Fourteen Septembers after terrorists destroyed the nationâ€™s greatest office complex and crippled its fourth-largest business district, the rebuilding of the World Trade Center and the revival of lower Manhattan continue â€“ one office tenant, subway platform and sidewalk at a time.
â€œThis is not the end,â€™â€™ Catherine McVay Hughes, chair of the community planning board, says of the recovery. â€œBut itâ€™s the beginning of the end.â€™â€™
Over the last 12 months, the troubled Trade Center building site has witnessed no major milestones, such as the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial (2011) or Museum (2013).
Instead, thereâ€™s been unspectacular, incremental, sometimes almost imperceptible progress. On the day the One World Trade Center office tower finally opened for business, for example, there was no ceremony â€“ not even a speech by a politician claiming credit.
As construction fences and barriers come down, and sidewalks, streets, underground passages and bike lanes open up, the Trade Center â€œis finally being knit back into the fabric of lower Manhattan,â€™â€™ says Hughes, whoâ€™s lived in the district for 27 years and raised two sons there.
From the first hours after the 9/11 attacks, Americans and New Yorkers were determined to rebuild quickly at Ground Zero. But the task was impossibly complicated; the rail lines, utilities and foundations were an intricate 3-D puzzle; and a host of competing interests â€“ including relatives of 9/11 victims â€“ fought over the outcome, often to a standstill.
But since the last anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the first office workers have moved into One WTC, which at a symbolic 1,776 feet is the Western Hemisphereâ€™s tallest building and the worldâ€™s third tallest. The towerâ€™s top-floors observatory and restaurants also opened to the public.
And two key components of Rupert Murdochâ€™s media empire â€“ News Corp. (which owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal) and 21st Century Fox â€“ announced plans to move from a Midtown skyscraper to anchor the fourth office tower that will rise at the Trade Center site.
Progress under the radar
But most advances have been less striking. They range from the installation of 1,000 pieces of bomb-resistant glass in the retractable skylight of the soaring â€œOculusâ€™â€™ pavilion in the bird-like Transit Hub, to planting trees in Liberty Park at the south end of the site.
Moreover, as construction begins to wind down, people can go places that were inaccessible (like the intersection of Greenwich and Fulton streets, obliterated in the 1960s by the original Trade Center super block) and see the previously invisible (the vista from the WTC PATH subway station mezzanine of the gleaming white marble train platforms).
Pedestrians also can enjoy the first partial public views inside the main hall of the Transit Hub, a space that rivals Grand Central Terminalâ€™s in grandeur and exceeds it in size.
Some of the cityâ€™s worst pedestrian choke points â€“ products of a confluence of construction and office workers, tourists and subway commuters â€“ finally are easing. (The crush at Vesey and Church streets was nicknamed â€œVesey Squeezy.â€™â€™)
For example, the opening of the sidewalk on the north side of Liberty Street, between Church and Greenwich streets, has cleared a pedestrian bottleneck produced by the opening of the memorial, museum and an office tower.
The fear of terrorism that once suffused the area has been assuaged by intense security and obscured by growing congestion.
On Sept. 11, 2001, about 20,000 people lived in lower Manhattan; in the months that followed, about 10,000 left. Today, the areaâ€™s population is 70,000 and rising. On Wednesday, in a sign of the times, Peck Slip public elementary school opened to accommodate the growing number of children.
Some fears linger. As recently as November, Chris Rock said in his Saturday Night Live monologue that One WTC, originally known as the Freedom Tower, should be called the â€œâ€™Never Going in There Tower,’ because I’m never going in there.â€™â€™
But now people wait in line to visit the towerâ€™s observation deck, despite the $32 tab. â€œThey say this is the safest building in New York City,â€™â€™ says Shelly Murphy, visiting with her children from Birmingham, Ala. And she believes it.
That sense of security is costly, in dollars and inconvenience.
The entire site is under intense surveillance by local and federal anti-terrorism squads. Every delivery vehicle and bus entering the network of underground service roads will pass through the $700 million Vehicle Security Center, which has yet to open. Greenwich Street, the newly opened north-south route through the site, will be limited to pedestrians because of a fear of car bombs.