Special Report: New York's New Reality
Downtown re-emerges as a pilgrimage site, while natives and visitors take stock of a city transformed.
The State of Travel | Securing the Skies | Inside the World's Most Secure Airport | Nine Steps to Overcoming Flying Anxiety | Travel Insurance—Are You Covered? Assessing the Risk—Advice From Experts | The Comeback City: How New York Has Been Transformed | Security Update: Trains | Security Update: Hotels | Security Update: Borders | Cancellation Costs
The twin towers of the World Trade Center may well prove as big a tourist attraction in the aftermath of their destruction as they were when still standing. Since the September 11 attacks that left nearly 5,500 people dead and reduced one of New York's most imposing icons to rubble, crowds of onlookers have swarmed to the few accessible vantage points around the perimeter of Ground Zero, to pay their respects and to be able to say, as all tourists do, I was there.
On a warm October day, on the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street, Mark Matthews and Danielle Hickman watched heavy cranes pull down a portion of the jagged façade of the World Trade Center. The crowd gasped as part of the 150-foot-high outer wall tumbled to the ground, so fresh in their minds was the image of the buildings' initial collapse. Matthews and Hickman had driven up from Virginia to attend a wedding on Long Island, but made a detour to spend a day at the site. "I needed a reality check," said Hickman, a sad-faced young woman with a straight-out-of-college look. Around them, hundreds of other out-of-towners and locals focused their cameras on the place where the towers once stood. "Do not take pictures," exhorted the police and National Guardsmen who formed a human chain around Ground Zero and the surrounding blocks. "This is a crime scene." But their commands were futile, and they knew it. The still-smoldering memorial had made sightseers out of visitors and locals alike.
Although New Yorkers had been divided in their feelings about the Twin Towers—some celebrated their bigger-and-better-ness, others hated the way they bullied the rest of Manhattan's skyline—tourists had a simpler reaction: infatuation. That first-ever glimpse of the World Trade Center looming over downtown Manhattan was pure exhilaration, an adrenaline rush in preparation for the scary, exciting promise of New York City. Seen at closer range, from that stark and frankly deflating plaza, as thousands of workers scurried by, the skyscrapers seemed to reach forever upward, like magic beanstalks. Whether one's pilgrimage stopped at the concourse or continued all the way to the observation deck, with its superior, if disorienting, views, a trip to the World Trade Center validated every sweeping preconceived notion of Manhattan that any Woody Allen movie or action flick might have created.
When the towers came down, the site of the World Trade Center was transformed from the least subtle example of New York's self-importance into a shrine of bereavement and tribute. With no way of getting close to the site—which could remain off-limits to the public for a year or more—people are laying wreaths as near to it as they can: on police barricades, on the wire fencing that marks the perimeter, on emergency vehicles. From now on, the scene of the attacks is destined to acquire as great a spiritual importance as nearby Trinity Church, the 150-year-old refuge of faith that itself was once the tallest building in America.
In the weeks immediately following September 11, the manic, sometimes overpowering, sometimes intimidating energy that drives New York disappeared, as if the city had had the wind knocked out of it. But now, despite the anthrax scare that has sent the city into a Cipro-seeking frenzy, New York is, for the most part, getting back to normal. Many of the makeshift memorials that sprang up all over town, composed of photographs, candles, poems, and flowers, have disappeared. Taxi drivers are honking their horns again, politicians are carping at one another, even the little old ladies are back on the streets of the Upper West Side, leading with their elbows. Yet no one seems to have quite the same enthusiasm for the contact sport of New York life. "People are walking on tiptoe," remarked David Nettles, a British concert pianist and frequent visitor to Manhattan. "The city used to be so brash and noisy. Now it's subdued." New York, no longer so sure of itself, faces short-term hardships and long-term economic uncertainty. And its residents, not exactly known for their introspection, confront a more fundamental question: What sort of city is New York now?
For a while at least, there may be more than one answer to that question. In a sense, Manhattan has become a tale of two cities, one above Canal Street and one below. If life uptown proceeds pretty much as it did before—Times Square is busy, there are long lines once again for theater tickets, the Circle Line Cruises are running—in parts of TriBeCa, the area just north of the financial district, there's a lingering memory of near martial law. For weeks after the tragedy, vehicular traffic was restricted, and pedestrians, even schoolchildren, had to show ID to enter the area. The Tribeca Grand Hotel, which was, according to owner Emanuel Stern, "operating in a war zone" in the weeks following the attacks, largely housed downtown residents who'd been evacuated from their apartments. By mid-October, the hotel was full again, but a quarter of the rooms were still taken up by neighborhood refugees paying reduced rates, the rest by regular guests and those involved in the cleanup efforts. Meanwhile, the hotel's sister property, the SoHo Grand, just a few blocks north on the uptown side of Canal Street, recovered more quickly and is packed again, mostly with its regular clutch of models and movie stars.
"The military ran things" in TriBeCa, said John Villa, owner of Pico, an in-crowd Portuguese restaurant on Greenwich Street close to the World Trade Center site. "We have our own laundry in the basement, so all the firemen were coming in to wash their socks." That was fine, because there weren't any diners to serve (although many neighborhood chefs, including Villa and Danube's David Bouley, made meals for rescue and recovery workers). Pico was shut for more than two weeks, as were all of the area's other marquee restaurants, including Nobu, Tribeca Grill, and Danube. Their principal patrons—the expense-account crowd from midtown and evening visitors from uptown and the suburbs—still can't get downtown with ease; telephone service has also been a problem. A number of neighborhood restaurateurs are now focusing attention on residents. The Tribeca Grand's restaurant has added a children's menu; Odeon, popular with the late-night crowd, is closing at midnight. Chanterelle, one of the city's top restaurants, lowered some prices in order to be "more things to more people," in the words of co-owner Karen Waltuck. "We want people to come here not just on special occasions but also on a whim, or with their families," she said.
The Zagat Survey reported that by mid-October more than 30 downtown restaurants had shut their doors permanently, with another 37 unsure of when they'd reopen. The immediate economic fallout wasn't restricted to downtown, however. Danny Meyer's quartet of top-rated dining spots—Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and Tabla, all above 14th Street—saw their combined revenues plummet 58 percent the week after the attacks. Alex von Bidder, managing partner at the Four Seasons Restaurant, said cancellations through December had already cost him $1 million. Hotels were operating well below their usual capacity, and the casts and crews of Broadway productions accepted pay cuts to help keep their shows alive. A report released in late September by the Fiscal Policy Institute predicted that 11,900 restaurant workers and 4,300 hotel workers would be laid off by the end of the year. Another study estimated that lost tourism revenues could reach $2.5 billion for the last quarter of 2001.
"The good news is that things get better over time," Meyer said. "The fundamentals that make New York the best restaurant town in the world are still here." Despite the uncertain atmosphere, Meyer intends to open a new restaurant, Blue Smoke, early next year. The Four Seasons' von Bidder is also confident. "Breaking bread is the oldest ritual in the world," he said, adding that while "nobody can see past Christmas, we're lucky that we have a steady clientele."
Indeed, few expect tourists to stay away for long. By late September, several major organizations, including the American Society of Travel Agents and the Magazine Publishers of America, had decided to move their conventions to New York in a show of support. Hotel bookings for the Christmas season seem to be holding steady, and preparations for all of the city's major holiday attractions—from the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall to the window displays at Saks and Macy's—are proceeding normally. "We still expect people to come and see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, go to the Nutcracker, and walk down Fifth Avenue," said Brian Honan, director of marketing for the Four Seasons Hotel New York. In mid-October, the hotel still had rooms available for late December, but Honan anticipated being "as full as we have been in other years."
Keith Yazmir, acting vice president of communications for NYC & Co., the city's convention and visitors bureau, pointed out that while it's impossible to make comparisons between the two events, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was called at the time "a death knell for tourism in New York." Instead, tourism grew, so much so that the city welcomed 11 million more visitors in 2000 than it had seven years before. "New York will recover," said Cristyne L. Nicholas, president and CEO of NYC & Co. "It's just a question of how long it will take." She was unable to give forecasts for the holiday season but noted that the number of foreign visitors, who account for 42 percent of New York's tourism revenue, is down nationwide, presenting a major challenge. "Still, we have the support of the entire country and of overseas visitors," she said. "We're asking people to come to New York City so we can thank them personally."
New York has never demonstrated any great sentimental attachment to the old. Instead, it has always set its sights firmly on being ahead of the pack, on making the next project bigger and better than the last. "The ethos of New York is change," said Kenneth T. Jackson, director of the New-York Historical Society. "The notion of buildings and places turning over is very New York. Tragedies don't stop successful cities." That's a forward-looking, even aggressive, attitude—the same one that led the city to tear down an architectural gem like the old Penn Station in 1963 and even to erect the Twin Towers in the first place. It's already on display in the discussions over how to rebuild downtown: while some New Yorkers are calling for a park to serve as a tranquil memorial, others are urging the reconstruction of the towers and still others see the opportunity for an even more ambitious set of buildings, a testament to New York's determination and pride.
It won't be a surprise when the city bounces back, said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, a civic planning organization: "New York has relentless energy: it's an island of type-A personalities." The other side of that coin is impatience, and already many New Yorkers are expressing frustration with the disruption of their lives, particularly the restrictions on movement. "The essence of a city is openness, and now we're blessed with excessive security downtown," Barwick remarked. As much as he understands the need for vigilance, he said, "in a way, they might be strangling" the city.
For the moment, though, the city is biting its collective lip and living up to the unified and harmonious common front its inhabitants adopted on September 11. The attacks on that date achieved something no tourism campaign or Hollywood movie could: they made the rest of the nation identify with New York. No longer, it seems, does much of the heartland consider the city an obnoxious netherworld with Broadway and Katie Couric as its only redeeming features. Instead, for many Americans, New York has finally become part of the country. "Our image has been softened," Jackson said. "I think people have seen New Yorkers as ordinary people." Still, it's hard to imagine them as subdued and polite—and, somehow, even harder to wish for. "A lot of people thought we were too fancy, too arrogant," von Bidder said. "I believe that has changed. We're no longer the bigheaded city," he noted, and then added with a chuckle, "This week, anyway."
Near Ground Zero, New York's new small-town charm is already wearing off. On Park Row, a few blocks from the wreckage, next to an elderly couple peddling Stars and Stripes pins and tiny flags for a dollar, a tall man stands on the corner selling snapshots of the World Trade Center under attack. He makes the mistake of trying to interest an off-duty cop. "There are people selling U.S. flags to make money, and you're doing this?" the officer asks incredulously. "You've got ten minutes to get outta here or you're going to jail."New York, it seems, might still be New York after all.
Matthew Yeomans lives in Brooklyn.
This Winter's Coming Attractions
Many hotel and restaurant openings and cultural events in New York are going forward as planned. Here's a selection.
HOTELS The harborfront Ritz-Carlton Battery Park, just south of the World Trade Center site, pushed its early-October debut to early next year. The Ritz-Carlton Central Park South also expects to open in early 2002. Socialite Jeff Klein's City Club Hotel, on West 44th Street in midtown, plans to welcome guests on December 1. The W Times Square raises its curtain around New Year's.
RESTAURANTS Both the newly renovated 1762 Fraunces Tavern and the Harrison, an upscale American restaurant, showed their mettle by opening in October just blocks from the WTC. The group behind Ruby Foo's and Blue Water Grill plans to serve up the seafood-centric Blue Fin, in the W Times Square hotel, later this month and Fiamma, a three-tiered Italian restaurant in SoHo, in January. The latest outpost of Red Square, the caviar-and-vodka palace with locations in South Beach and Las Vegas, makes its midtown debut early next year. Finally, Danny Meyer's barbecue-themed Blue Smoke fires up the grill in February, on East 27th Street.
BARS Rande Gerber's new, as-yet-unnamed bar and screening room is set to open this month in the former Club USA space in Times Square connected to the W Hotel. And hipsters will start sipping cocktails at a new bar in the historic Lever House building on Park Avenue in late winter.
THEATER The fall season is already in full swing, with a few key openings set for the coming months. Tony Kushner's timely Homebody/Kabul, about a woman looking for her mother in Afghanistan, begins performances at the New York Theatre Workshop on November 30. Although Stephen Sondheim's controversial Assassins, canceled after the attacks, has not been rescheduled, plans are afoot to mount his Into the Woods, starring Vanessa Williams, on Broadway this spring. Other major shows in the works include two Arthur Miller plays—The Crucible, starring Liam Neeson, and The Man Who Had All the Luck, with Chris O'Donnell—and three classic musicals: Thoroughly Modern Millie, based on the Julie Andrews film; Trevor Nunn's acclaimed production of Oklahoma! from London; and The Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Nicholas Hytner. A TKTS discount ticket booth opened on Bowling Green in downtown Manhattan in October, replacing the WTC outlet.