Manhattan's revival gathers pace 15 years after 9/11

By Beth J Harpaz

A neighbourhood once struck by tragedy has made great strides into the future while remembering the lost, writes Beth J Harpaz.

One World Trade Center towers over a glowing Lower Manhattan.  Photo / 123RF
One World Trade Center towers over a glowing Lower Manhattan. Photo / 123RF

Fifteen years after the September 11 attacks, Lower Manhattan has been reborn.

The revitalisation of New York's downtown, powered by US$30 billion ($41b) in US Government and private investment, includes the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site as well as two new malls filled with upscale retailers, thousands of new hotel rooms and dozens of eateries ranging from a new Eataly Italian marketplace to a French food hall, Le District.

The statistics are stunning. There are 29 hotels in the neighbourhood, compared with six before 9/11. More than 60,000 people live downtown, nearly triple the number that did in 2000. And last year, the area hosted a record 14 million visitors, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York.

And though there's plenty to do downtown for free, including seeing the 9/11 memorial park, visitors are also willing to pay relatively steep prices for certain attractions. The 9/11 Museum, which charges US$24, has drawn 6.67 million visitors since its May 2014 opening. The observatory atop One World Trade Center, which charges US$34, has drawn 3 million people in the 15 months since it opened. In comparison, the Statue of Liberty gets about 4 million visitors a year.

"I don't think anyone would have expected that we would have rebounded so robustly, so quickly," said Jessica Lappin, president of the alliance.

"There's the physical transformation at the site itself, but there's also the neighbourhood. There's an energy here. People could have given up after 9/11 and nobody would have blamed them. Instead there has been a tenacity, a dedication that is inspiring."

The wreckage of a firetruck, on display at the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user edward stojakovic
The wreckage of a firetruck, on display at the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user edward stojakovic

The Alliance for Downtown New York was founded before 9/11, in 1995, when the "neighbourhood was on its heels", Lappin says. "The vacancy rate was going through the roof." At the time, downtown was a strictly 9 to 5 area, keyed to the workday rhythms of Wall Street and City Hall, deserted at night and on weekends. Revitalisation efforts were just getting under way "when 9/11 hit and changed everything".

But as government funding for disaster recovery began to pour in, private investment followed, spurring a massive rebuilding that continues to this day. For blocks surrounding One World Trade, half-built towers and cranes clutter the sky, barricades and scaffolding line the streets, and the whine and clatter of jackhammers fill the air. Construction workers in hard hats are as ubiquitous as tourists. The recession hampered efforts to bring businesses back, but Lappin says private sector employment - 266,000 workers - is finally nearing pre-9/11 numbers. Conde Nast and Time Inc. have relocated downtown. Group M, one of the world's biggest advertising firms, will move into Three World Trade Center when it's complete.

So far, three towers have been built with plans for more.

The neighbourhood is also becoming a shopping destination. Brookfield Place opened last year with luxury retailers such as Gucci and Diane von Furstenberg. It also houses Le District, the French food hall which has a creperie, cafe, bar and more, as well as Hudson Eats, with outposts of popular eateries like Mighty Quinn's BBQ and Num Pang Cambodian sandwiches.

A second shopping centre, Westfield, opened in August inside the Oculus, a striking white structure designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. The curves of the Oculus' two ribbed wings are silhouetted by One World Trade rising behind it. Inside the Oculus, retailers range from Apple to Kate Spade to The Art of Shaving. The complex connects to Four World Trade, where the new Eataly NYC Downtown offers a bounty of bread, cheese, coffee, pasta and more. Below ground a massive transit centre houses subways and a New Jersey PATH train station.

Elsewhere in Lower Manhattan, a Tom Colicchio restaurant is planned for the just-opened Beekman Hotel; the soon-to-open Four Seasons hotel will host a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, and the Nobu restaurant will move downtown from Tribeca. Other downtown attractions include Founding Father Alexander Hamilton's tomb in the graveyard of Trinity Church, the National Museum of the American Indian and the SeaGlass Carousel, which opened last year near where boats leave for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

But near the top of many visitors' New York itineraries is a pilgrimage to the place where planes turned the twin towers into smoking piles of twisted steel and rubble. The tranquil park formally known as the National September 11 Memorial features tree-lined walkways and reflecting pools in the footprints of the twin towers. Bronze parapets around the pools bear the names of the nearly 3000 dead.

Last week, park visitors included three siblings from Barcelona, Arantxa, Meus and Pau Saloni, on their first trip to New York. "It's really sad to see all the names, but it's nice to remember them," said Meus. Visiting on the same day were Su-Ting Fu and his family, in town from suburban Westchester. "We lived in New York City when 9/11 happened," he said. "But we hadn't come to see this until today. It's nice to see everything they've done to memorialise it, but I also love the greenery, and how it feels very much like a living type of memorial."

Lappin said the neighbourhood's rebirth was a fitting tribute to the 9/11 tragedy. "We honour those who were lost, but we also celebrate life and move forward."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: American Airlines flies Auckland to Los Angeles five times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday to Sunday), with daily connecting flights to New York's JFK airport.

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