The City: Undimmed beacon for dreamers

Katie Wright-Mead wants to act. And so, last October, with the 16-acre scar of ground zero still smoldering, the teenager with long lashes and ringlets in her red hair drove from Fryeburg, Maine, to New York to claim her coveted place in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

"When I realized that I still wanted to go to New York just as badly [after Sept. 11]. I couldn't stay home or go anywhere else," she says.

New York is still New York.

For the newcomer from Fryeburg or Fort Wayne – the one who arrives at Grand Central or LaGuardia Airport with determination and dreams – New York has always been the place to make it big. It's the stuff of short stories and old movies. It's about the kids who line up for theater auditions along the back streets off-Broadway. About the MBA headed for Wall Street wealth. About the writer, typing away on a Mac late into the night at a cafe. About the dancer whose neighbor below raps on the ceiling as she practices the same moves time and again. And about the new immigrant who wants to open a restaurant in America's most open-armed metropolis.

This is where the best come to compete – where the strongest survive and, despite tough times, thrive. Even for the ambitious, it's always been intimidating.

Yet they've always come.

Despite 9/11 – in some cases, because of it – they continue to stream in.

"We've seen a new love affair with New York post-9/11," boasts real-estate broker Scott Durkin of the Corcoran Group. He sees that love affair in the numbers: Out-of-towners buying residential property in Manhattan doubled in the past year – to one-quarter of the company's sales.

Still, it's a tougher place to love than a year ago. Sept. 11 is a somber presence – not just in the warrens of lower Manhattan but in the landscape of thought, littered with scary weekly conjecture that some "true believer" would be willing to scatter radioactive debris for blocks around.

Add to that the financial tab of Sept. 11: The city comptroller last week released estimates that the toll by 2004 will be $95 billion – economic woes that can be measured in $5 billion city budget holes, long unemployment lines, slumping book and Broadway box-office sales, lagging brokerage commissions, and increasing bankruptcies.

Still, hard times have never stopped people from dreaming – with New York City as stage. The current cast of undeterred dreamers includes Ms. Wright-Mead. She's 19 and driven to succeed in New York City. The shock of Sept. 11 continued to reverberate from Manhattan to Main Street, USA last fall, but she kept packing her bags for school. "I knew I'd risk failure if I went anywhere else."

She's got a lot of company – from Broadway to Wall Street to New York's ethnic enclaves.

Producers and casting agents say that other than immediately following 9/11, casting calls are drawing as many hopefuls as ever. "We're still dealing with people who come in from D.C., Philadelphia, and all over," says Jaclyn Brodscky of the Bernard Telsey Casting agency. More than 1,000 actors showed up earlier this year for an audition for "Hairspray."

New York's draw in other arts is still strong: The Juilliard School, the nation's premier musical training ground, received 3,700 applications this year, a record number, for fewer than 350 slots. At New York University's creative-writing program, 800 aspiring Fitzgeralds applied for 40 openings, 30 percent more than last year.

Newly minted MBAs seeking their fortunes continue to flood downtown financial firms with applications. The prestigious Wharton School of business reports that close to 25 percent of this year's graduating class headed here. That's about the usual amount – despite the fact that financial firms such as Goldman Sachs are contemplating leaving lower Manhattan, despite the wounded Dow and the corporate scandals.

And for immigrants, too, "the streets may be covered with ash, but they're still paved with gold," says Jim Malley, executive director of Esperanza, an immigrant-education center. "[9/11] really hasn't tarnished the image at all and it's still so much better than where they're coming from."

Though the new scrutiny and tighter security – and fewer low-wage jobs – cast a chill on the streets of Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem, where English is a second language and dollars are called pesos, those with dreams and determination continue to arrive. At Esperanza, the waiting list for classes remains 1,000 strong – same as last year, says Mr. Malley.

* * *

"The normal draw of New York has only been accentuated by the events of 9/11," says Peter Marcuse, professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "The way the city reacted, the creative response, made it even more attractive."

This year's incoming class for the city-planning program is larger than in the past five years, he says. "Almost all of them said they chose Columbia because it was in New York."

Indeed, the mettle of the metropolis – its creativity and tolerance; its rich ethnic, cultural, and economic mix – has legendary power even in the worst of times. During the '30s and '40s, years of depression and war, 1 million people – mostly blacks and immigrants – came here looking for a new life. Many painters, photographers, and writers also came: More than half of the 5,000 Works Progress Administration artists worked in New York – among them, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

At the same time, New York's financial titans continued to invest and build despite repeated threats of the city's financial collapse. It was at the height of the Depression that John D. Rockefeller Jr. built the soaring, modern complex that bears his name on Fifth Avenue. Other landmarks went up, too: The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, which, until surpassed by the World Trade Center towers in 1970, was the tallest building in the world.

It's the likes of the Rockefellers and Pollocks that established New York as the nation's premier cultural and financial center – a distinction retained even through the '60s, when the World Trade Center was conceived to stave off the flight of financial firms from downtown, through near-financial collapse in the 1970s.

The same mix of dreams and determination today makes people like Wright-Mead see this as the only place to be.

That's not to say she didn't have to adjust to the New York reality. It was a lot grittier than the TV images of her fantasies. Then there was the dark cloud of 9/11 still hovering over the altered skyline, the burnt metallic smell from ground zero still wafting up Madison Avenue. And the combat air patrols roaring overhead.

"It was horrible. I couldn't sleep. I hated the first month here," she says. But those initial jitters – shared by everyone – didn't deter her.

Evan Goldman, an architect turned developer who came here this summer with a newly framed MBA, jumped every time he heard a loud noise, at least for the first month: "It was definitely on my mind."

Angel Nazary, who arrived this summer from Dallas with dreams of being a fashion designer, took every step with a renewed sense of vulnerability: "I wasn't really scared. It was just that I'd walk down the street and think, 'Some of those people were just walking down the street, too.' "

But like so much about New York – its crowds, its noise, its in-your-face attitude – the post-9/11 fears turned out to be one more test.

That, Ms. Nazary says, is the real draw of this city: It "pushes you."

* * *

The push can simultaneously exhilarate and repel – figuring into what makes New Yorkers stay put.

New York repelled painter Veronica Kovachi, who avoided moving here for years. But whether she was living in her native Georgia or in Chicago or San Francisco, New York always beckoned. In '95 she decided to make the move, and, she says, "It turned out to be the only place I've ever felt completely comfortable and at home."

Wall Street lawyer Carol Zacharias, on the other hand, came two decades ago straight from law school. She knew from the start it wasn't just job opportunity that would snag her, but "the people, the beat, the pulse, the excitement, the challenge, the richness, the opportunities, the depth."

Both affairs with the city were put to the ultimate test by Sept. 11. Both women lived and worked – and still do – within blocks of what was the World Trade Center. Ms. Kovachi's loft was so close that among the debris that flew in her windows were the shoes of tower victims who'd leapt from the flames. Ms. Zacharias had gone outside after the first plane crashed and was standing beneath the second tower as it was hit.

Added to the emotional turmoil of what they witnessed were months of displacement. But both have returned to their homes with resolve to stay put.

Ms. Kovachi has more than once weighed whether to leave the city. But, she says, "I knew I had to stay and get through this."

Ms. Zacharias never wavered. She and her husband were among the first group allowed back into the "Dead Zone," as the area near the smoldering 16-acre pit was called. As she walked through security check points with little US flags sticking out of her suitcase and arms full of red, white, and blue carnations, rescue workers, soldiers, and police cheered. "It was triumphant, patriotic, and painful," she says.

* * *

New Yorkers talk about the dawning of a "new normal." One real estate broker dates it to the "collective 'phew!' " that came when the new year passed with no new attack.

The new normal can be seen in the influx of newcomers and the distinct absence of an exodus.

In December almost half of Battery Park City, the housing complex closest to ground zero, sat empty. Rents plummeted 30 to 40 percent.

But by the new year, bargain hunters from Brooklyn and Queens, people who'd always wanted to live in Manhattan but couldn't afford it, snapped up vacant units.

So did newcomers like Carey Schwaber. Suddenly taken by New York's "heart and soul," she decided to take a job as an editorial assistant at the publisher W.W. Norton & Co. in the spring, moving from New Haven, Conn. The aftermath, she says, "let people see past the cold rudeness [to] what people liked about living in the city."

She found a studio overlooking Battery Park for $1,650 – $700 less than the pre-9/11 rent.

But such bargains are disappearing. By this summer, the average rent across the city had risen to 90 percent of what it had been a year before, and sales were on the rise.

That didn't surprise writers Jim and Elaine Yaffe. Before 9/11 they had decided to retire in New York after 30 years in Colorado and had been apartment hunting. Afterward, they found prices were just as high.

Still, despite the cost and the city's new vulnerability, they didn't hesitate when the right place on West 69th Street came on the market.

"There's a very strong pull New York exerts over a certain kind of people – maybe they're crazy people," says Mr. Yaffe. "It's hard to think of something more horrible ... than what happened on Sept. 11, but New York is still New York."

* * *

Officially, the anniversary will be one more working day in the city – even though Sept. 11 will be marked by ceremonies from dawn to dusk. Even as the names of more than 2,800 people who died in the attack are read, one by one, business will go on. Subways and buses will run on their regular schedule. Schools will be in session, though marked by moments of silence and special programs about the day. The New York Stock Exchange will be open after ground-zero ceremonies conclude.

Carol Zacharias and her neighbors will watch the ceremonies on TV. Afterward, they'll go to a church service. Then they'll treat themselves to the kind of long, elegant lunch only New York can offer.

Katie Wright-Mead will be working at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts' admissions office that morning, earning money for her second year. She's decided to mark the time of the attacks privately, in the halls where Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy, and Robert Redford learned their trade.

Now the young dreamer from Maine looks up at the brightly lit marquees in Times Square and knows she made the right decision: "It's the noise, the crowded streets, and the life. It's always alive here. I can't imagine being anywhere else."

• Staff writer Seth Stern contributed to this report.

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