions, people are no longer thinking about retaliation and anger but something longer term," says Linda Hanick, director of special projects at the chapel.

The new tourists

In some ways, the very existence of ground zero has altered who comes to New York. Many, like the Hostetters, are tourists, returning in large numbers. But in a change from the many international travelers of the past, tourism is now up from places like Fargo, N.D., and Indianapolis. In one sense, that's a loss: "International visitors stay longer and therefore spend more money," says Cristyne Nicholas, president of NYC & Company, which promotes the city.

Other economic changes in the city have been less subtle. After the attacks, the national economy sank and the dotcom industry, once booming in New York's "Silicon Alley," foundered. "That has not come back," says Rae Rosen, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Pieces of Wall Street have also left, part of a years-long trend. "Given the conviction many people have that New York will be attacked again, some firms have moved their operations outside the blast radius of New York," says Mr. Wallace. "How dramatic it will be, we don't know yet."

Early on, there were concerns that real estate prices would drop, too. And, immediately after 9/11, they did: According to the Corcoran Report, a New York real estate research firm, the average price of a co-op dropped 13 percent.

But the market has proved resilient. According to Corcoran, an East Side one bedroom co-op purchased after 9/11 has appreciated 27 percent.

Evidence of this snap-back can be seen at Trump Place, a virtual city within a city of 16 towers on the Upper West Side that will have its own zip code. "After 9/11, there was a period of uncertainty for six months in both the rental and ownership market," says Paul Davis, the chief executive officer of Hudson Waterfront Associates, which has partnered with Donald Trump on the $3 billion project. Messrs. Trump and Davis were in the middle of selling apartments in a 440-unit tower when the World Trade Center fell. "We said, 'Oh, boy,' " says Davis. "But within six months, the market started coming back."

There's also been a resurgence in restaurants and retail shops. In the past few years, for example, the Meatpacking District, on the far West Side, has become one of the city's trendiest areas for boutiques and bistros.

Stores such as Stella McCartney, owned by Paul McCartney's daughter, look out on cobblestone streets amid purveyors like "Lamb Unlimited." Outside of Jeffrey, a mini-department store stocked with European imports, Ryan Cleminson points across the street to a pair of red-brick buildings that house a meat company. "Diane von Furstenberg has bought those buildings and is moving in there," he says, referring to the fashion designer.

Such rejuvenation is kicking up an enduring tension in this neighborhood-minded metropolis: gentrification. Over a decade ago, galleries packed SoHo, where the rents were low. More recently, chains such as Urban Outfitters and Patagonia have driven up rents, forcing the galleries to move to Chelsea.

Political traditions

Politically, New York is changing, too, though not necessarily in ways tied to 9/11. Long one of America's most liberal cities, residents have voted for Republican mayors in the past three elections (Rudolph Giuliani twice and Michael Bloomberg once). Yet to succeed in politics here, Democrat or Republican, requires passing certain litmus tests - from support for Israel to gay rights to abortion rights.

Political traditions and restiveness, of course, have a long history here. Across from the New York Stock Exchange sits Federal Hall where George Washington took his oath of office. At the Cooper Institute, Abraham Lincoln electrified a crowd with an anti-slavery speech. Even now, presidential candidates almost never miss the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, a fundraiser for Catholic charities that attracts Wall Street and political titans.

The city has long understood the political power of numbers. "It used to be commonplace to pick someone from New York to be the standard bearer for the party," explains Mr. Wallace. "For much of history, it was the biggest state with the most electoral votes - so whoever carried the city had a big leg-up to carry the election."

And the city's politicians have known how to get out the vote. In 1786, a social club, the Society of St. Tammany, was formed as a fraternal group for common soldiers. Soon, Aaron Burr had made the Society into a potent political force that became known as Tammany Hall. It controlled city jobs, public works projects, and vast blocs of immigrant workers.

Even now, says former Mayor Edward Koch, who often ran against political bosses, machine politics thrives. "I always had huge problems in the primaries," recalls Mr. Koch, a Democrat, "but I was a slam dunk in the general election." He notes that the party machinery is most effective in the primaries - the critical round in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1.

Ethnic diversity

Still, for all the recent change in the city, New York in many ways will always be New York. Nowhere is that more evident than in the city's ethnic diversity - one of its defining elements. Immigrants continue to flow into the city, despite the lingering fears of another terror attack.

And that diversity continues to shape neighborhoods. One of the best places to see this is on Austin Street in Forest Hills in Queens. The shops are like those on any other city street: Starbucks, stores hawking cellphones, and shoe shops. But on a recent morning, there were shoppers from India, Japan, China, Honduras, and Italy.

"We moved here six years ago and you see it as a real melting pot of religions, cultures, and ethnicity," says Adam London. "We have a 3-year-old daughter and we think it's great she'll grow up with all these different people because, hopefully, it will make her a more open-minded person."

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