The Big Apple, Two Years Later

Flautist Phillip Belpasso plays mostly patriotic tunes for handouts along Church St. at the World Trade Center site Aug. 13, 2003. Every day, the perimeter of what now is called ground zero connects hundreds of people who work nearby--some for a paycheck, some at the mercy of tourists' wallets, some without homes who lay down caps and hope for pocket change AP

Not long after the World Trade Center attack, a boutique called Safer America opened in what had been the shadow of the twin towers, selling $1,499 parachutes for high-rise office workers and $445 "escape hoods" for children.

That this shop would have been anything more than a short-lived curiosity is illustrative of the myriad ways, from the personal to the political, that New York City has changed since Sept. 11, 2001.

An unattended bag can cause subways to close for hours at a time. Black-helmeted police arrive suddenly at landmarks like Times Square to disrupt potential terror activity. More than 160,000 jobs and $80 billion vanished from the economy. Massive city government deficits led to historic tax hikes.

Yet despite these profound changes, New Yorkers, as a rule, possess a resolute desire to move forward, and life in the city has returned in many ways to what it was before Sept. 11. In the new New York, fatalism is king - just as it was in the old New York.

"Life is tough here," said N.G. Berill, a forensic psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. "People here have a high tolerance for ambiguity, frustration and unpleasantness. We had this massive tragedy - and life has gone on."

New Yorkers talk again of such trifles as Jennifer Lopez's love life - a good sign, say mental health experts, given the widespread anxiety after the attacks. A Red Cross survey six months after the attacks found 43 percent of New York metropolitan area residents had feelings of hopelessness and fear.

At the time, one in three people were at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Randall Marshall, director of Trauma Studies for the New York State Psychiatric Institute. That figure is now down to 1 percent or 2 percent.

"The rates were staggering at the beginning, but they've dropped off," Marshall said, while noting the problem remains significant. "One or 2 percent still means hundreds of thousands of people."

The city's psyche has changed, certainly, in some ways. During August's blackout, for instance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt compelled to quickly assure New Yorkers that terrorism was not the cause.

But some of the predicted changes never occurred. While many said they would ride the subway less due to fears of terrorism, transit figures show ridership has remained steady.

"I remember when President Bush came here right after, and said that one day this would all be a memory," said Julie Hilden, a 35-year-old writer and attorney who witnessed the attacks. "I didn't believe it. But in fact, he was right. It is a memory, and it is a fading memory. You just have to go on."

As testament, ground zero-area bars and health clubs that had been virtually empty for months after the attacks are bustling again. The Battery Park City housing development, which adjoins the trade center site, has a 98 percent occupancy rate - higher than before the attack. Unlike last summer, sunbathers and rollerbladers have returned in force to Battery Park's promenade.

And why not? FBI statistics for 2002 show New York recorded its 10th consecutive year of declining crime, making it the second-safest among the nation's 25 largest cities. City records show major crime is down another 6 percent this year, despite the reassignment of 1,000 of the police department's 36,500 officers to anti-terrorism duties.

Security has become a constant presence in high-profile areas. Police officers are stationed in front of the New York Stock Exchange. At the Metropolitan Opera and Shea and Yankee stadiums, patrons can no longer bring large bags or backpacks inside.

Standing amid the Safer America shop's collection of gas masks, first aid kits and a "biochemical resistant" pet shelter, owner Cyril Houri said heightened federal terror alerts still prompt rushes to his store - but business is not what it was six months ago. While federal terror alerts have varied, New York City has maintained the second-highest level, orange.

"People are feeling safer, so they don't react to the news as much," Houri said.

Perhaps the area most affected by the attacks was the city economy, which sustained an estimated $83 billion loss. Economists generally agree the attack worsened an economy that had been foundering for months, due in large part to the sinking stock market.

Since December 2000, the city has lost 241,500 jobs, with more than two-thirds of the losses - 162,900 - coming since the attacks, according to the city Comptroller's Office. The job losses have been so great, in fact, that nearly half of the employment created during the boom years of the 1990s has been lost.

The city's July unemployment rate was 8.1 percent, compared with 5.8 percent in July 2001. The national unemployment rate for July 2003 was 6.2 percent.

Kathryn Wylde, president of the New York City Partnership, a business advocacy group, said the economy will continue to lag as long as security concerns bring heightened fear and extra costs.

"So long as there are growing concerns about another terrorist attack, it will make it very difficult for New York to regain what we lost on 9-11 and for the economy to move forward," said Wylde.

Still, there are small signs of recovery. Hotel occupancy is at 80 percent, the same level as in June 2001. Businesses in neighborhoods surrounding the trade center site are reporting turnarounds since last year, when many shops teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

"Originally, so many tourists went down to the (trade center) site and got so depressed they would leave and go shop in midtown," said Sharon Decker, executive director of the Tribeca Organization. "Now the site is cleaned up and people are staying and spending."

On his way to a stunning upset in the 2001 mayoral election, the Republican Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman and neophyte politician, convinced New Yorkers they needed his business acumen to help the city recover.

But just as a general fear of the future helped Bloomberg win the election, it's caused him no end of trouble.

The post-disaster economy forced Bloomberg to resort to layoffs, service cuts and the highest property tax hike in city history. The result has been an erosion in support - his approval rating plummeted to a low of 31 percent this summer - and the likelihood of a tough re-election campaign.

Conversely, the past two years have boosted President Bush in the state and, recognizing that, the Republican Party has chosen the city to host its nominating convention for the first time ever.

Though Mr. Bush has virtually no chance to win the majority of votes in the city, Republicans believe they have a shot to win New York state's 31 electoral votes in 2004. Despite a 5-to-3 Democratic registration advantage in the state, an April poll found Bush leading each potential Democratic rival.

Much, then, may have changed. But from Jimmy "Fast Hands" Franklin's street-level vantage point, the city seems the same familiar place.

"You walk down the street, people are eating out, the girls are trying to look cute in their short dresses, everybody's hustling," said Franklin, taking a break from playing his trumpet for money on a downtown sidewalk. "What do you want? It's New York."
  • Brian Bernbaum

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