On side streets like Cortlandt, John, and Cedar in New York City's financial district, you can't miss the symphony of new construction: metallic bangs of hammers, the electric whir of circular saws, and the deep reverberations from jackhammers. The sounds, emanating from half-finished buildings all throughout the neighborhood, are an indication of a city rebuilding itself after a tragedy 13 years ago.
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the Manhattan skyline was painfully empty without the Twin Towers. But with World Trade Center buildings 1, 4, and 7 now erected and a host of other construction projects underway, progress toward a new downtown is undeniable. Within the once-devastated district's concrete walls, businesses both old and new are feeling a rising tide.
Outside of the 1 World Trade Center (aka the Freedom Tower) construction site, a member of the Local 79 construction and general building laborers' union says he has noticed a boost in the area's economy. "It has picked up. You see a lot more business," says Anthony, who did not want to give his last name but said he has been working at the Freedom Tower for five years. "I don't know how the businesses are doing, but they have rebuilt and come back."
According to the most recent quarterly report by the Downtown Alliance, which manages the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Business Improvement District, 2014 has been the best year for the district's commercial real estate market in 13 years. Year over year, office leasing has increased 43 percent and vacancies have dropped 2 percent. The increase has been fueled by both relocations and existing tenants in the technology, media, and other sectors expanding their offices.
The Downtown Alliance's report finds that retail rent is up 40 percent since 2012. By 2016, it expects there will be 1.5 million square feet of new and repositioned retail space along Broadway. Five new hotels will open in the area by the end of this year, with 12 more on the way by 2016.
This is far more than a blip on the radar. The financial district is going through a change from former ghost town to post-tragedy boomtown. Below, check out what the neighborhood's business owners are saying about being part of the area's revitalization.
The old is feeling new
Barclay-Rex, a cigar store at 75 Broad Street, is an old standby for the financial district's businessmen and women. In 2001, the store had a small outpost in the World Financial Center's Winter Garden, which sat behind the Twin Towers. The day of the attacks, manager Pat Gargano "saw everything" from his shop's unique vantage point. "I heard a boom and saw everyone running. I locked the door, went out to the street and saw the North Tower on fire," says Gargano, who lives in Queens and likes to smoke a Padron Anniversary at the end of a long day. He made it back to the Broad Street location before the towers collapsed and waited things out until the evening.
After 9/11, Gargano says, Barclay-Rex lost a lot of business. It reopened the Winter Garden location a year after the attacks, but closed it in 2008. "Up until last year, the neighborhood has been a shell of its former self," Gargano says. "But over the last year, business has picked up. I'm starting to see more of the old faces and more new faces. Companies are coming back and filling the buildings."
Gargano has worked in the financial district since his first job with Western Electric. When asked why he didn't leave like many other people, he says, "Tragedy and hardship, that's life. But you go where you're comfortable."
A ghost town comes back
John Allan's, a men's grooming club on Trinity Place, has been at its location kitty-corner from the World Trade Center for the past 23 years. Mariana Baldi, the owner of this John Allan's location, has worked there since it opened. After the towers fell, the location was closed for eight months. Asked what it was like after it reopened, Baldi says, "It wasn't like anything. There was no business. It was a ghost town."
But now that new designer goods stores have opened and fancy restaurants have come to the neighborhood, business is back. "It's like how it was before 9/11. From 11 a.m. through 8 p.m., we're busy all day long," she says. The clientele, however, has become more diverse, she says--it's no longer only a Wall Street paradise, where bankers can get a haircut, play pool, and drink from their own bottle of bourbon at the bar. "Now it's men from every industry--from technology startups, media, and more."
Make your presence known
"We had 9/11, a recession, then Occupy Wall Street. Now we have a Whole Foods," Baldi says. We've grown back to where we were before." To some, that's a double-edged sword. On a recent weekday afternoon, John Snow, a boxing trainer and the brother of the owner of The Trinity Boxing Club, reflected on the last decade of rebuilding and what it means for the gym and other small businesses in the area.
"Across the street, they sold the retail condo for $35 million and the current residents are out. And a lot of the older businesses are under pressure," says Snow, who periodically helps out running Trinity. "After 9/11, the rents were cheaper so small businesses moved down. But now, their rents are on the rise."
Still, that hasn't deterred many business owners, such as father-and-son duo George and Gregory Zamfotis, the founders of Gregorys Coffee, a specialty coffee shop with 10 locations in New York City. Over a six-month period this year, the Zamfotises opened three new locations in the financial district.
Gregory, who lives in nearby Battery Park, has been well familiar with the area since he was a kid. His father had two stores in the financial district, including a deli on Cedar Street near the Twin Towers that was destroyed after a car went through the building's facade as the towers collapsed. The neighborhood is home to him and he sees the recovery and economic lift as an opportunity he doesn't want to miss. "The financial district has gotten the short end of the stick--from 9/11, the financial disaster, and then Sandy," he says. "It's been a constant struggle to sustain growth, but we feel like the time is right and we want to be part of its growth and revitalization. I wanted to open a few stores all at once to solidify our presence down here."
Gregorys Coffee's presence will not be short-lived, he adds, for one location has a 20-year lease. "I hope to be here when I'm an old man."