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Target of Opportunity

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Target of Opportunity

Roaring back from the devastation of 9/11, Lower Manhattan remade itself into a vibrant, successful neighborhood—one reason why a terrorist wanted to attack it. November 7, 2017
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets
Public safety

Terrorist Sayfullo Saipov told investigators that he chose to attack Lower Manhattan on Halloween because he knew that the streets there would be crowded. His assault, the first lethal terrorist attack on New York since September 11, 2001, killed eight people and injured 13 others precisely because Saipov was correct: an area of New York that, in the days after 9/11, was desolate save for the rescue workers toiling there was remarkably alive again on Halloween 2017—making it a target of opportunity once more.

To those who were in Manhattan on that grim day 16 years ago and who walked the city’s streets regularly in the months following the 9/11 attacks, it was never certain that that would be the case. The brave talk back then of how resilient New York would be was counterbalanced by defeatism that preached capitulation to the terrorists’ deadly, anti-Western vision. That Lower Manhattan is more robust today than before the 9–11 attacks is testament to the irrepressible spirit of ordinary people, who brushed aside fear, gloomy predictions about New York’s future, and bureaucratic efforts to strangle redevelopment in Lower Manhattan to create an entirely new neighborhood.

Though it was once New York’s central business district, Lower Manhattan was already in decline in the 1960s, when the head of Chase Manhattan Bank, David Rockefeller, convinced his brother Nelson, then governor of New York, to build a government-subsidized office complex in the area. The Rockefellers hoped that the massive World Trade Center would reignite interest in the neighborhood, even as local corporations were fleeing uptown to mid-Manhattan or leaving town entirely for friendlier tax and business climates. Instead, the giant Twin Towers project dumped some 10 million square feet of office space on New York just as the city’s fiscal crisis exploded in the early 1970s and its crime rate skyrocketed. The glut of space plagued the Manhattan office market for years and did little to help the flagging area.

Lower Manhattan’s real turnaround began in the mid-1990s, when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani used tax incentives to lure new companies, especially tech firms, to the area, and the city let developers recast aging office buildings as residential towers. As crime receded and New York’s population burgeoned, Lower Manhattan became the anchor of Silicon Alley, a business community bolstered by a New York tech industry that employed some 138,000 people by 2000. The area’s resurgence was so robust that then-governor George Pataki managed to get the Twin Towers out of the hands of government and into private ownership, with a 99-year lease that turned over management of the World Trade Center to developer Larry Silverstein.

The downtown momentum ground to a halt after 9/11. The attacks on the towers represented the second time in nine years that terrorists had struck the complex, part of a long history of terrorism against the financial district dating back to a bomb explosion on September 16, 1920, in front of J.P. Morgan & Co, killing dozens. After 9/11, businesses fled the area quickly— in just three months, vacancies surged by 50 percent as businesses headed to midtown, New Jersey, and beyond. Though the assault destroyed 13.5 million square feet of office space, by the end of 2001, there was more empty real estate in still-standing office towers in Lower Manhattan than there had been before the attacks.

Worse, petty turf battles broke out among politicians over who would direct downtown redevelopment. The task didn’t get easier when Pataki handed rebuilding authority to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Under the LMDC’s guidance, rebuilding increasingly came under the influence of anti-business, anti-development advocacy groups, partnering with 9/11 victims’ families to argue that little or no commerce should return to the site. With town hall meetings soliciting input from groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Organization of Women Legal and Educational Defense Fund, reconstruction planning descended into an exercise in anguish and sentimentality, with “grief counselors” on hand in case talk of rebuilding the city prove too stressful for anyone. The result: an effort to tilt the future of Lower Manhattan toward cultural uses, and a giant memorial aimed at making the area a tourist attraction—a Disneyland of Death, as I described it in the Wall Street Journal.

Meantime, however, the area beyond Ground Zero spontaneously took a different course. Silverstein, who lost not only the Towers but also a separate building, 7 World Trade, that was not part of Ground Zero, quickly rebuilt that tower and started leasing it. “I simply did not listen to all the naysayers because I was spending my money, not theirs, and fortunately I had no government involvement,” he told me.  His vision of a more robust, commercially driven reconstruction gradually won out, in part because while he fought with the government over the direction of the WTC site, outside of Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan continued to transform rapidly into a 24-hour community. Between 2000 and 2014, Lower Manhattan, once largely a business district, saw its residential population double to about 50,000, as New Yorkers thumbed their noses at the fear of future attacks. The transformation continues today, with more than 30 additional residential buildings under construction or recently completed. And even with the slow pace of reconstruction at Ground Zero, the area ultimately regained the private employment that it had lost, thanks to jobs at businesses that didn’t previously operate in Lower Manhattan—including more than a dozen new hotels.  

Today, Lower Manhattan is abuzz in a way that seemed difficult to imagine after 9/11. In addition to all the new residents, about 275,000 people work there, and 13 million people visit the area every year. Some of that activity is no doubt a result of the excellent work done by the NYPD and state and federal agencies in short-circuiting about 25 plots aimed at the city since 2001. Some is also a result of the continuing appeal of a city whose population continues to grow in the wake of an historic, 25-year decline in crime that has made New York one of America’s safest cities.

Saipov saw the unmistakable signs of life in Lower Manhattan. To him, it was an opportunity for mayhem. Fortunately, for many more people, it represents just plain, old-fashioned opportunity.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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