Weekly Feature

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Mark Lennihan/AP

Rebuilding New York City

September 11, 2008
by Liz Colville
New York City was plunged into collective mourning following the September 11 attacks, and many people thought the city wouldn’t recover its preeminence in the world. To what extent has the Big Apple bounced back from the repercussions of that day?

A Shroud Over the City

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On September 11, 2001, two planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, destroying both the north and south towers. New York City lost 2,749 of its workers and residents, and hundreds more were injured. The city, widely deemed to be the cultural and financial capital of the United States, was brought to its knees by the horrific event.

New York’s grieving process has been followed by several efforts to rebuild—financial, emotional and architectural. How has the city changed during the months and years that followed 9/11, and where is it in the recovery process?

The City Loses Money, Visitors, Residents

The city’s Bureau of Labor Statistics offered a sobering report of the post-9/11 New York City economy.  September 11 created “an extremely volatile economic environment,” in the city, the country and the world. The report argues that the devastation lay partly in the city’s international component. “New York City industry has long been international, but its role is becoming increasingly evident as the world’s economy places a premium on the free movement of knowledge, ideas, capital, labor, and technology, as opposed to just the exchange and production of commodities.”

On September 9, 2002, the Associated Press also examined 9/11’s financial impact: “Economists estimate the attack cost the local economy more than $80 billion—from property damage to lost tax revenue—and some 97,500 jobs.” Beyond that, visitors “stayed away, sending tourism skidding 15 percent. Hotel occupancy and business spending each dropped 14 percent.”

A 2005 survey found that the city’s population had dropped for the first time since 1991. While the census method was deemed by some to be inaccurate—some city officials dismissed the drop entirely—one Queens College demographer told The New York Times that “it’s possible … estimates are finally reflecting September 11.”

Rebuilding New Yorkers, Rebuilding New York

The reconstruction of the World Trade Center site, which includes several office buildings, memorial fountains and the site of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, has been a complex process, fraught with delays. Meanwhile, numerous projects are helping to restore economic and cultural order to downtown New York. They are diverse, vary in size and scope, and speak to different gaps in New York life since late 2001.

Project Rebirth is chronicling the WTC building process as it happens, while simultaneously capturing the lives of 10 New Yorkers affected by 9/11. A trailer and other information is available on the project’s official site.

StoryCorps gathers two individuals in booths around the country to record their stories. The nonprofit, independent organization recently featured pairs who lost a loved one on 9/11 and will include many of them in an exhibit in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Several are available on the StoryCorps site and on the museum Web site.

The Tribeca Film Festival, spearheaded by native New Yorker Robert De Niro and others, has been one of the most successful initiatives in downtown Manhattan. Its diverse screenings of documentary, feature and short films showcase international filmmakers and promote Tribeca’s numerous bars, restaurants and hotels. According to the festival’s site, it has “generated more than $425 million in economic activity for New York City” in the past six years.

Lower Manhattan, a major business and finance nexus, suffered a serious and lengthy downturn after 9/11. But the trend is clearly reversing itself; a 2007 study found that the area “now has the third-lowest vacancy rate of any business district in the nation. The group Downtown Alliance told the New York Post, “Far from bailing out of lower Manhattan, major financial firms, not-for-profit agencies and media firms have been lining up to rent space.”

New York Entertains

The post-9/11 days were tinged with a “show must go on” mentality, spearheaded by Broadway, which headed to city and state government offices to raise money. Broadway did so well that it ended up giving money back. Museums and off-Broadway theaters did not fare as well. As Norman Adler, a political consultant, put it, “Helping the Met Museum is not as sexy as helping Broadway.”

But after a profitable summer in 2005, USA Today announced that New York City was “back”: “Business travelers are back doing their deals, and tourists are visiting in record numbers, motivated partly by a sense of patriotic duty.” It was deemed an “unthinkable” turnaround from 2001, when “travel to New York almost stopped. Airliners arrived nearly empty. Hotels could barely give away rooms. Restaurants, theaters and museums saw patronage plummet.”

Life (and Business) Go on

The economy actually “bounced back after Sept. 11 with surprising speed,” according to a 2006 New York Times article. Of course, as the economic capital of the country, it could not very well escape the current credit crisis. Yes, New York can slow down. But it will likely never stop.
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