Retail returns to Liberty

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Just south of ground zero, Liberty St. is getting ready for its closeup.

Workers hang signs and dust countertops as merchants prepare to return for the first time in more than two years to storefronts facing the former World Trade Center site.

It is a bittersweet homecoming for some.

“We saw them being built and we saw them come down,” said John Costalas, 67, an owner of Essex World Cafe.

His shop, formerly known as the Food Exchange, operated across from the World Trade Center for 25 years. It also served as a medical station for three weeks after the terror attack.

Long after business had resumed in most of Lower Manhattan, the block of Liberty St. between Church and Greenwich Sts. remained a frozen zone, a testament to the horror that happened on its doorstep on Sept. 11, 2001. But that has begun to change. The first of the seven or so storefronts on the block reopened just after Labor Day, with another likely to follow next week and a third in December.

Mike Yagudayev, the owner of D.J. Hair Salon in the basement of 110 Liberty, was the first to reopen on Sept. 2. Before the terror attack, most of his customers worked in the World Trade Center. About 30 percent of them have returned, he said.

“I’m glad to see them back—they’re alive, thanks God,” Yagudayev said.

Yagudayev, 25, relocated his business to Queens after the terror attack. After his Liberty St. landlord notified him in May that the building was ready for work, Yagudayev spent four months repairing the inside of his shop. He said he felt grateful that his landlord did not charge him any rent for the two years that his salon was shuttered.

Even with his landlord’s generosity, Yagudayev has struggled to rebuild his business. He received $4,800 in grant money from the state-administered World Trade Center Business Recovery Grant program and another grant from Seedco whose amount he declined to specify. But his two grants fell about $15,000 short of covering his losses. To cut corners, he rebuilt his eight barber chairs to avoid paying $5,000 each for replacements; he now stays open from 7 a.m. until 7:45 p.m., instead of closing at 6:30 p.m. as he did before.

These days, about 10 percent of Yagudayev’s business comes from tourists who visit the World Trade Center site. He’s hoping to draw more residents and workers.

“Tell them I’m open, I’m back, and I’ll be glad to see them,” Yagudayev said.

Yagudayev and other merchants fear that vendors selling World Trade Center merchandise in front of their stores may make it harder for customers to find them. General vending is prohibited on Liberty St. between Church St./Trinity Pl. to William St. between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., and again between noon and 6:00 p.m., according to Dina Improta, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Unless they are disabled veterans, who can currently sell anywhere in the city, vendors selling hats and other goods on that block of Liberty St. during restricted hours are violating city policy.

Next door to Yagudayev’s hair salon, Costalas hopes to open his Essex World Cafe within the next week. Cheerful red signs hang from the ceiling of his store announcing Panini and Wraps, and Tossed to Order Salad Bar. There are some reminders of the past amid the rebuilding. Costalas plans to hang a framed memorial to the Port Authority workers who died in the Twin Towers, along with a board scrawled with the words “medical station” that used to hang outside the store.

Costalas said he and his employees knew nearly half of the 84 Port Authority workers who died in the Twin Towers. The hardest thing about reopening will be not seeing the faces of their lost friends, some of whom dropped in three times a day, Costalas said.

By the look of things last week, the community can’t wait for Costalas to open. Office workers walking past the store called out to him when they saw the bustle around the store.

“You got a menu yet?” asked one.

“Is this going to be a kosher restaurant?” asked another.

After the Essex Food Cafe, the next doors to open on Liberty St. may be those of the fire station known as ten-ten, home to Engine 10 and Ladder 10. A spokesperson for the fire department declined to comment on when the station may reopen, but a construction supervisor on the site said it would likely be within two weeks. Gregory Koziloek, the supervisor, said that firefighters were due back already but were delayed by a broken sewer line.

On the other end of the block, the owners of fresh and shore restaurants plan to open their third restaurant in Lower Manhattan, called coast, in December. Their two floors at 110 Liberty St. will house a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, a market selling fresh seafood and prepared foods, and a lounge with private dining upstairs.

The bustle on the block is encouraging to 114 Liberty resident Dave Stanke. Residents of 114 Liberty have not yet returned to their apartments. Stanke said residents hope to move back before next June. Appreciating the activity on either side of his building, Stanke laughed, “It makes me feel a little behind schedule.”