Bringing a Neighborhood Back to Life

By Spencer E. Ante

Walking into the lobby of my apartment building, I'm happy to see the management has placed a "Welcome Back" sign on the wall. But I'm not returning from a holiday. I'm one of tens of thousands of residents of lower Manhattan who are trying to get on with their lives after being displaced from their homes by the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. My apartment, a condo on the 12th floor of 200 Rector Place, a 45-story building in the Battery Park City development, is four blocks south of where the World Trade Center once stood. Since the attacks, I've been living with my girlfriend in Brooklyn.

This week, some of Battery Park City's 9,000 residents started to move back into their homes. Most others are like me, making arrangements to have their apartments cleaned up. I left my windows open just a few inches, but it was enough to cover my bedroom with a thick coat of gray ash. I inspect the place with Chris Plunkett, a cleanup expert from Maxons Restorations, a Manhattan company that the owner of my building hired to help clean up the mess. Last week, he gave me an estimate of $1,300. Now he tells me that the estimate did not cover the cleanup of the walls and ceilings. I ask him for a new figure. "I can do it for $2,600," he says. And I don't have insurance.

It's one more small blow in a life after September 11 that has been a depressing, stress-filled, and numbingly complex affair. Sure, we refugees feel blessed to be alive and allowed to move back home. But now we face the enormous task of recovery: making sense of the disaster, cleaning up, and rebuilding our community. Some of us wonder if it's even possible. After all, the World Trade Center gave birth to Battery Park City. In the mid-1960s, Battery Park was created as part of the World Trade Center plan to help generate tax revenue for New York City. The very landfill that Battery Park is built on came from the ground that was dug up to build the Twin Towers. Now the questions must be asked: Can the neighborhood survive without its parent? And if so, what kind of life will its residents be able to live?

It all started when I was getting ready to go to work the morning of September 11. I heard an explosion outside my apartment. I took the elevator down to the street--and saw the second plane plow into Tower Two. Soon after, I saw Tower Two crumble, and I ran for my life toward New York harbor. Hours later, I escaped on a tugboat headed to Jersey City.

Now, three weeks after the attacks, signs of life have started popping up in Battery Park. Power, gas, and phone service have been restored in many areas. Nearly all the apartment buildings have reopened. On September 30, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced the beginning of a free shuttle that will take residents to and from the nearest subway stop. And a few local businesses--including a grocery, a dry cleaner, and a video store--have been doing business for a week. Gristedes, the store I shop in, opened on Oct. 1, but the company has not opened its other grocery in Battery Park, Sloan's. "We're going day by day," says John Catsimatidis, CEO of Red Apple Group Inc., which owns both chains.

Everyone who lives down here is shocked that our neighborhood has gotten back on its feet so quickly. But now that lower Manhattan is officially open, the real work begins. There are a truckload of issues to deal with, dozens of decisions that need to be made over the coming months and years.

First off, thousands of people still haven't been allowed to move back into their homes. They need help--yet they're not getting it. On Sept. 24, a few thousand displaced residents who live just north of the Trade Center stormed out of a meeting. They were expecting to be told by a state official when they could move back into their homes. The official stood them up. They still don't have a timetable.

After that, the most pressing issue is the cleanup: How will it get done? How effective will it be? And who pays for it? We all want to make sure the cleanup gets rid of the nasty dust and ash that may contain toxic materials, and that the air quality continues to be monitored. "I think there's a bigger environmental problem than people are letting on," says Donald Scherer, head of the newly formed Battery Park City Residents' Assn.

"SHOCKED." Landlords are cleaning up the apartments of people living in rental units at no cost. Owners have to pay for their own cleanup or do it themselves. Milford Management Corp., the company that manages my building, has hired 150 workers from Maxons to clean up the common areas and facades of four buildings it owns in Battery Park. I have no experience with this kind of thing, so I've decided to pay Maxons for a professional cleanup. I'm counting on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help me pick up the tab.

Strangely, it may not have been completely stupid of me not to have bought homeowner's insurance, since one aggravation residents now face is recalcitrant insurers. Joseph Jaigobind, a fellow resident, tells me he purchased a top-shelf policy from Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. that covered him up to $50,000. But he says the company won't pay to replace his soot-covered furniture--only for cleanup costs. "I'm totally freaking shocked," he says. "I'm thinking about having kids, and I don't want their lungs scarred by asbestos." A spokesman from MetLife says that out of 180 claims it has received, "we've had only one or two issues."

After cleaning up the immediate mess, we all must confront the biggest question: Should we stay or leave Battery Park? Two distinct camps are emerging: People who rent and people who own. Some renters are trying to negotiate rent reductions. Hundreds of others are trying to break their leases. James Owen, 37, is one of them. A four-year resident of Battery Park, Owen has been living in the Plaza Hotel with his wife since evacuating his apartment at 22 River Terrace. He says he may move out of the city. Rockrose Development Corp., the company that manages and owns River Terrace, has told Owen and other tenants they can break out of their leases if they pay a two-month rent penalty. But Owen says there is a clause in his contract specifying that if an apartment is unlivable for 30 days, renters can break their lease. "It's not a huge price, but I'm going to try to get out of paying it," he says.

Apartment owners are also organizing themselves. Some, like me, hope that the state or local government will provide tax and other financial incentives for residents and property and business owners who are committed to rebuilding. Community groups are forming to push these issues. One group that set up shop this week is called the Battery Park City Taxpayers Assn. Its aim is to negotiate a cut in the hefty land-lease fees and property taxes that Battery Park property owners pay as part of their common charges. Battery Park developers do not own land--the city leases it to them. The Taxpayers Assn. wants to slash these fees, which can run more than $1,000 a month, by 50% or more. "I hope it won't go to a lawsuit, but we're prepared," says a spokesperson for the group who requested anonymity.

Clearly, the key for those of us who live down here is to keep talking and organizing. I am encouraged by the outpouring of activity, much of which comes together via the Internet. Many people are rallying around the Battery Park City Residents Assn., which has been effective in publicizing our agenda. And Representative Jerrold Nadler (D.-N.Y.) helped establish the Ground Zero Elected Officials Task Force to address many issues in the months ahead, such as transportation services, continued independent monitoring of the environment, and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center. "The residents down here are a small number, but they're very vocal," says Judy Duffy, an official at Community Board 1, a local government body.

I hope I'll be able to move back into my apartment in a few weeks. I believe, like Mayor Giuliani, that we can rebuild lower Manhattan and make it better than ever. We residents are willing to do our part and serve as the anchor for downtown's redevelopment. But to make that happen we're going to need all the help we can get--from friends, family, the private sector, and our government.

Ante has lived in Battery Park City since April, 2000.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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