A city unchanged, yet changed forever

Jen Palchinsky is shopping for something to wear to her engagement party.

It would be nice if that special dress had a designer label, but one that "an ordinary" person could afford as well. So she has arrived at the Century 21 Department Store, a discount apparel outlet.

Just two weeks ago, the store was still closed. It sits directly across the street from the open pit where the World Trade Center once stood.

"I couldn't wait for it to reopen," says the MTV producer. "I used to shop here all the time, and it means we are going back to something like normal."

Not far away, Orlando Franco is putting the final touches on his construction-paper model of a memorial for ground zero. He glances out the window of his fourth-grade art class and looks at the empty sky where the World Trade Center once stood.

"I thought I saw it there, and I was like, 'What's a matter with me?' " he says. "Then, I looked again, and it wasn't there."

Six months ago, Orlando sat in the same seat, transfixed as the second plane hit, and black smoke and fire billowed from both towers. The memory, he says, is "still in my eyes." But he's also rebuilt them in form of his construction-paper memorial. And the process has helped him "feel good again."

Across New York, six months after the attacks, such rebuilding and healing is under way. Employers like American Express are returning as inspectors pronounce their old financial-district accommodations fit for habitation. Streets around ground zero are reopening and shrinking the "frozen zone." New hotels are opening their doors, and Broadway is back.

"New York is still reeling a little bit, but it's also back to normal," says Kenneth Jackson, head of the New York Historical Society. "We have changed, but the basic elements that make New York New York - its peculiar genius and creative mix of people - remain the same."

Yet the aftereffects of the trauma still resonate. Orlando, for all his enthusiasm, is "still a little scared." And he's not the only one. According to a Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll released last Friday, 55 percent of New Yorkers are still worried about more attacks.

Although that's down from 73 percent last October, "clearly the lingering effects are very pronounced," says Lee Miringoff, director of the poll.

* * *

The economic impact and day-to-day problems in getting around are two of the most tangible effects of Sept. 11. More than 100,000 people lost their jobs - a combination of the economy slowing down, businesses relocating elsewhere, and mom-and-pop shops buckling under the challenges. The absence of some workers is palpable at corner restaurants and neighborhood newsstands. Many of those still working downtown face longer, more expensive rides to work because of disrupted train service.

And then there's the air. Some people are still concerned about its quality, despite official assurances. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently joked that it was hard to walk around downtown without walking into an air-quality monitor.

All the while, at ground zero, rescue workers and their dogs are recovering remains. At the same time, the city, developers, and families of the victims try to figure out what to do with the 16-acre site - considered by many to be sacred.

But even with those challenges, the mayor and the governor are pleased with the city's recovery so far. The excavation of the site is ahead of schedule and is costing less than anticipated. The construction crews have removed 1.4 million tons, or 83 percent, of the debris, in one of the biggest engineering feats of its kind.

Financial assistance, much of which has been caught in red tape, is finally being delivered to 40,000 residents, workers, and family members of victims.

"The progress is more than anyone would have anticipated or could have anticipated in the aftermath of Sept. 11. And the reason is that the level of cooperation is something that I have never seen in my lifetime," Gov. George Pataki said at a press conference last week.

The process of building one of the temporary memorials - twin beams of light soaring into the sky over lower Manhattan - illustrates how the city has pulled together. At one point, three different groups, ranging from the avant-garde to the button-down architectural world, each came up with the idea of twin towers of light. They decided to cooperate.

Very quickly, citizens such as David Rockefeller became involved, rounding up private funding and donations. Con Edison agreed to provide free power, General Electric donated special light bulbs that cost more than $1,000 each, and foundations and real-estate moguls reached into their pockets.

"Once they were approached, no one turned us down," recalls Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York, which organized the project with Creative Time, a nonprofit public-art group.

The final concept calls for each beam to be 44 feet in diameter. They will shine into the night sky almost a mile high, from dusk to 11 p.m., for 32 evenings beginning tonight. Families of victims as far as 20 miles away will be able to see the spectral tribute.

But reaching a consensus for longer-term plans at the site is going to be much harder. Proposals for a permanent memorial range from completely open space on the entire 16 acres, to a deep amphitheater in the ground, to a 2,000-foot tower. "There is so much emotion regarding it," says Bruce Fowle, an architect who is involved in the process.

* * *

It's easy to still find signs of such raw feeling around New York - especially in the workers at ground zero, the neighbors who pitched in, and the business owners who are still reeling. Their stories put in perspective the magnitude of the challenges, and also show some of the ways people are coping and moving on.

Last week, for instance, New York Police Officer Paul Nelson was standing at a barricade directly across from the ground zero pit when he saw another officer, David Sanabria, wearing his distinctive blue hard hat stamped with "K-9." Officer Sanabria's dog, Storm, was on a leash walking beside him.

"Hey, you're the guys who found my friend, Glen Pettit," Officer Nelson says, putting out his hand. "I really gotta thank you."

That made Sanabria's day. Since shortly after the attacks, he and Storm have been working almost nonstop to find bodies. It is grueling, sometimes monotonous work that requires delicacy amid the roar of cranes, backhoes, and bulldozers burrowing six stories down.

A total of 2,830 lives were lost here. By last Thursday, the remains of only 743 people have been recovered from the rubble. But each discovery helps a father, son, sister, or wife move on.

"There's a reason for everything, even if just to bring closure to certain families. It makes you feel good," he says.

Sanabria and Storm intend to keep working at ground zero, even on Sanabria's days off, as long as they'll let him. Six months later, all he talks about is how privileged he feels to still be there.

"You just want to be part of it. I guess until it's over, you won't be satisfied," he says.

* * *

For Jacques Capsouto, the six-month anniversary reinforces his determination to rebuild his neighborhood - as well as his appreciation for being an American.

He and his two brothers own Capsouto Freres, an elegant French restaurant in lower Manhattan. After the initial chaos of Sept. 11, Mr. Capsouto realized his restaurant was one of the few places in the area left with electricity, water, and gas. Plus, it had been stocked for the week.

So for the next 18 days, the Capsouto family and their staff worked in 16- to 18-hour shifts, feeding all who were hungry. Once the filet mignon, salmon, and soft-shell crabs were gone, they went out and bought pasta, rice, and chopped meat - anything the butcher had to offer.

"The tension was incredible, but it was a great feeling to be able to do it," he says.

Even more so, because of the difficult memories the event unlocked. The Capsoutos were born in Egypt. In 1956 during Suez fighting, they were considered enemies in their own country, because they are French-educated Jews.

"Over there, we were Egyptians, but we couldn't feel like Egyptians," he says. "Here, we could participate. We emigrated here, but we are Americans, we are New Yorkers."

Today, the white-linen cloths and silver rosebud vases are back on the restaurant's tables, but business is down. Jacques says they've lost so many customers they have to reinvent the restaurant.

"It's like starting it all over again," he says.

The impact of Sept. 11 spread far beyond Capsouto. More than 700 small enterprises were destroyed or became inaccessible in the disaster, and 8,000 of their workers lost their jobs. In the month and a half following the attack, 4,500 small businesses lost $800 million, estimates Joseph Morreale, an economist and vice president for planning and assessment at Pace University.

One of those struggling businesses is the coffee shop Cuppa, Cuppa, located below 14th Street in the East Village. It opened last June. The co-owners, Maria Bowen and Ginny Taylor, saw the coffee shop as a way to capitalize on the booming off-off-Broadway shows in the neighborhood.

But for two weeks after Sept. 11, the public was not allowed past 14th Street. Even after their neighborhood reopened, business dropped as New Yorkers shunned going out.

They used to get a lot of customers from a nail salon next door, which was frequented by some female executives from Wall Street. After Sept. 11, the women stopped coming.

Finally, six months later, "business is up a bit," and so are Ms. Taylor's spirits. Like much of the rest of New York, she's determined to persevere.

"I'm optimistic," she says. "I'm always optimistic."

* * *

There's also hope back at Orlando Franco's school. Out back of the brick building on East Broadway is a garden, and students and teachers have started planting for the spring. It's part of the healing process that Principal Loretta Caputo says has turned out to require far more time and support than anyone at the school had imagined.

Just recently, a kindergarten boy told her that he couldn't go outside, even though his class was going to work in the garden. "He said, 'There's a big tree out there, and that tree may fall on me,' " she recounts. "I realized that he'd been harboring this fear, and he made the connection [to the attacks.] I also realized we had so much more work to do with these kids."

The same can be said of the whole city, which is rebuilding, replanting, and ready to move on, but still carrying sharp images from that day.

"Whether someone's 6 years old, or 60 years old, I don't think we'll ever, ever forget it," says Ms. Caputo. "There will always be something that triggers it, something to remind us."

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