`It will never be the same there'

Community: Some who lived in the shadows of the twin towers learn that nowhere else is home, while others can't bear to return.

2001 9/11 2002

One Year

September 05, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - How close did Rachel Florio live to the World Trade Center's towers?

So close that when her husband would call from his office there to say he was working late, and she would tease him that he was really out with the boys, he would flick the lights on and off at her to prove that he was indeed desk-bound.

So close that when she heard the first plane approaching Sept. 11, she dived onto the floor of the apartment with her children, sure that it was about to hit their terrace.

So close that when the jetliner instead slammed into her husband's tower and she ran over to find him, she got there before then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his entourage.

So close, and now too close.

"It will never be the same there ever again," says Florio, whose family is among many that can no longer bear to live next door to the attack site. "I know they say there are no more remains, but to me, there are still souls there."

The memories that drove the Florios away remain raw for her. Of running from the collapsing towers with her two young daughters, telling them to pretend they were in a movie only to have one of them cry: "No, Mommy, it's real! It's Daddy's building!" Of hearing from a friend that her husband, Greg, was OK but not seeing for herself until hours later. And, most of all, of seeing people jumping - she still says "falling" - from the towers, particularly the one she saw last and most clearly, the man with the strawberry blond hair wearing a brown tweed jacket.

Florio knows she will carry what she witnessed that morning forever and wherever she lives - but she can at least control her physical distance from its origin. The family has moved about six miles away to an apartment on the Upper West Side while awaiting the completion of a home being built even farther away, in the suburbs of Westchester County.

To stay or leave

For those who lived closest to the site, whether to stay or go has been a running theme this past year - for some, a serious consideration they eventually acted on; for others, more of a fleeting thought at their lowest moments.

Although the area around the former trade center is largely commercial, it is also home to tens of thousands of residents in communities such as Battery Park City to the west and Tribeca to the north.

What others call Ground Zero is not some cold symbol of American might and capitalism that proved an attractive target to terrorists. It was where residents' kids learned to ride bikes on the plaza between the towers, in the shadows of which they played Little League baseball. It was where they shopped at the Gap and the Duane Reade drugstore in the mall beneath the towers and impressed out-of-town friends by taking them up to the Windows on the World restaurant for drinks.

That is what the terrorists struck - the neighborhood.

"We lost our Borders," says Fred Seeman, a lawyer who has lived in the area for more than 20 years. "If you have little ones, that's where you went."

Seeman, though, is quick to say that losing a Borders bookstore is nothing compared to losing a husband or mother or sibling in the terrorist attacks. He and other neighbors of the former trade center know that they surely are not, as New Yorkers have come to call them, among those who suffered "first degree" losses.

And yet, to be hit so close to home has been unnerving in many ways.

"I sometimes feel bad about telling my story because so many people were affected more than me," says Michael Thaler, a commodities trader who has decided to return to his Battery Park City apartment after a year away. "I was more of the next tier affected by it."

`I want to get back'

It's hard to determine how many have left, stayed, or left and come back. A recent New York Times survey found that occupancy rates in the immediate area of Ground Zero, which dropped about 45 percent after the attacks, are back up - largely because landlords dropped rents to attract new tenants to replace those who left, and government grants became available to those who sign long-term leases to remain in the area.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. estimates that 9,300 apartments, condos and co-ops are in the so-called Zone 1, the area immediately around the World Trade Center site - south of Chambers Street and west of Nassau Street, which includes all of Battery Park City and the southern part of Tribeca.

What is clear is that many who have left are families, among those most troubled by lingering questions of air quality and the prospect of having their children navigate around construction sites in the coming years. This summer, the Downtown Little League, which in a normal year can have as many as 600 kids participating, had fewer than 400, and they played on borrowed fields elsewhere. One elementary school near Ground Zero expects about 28 percent fewer students this year because their families have left the area.

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