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Lower Manhattan thrives in the shadow of ground zero

Construction continues on One World Trade Center on August 12, 2011 in New York City.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

In the 10 years since al-Qaeda wreaked havoc on the World Trade Center, its downtown neighbourhood has seen a startling residential renaissance.

What was once a sterile enclave for banks and brokerage houses has become family friendly, with new parks, public schools and grocery stores springing up throughout the district known as Lower Manhattan.

The residential population has more than doubled since 9/11, with an influx of young professional parents, who often work within walking distance from home.

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Magda Gagliano is a self-proclaimed pioneer in downtown living. She worked in the World Trade Center prior to the 9/11 attack and knew many victims. She and her husband, Joe, watched as emergency responders mounted largely futile rescue efforts that day.

Despite that trauma, they decided Lower Manhattan was the perfect place to raise their daughter, Daria.

"While I'll always remember it, I don't want to live in the past. We've done so much to bring this neighbourhood back," Ms. Gagliano says.

Six-year-old Daria's route to her first-grade classroom is a short walk through the urban theme park that is Lower Manhattan.

When she heads off to her public school this September, she will emerge into the glass and concrete canyons of the Wall Street financial district.

As she continues along a refurbished Battery Park, she can look to the left and wave to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour or to the right up West Street and view the mammoth 1 World Trade Centre under construction.

The 9/11 attack – which has been followed by two well-publicized threats to New York City – has not deterred people from moving to within a few short blocks of ground zero. They greet the risk with a mixture of defiance, rationalization and avoidance: No enemy will limit their liberty, there are dangers everywhere and it's best not to dwell on what might happen.

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They brave the traffic and incessant noise, the density and, yes, the threat of another terrorist attack to enjoy the stimulating activity and stunning geography that the tip of Manhattan Island offers.

The downtown residents are drawn by what Harvard University urban economist Edward Glaeser calls the triumph of the 21st-century city: a victory over the crime, pollution and economic decline that were the hallmarks of major American cities a generation ago.

In a book published earlier this year, Mr. Glaeser argues that New York – like the world's other great cities – offers unmatched opportunity for creative work and pleasurable living and hence draws in the brightest and most entrepreneurial population.

Lower Manhattan epitomizes that mixture of challenging employment and upscale lifestyle. It has also become a privileged enclave – sky-high rents and housing prices ensure that only the affluent reside there.

On 9/11, there were an estimated 25,000 people living in the downtown area. But they were congregated in two areas: Battery Park City, a high-rise development hugging the Hudson River, and Tribeca, the upscale residential neighbourhood that is home to celebrities such as Robert De Niro and James Gandolfini.

Today, there are 56,000 people living in the area south of Chambers Street. One-quarter of the households have children under 18 and, in a recent survey, 40 per cent of childless couples under 45 said they plan to have children in the next three years.

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The population is expected to continue growing. Developers are putting up new buildings and converting commercial space into residences.

One glowing addition to the Manhattan skyline is "New York by Frank Gehry" – an undulating, titanium tower designed by the famed architect and billed as the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere. Just two blocks from the World Trade Center site, the Gehry building features 69 storeys of rental units – and a new public elementary school in its first three floors.

The monthly rent for a three-bedroom unit – complete with wrap-around balcony – is listed at $20,000. The standard two-bedroom apartment in the exclusive Gehry building rents for $6,000 a month, compared to an average in Manhattan of about $2,500.

With the residential boom has come six new schools – including two public elementary facilities. The excellent reputation of the public schools is a major draw for families in a city where private tuition can average $25,000 a year.

City, state and federal governments have also allocated more than $100-million to build and refurbish parks, including Governors Island, a 70-hectare former military base that has been transformed into an urban playground with developers drawing inspiration from the Toronto Islands.

The 70-hectare island lies 800 metres off the tip of Manhattan in New York Harbour and houses two 1812-era forts. The green space has been turned over to the city and now has bike paths, ball fields, picnic spots, and is accessible by free ferry rides from both Manhattan and Brooklyn.

While recent construction is drawing new residents, there remain some long-time residents of the financial district who survived the devastating loss of 9/11 and chose to stay.

Catherine and Tom Hughes raised two boys, now 14 and 19, just a block from ground zero and have never regretted their choice to stay.

For the past 10 years, Ms. Hughes – a civil engineer – has worked as a volunteer on the local community board to ensure the residents benefited from the massive redevelopment of the area.

Her family was not unscathed by 9/11. Friends were lost. Mr. Hughes had been invited but decided not to attend a technology conference at Windows on the World, where the attendees all died that day. And the family was forced from their home for more than five months until the building could be made habitable again.

"New Yorkers are resilient," Ms. Hughes says. "We had freedom before Sept. 11 and we had freedom after Sept. 11 and I'm not going to have somebody tell me where I can or cannot live.

"In fact, we're going to make it better."

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About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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