EDITORIAL: Fifteen years later, Downtown is better than ever

Associated Press Aside from the obvious changes in the skyline, the new Downtown is profoundly different — and better — than the area was in the years before the 9/11 terrrist attacks.
Associated Press
Aside from the obvious changes in the skyline, the new Downtown is profoundly different — and better — than the area was in the years before the 9/11 terrrist attacks.


When the 9/11 attacks brought down the World Trade Center fifteen years ago, the collapsing towers almost resembled a pair of knives plunging into the heart of the city. The otherworldly clouds of smoke and dust that billowed out from the site settled over everything Downtown, as if it meant to burry the neighborhood alive.

Immediately afterwards, it seemed far-fetched to imagine restoring Lower Manhattan to how it was before the attacks. The frantic imperative was simply to haul away the smouldering wreckage, shovel the toxic dust out homes and offices, and somehow persuade residents and business not to flee the disaster area for good.

For a heartsick moment, it seemed possible that New York’s First Neighborhood might well become a vacant urban ruin.

What a difference 15 years can make.

Today, Downtown has one of the most dynamic, fastest growing economies in the city, and a still-booming residential population already double what it was before 9/11 — and the number of children has tripled, attesting that a neighborhood long considered a sterile office district has become a true family community.

The feared exodus from post-9/11 Lower Manhattan was halted and reversed not only by a swift cleanup and hastily arranged government incentives, but more importantly by a resilient community determined not to be driven from the neighborhood where they lived and worked.

It was these survivors — in every sense of the word — who initially set the example by returning individually to their devastated homes and shops to dig out of the rubble, and then joining together at the grassroots to cooperate and build a sense of community that many concede was absent before the attacks. The casual networks the formed among Downtown’s survivors evolved into tenacious groups that began setting and steering the agenda for rebuilding Lower Manhatan, even as powerful forces in Albany, Trenton, Washington, and City Hall wrestled for control of the greatest urban renewal project in history.

The hard work of these dedicated Downtown stakeholders helped assure that the slow, gruelling and often chaotic process of rebuilding Lower Manhattan culminated in the livable, attractive, multiuse neighborhood that has since experienced a renaissance few would ever have thought possible.

This has attracted an ongoing residential boom that is driving a development frenzy. Dozens of office buildings areeconverting to high-end apartments, such as One Wall Street and 70 Pine St. And long roster of proposed new supertall towers seeke to join the 870-foot-tall Gehry-designed, tower that opened at 8 Spruce in 2011.

And behind the influx of well-to-do Financial District homesteaders has come a wave of new amenities the neighborhood never had before — from foodie playgrounds such as French food hall Le District at Brooklfield Place and the Eataly that just opened at 4 WTC to  upcoming high-end restaurants from Jean George and Momofuko’s David Chang coming to Pier 17, and Wolfgang Puck place opening at The Four Seasons.

Downtown is also joining the ranks of the likes of Fifth Avenue as a posh shopping destination, with the luxe shopping center at Brookfield Place welcoming Saks Fifth Avenue this month, and the iconic Oculus transit hub opening last month with Lower Manhattan’s first Apple store.

Long-neglected public spaces have received new interest and support, with the most spectacular example being The Battery, Downtown’s largest green space. For most of the end of the last century it languished as an empty and gray patch of asphalt paths and patchy grass at the wind-swept tip of Manhattan. But now, in no small part because to the funding and momentum to rebuild Downtown after 9/11, The Battery is an inviting showcase of lush lawns, colorful flower beds, and attractive amenities such as the Seaglass Carousel.

And now that Downtown has established itself as a destination in its own right, new hotels have proliferated, adding 27 hotels since 2001, with 5,230 new rooms, and even more to come.

An even more fundamental transformation of Lower Manhattan has unfolded over the past 15 years which has made its economy even stronger than before. Before the devastation of 9/11, Downtown’s economy was almost wholly dependent on Wall street and the financial sector, its fortunes rising and falling at the mercy of the boom-bust business cycle.  But after a great restructuring — helped along, ironically, by the financial crisis — Downtown now relies on a much wider range of industry sectors, including a growing number of media companies and tech startups, making Lower Manhattan’s economy more recession-proofed than anyone could have imagined 15 years ago.

The heartache caused by the horrific loss of life in the 9/11 terrorist attacks will never ease or be forgotten. But the material devastation of Lower Manhattan has now been wiped away.  Ironically, that creative destruction allowed for the emergence of a re-imagined Downtown exceeding what the most ambitious urban planners would have ever thought possible.

Downtown’s experience of the 9/11 attack was a tragedy nearly beyond comprehension, but its response in the months and years that followed — its resilience, its recovery, and its resurgence — is a triumph nearly beyond belief.