Of all the people who have inhabited TriBeCa in recent years, Ruth Hardinger and Michael Norton could be the Platonic ideal: artists who came for the lofts in the seventies (her) and eighties (him), then started selling real estate in the nineties. They are married tag-team brokers at Insignia Douglas Elliman who work only by personal referral for high-end clients, and who say, "Our business isn't like 'Let's sell a piece of real estate.' It's 'Let's find a home for someone who wants to share this experience.' "
It's the TriBeCa experience that Norton is describing -- the pricey small-town loft chic that made TriBeCa the neighborhood of the last boom, and which they argue is still in full flower, months after the attacks. Their renovated loft, around the corner from their Hudson Street office, has space for both of them to make art, as well as a living. "We've built our lives so we can stay in this neighborhood," says Norton. "We feel very protective of it. We want to nurture it." Which has been less easy to do since it became the backyard of ground zero.
On a Thursday afternoon in January at Bubby's, TriBeCa's laid-back salute to Hollywood East, the Hardinger-Nortons are entertaining Jim Rhodes, a sixtyish Upper East Side father of two grown kids who, along with his wife, Jane, is thinking of starting a new life downtown. "Frankly, the Upper East Side is nice," Rhodes is saying, his FDNY cap resting next to him. "It's safe. It's clean. Down here, it's different -- in a very good way."
Born in Texas, Rhodes has a thing for wide-open spaces. He rails against the tyranny of the cookie-cutter co-op. He's in love with TriBeCa's "small-village atmosphere"; the way the light hits the buildings reminds him of the Marais in Paris. "It's not like just going into 1100 Park," he says, "and seeing another eight-room apartment."
Then he turns to his brokers. "You said this is where Robert De Niro hangs out?"
"Oh, yeah," Hardinger says.
The past few years -- some say it began when the world learned John Kennedy had his last breakfast at Bubby's -- saw the end of TriBeCa's frontier period. Commodities, the health-food store, closed. So did the last of the refrigerated food-storage buildings that had kept TriBeCa from exploding the way SoHo had. In came something even newer -- call it the Ed Burns era. "It's not that it was going to become too expensive," says Don Schuck, whose North Moore Street loft a few doors from Burns is worth many times what he paid for it in 1980. "It's that it would become like the rest of Manhattan."
Six months out from the attacks, there's a new new normal in TriBeCa -- something beyond the old new normal, where everybody was wearing surgical masks. "That rallying cry to go back to normal is upsetting," says Susan Sonz, who landed a rent-stabilized loft in 1976 and never looked back. "Because we should reinvent ourselves."
TriBeCa's new new normal is a trade-off: If you're willing to look past the trauma -- the immediate tragedy, the lingering uncertainty over the environment -- then the TriBeCa experience endures. What's different is less tangible, more intuitive, and most certainly informed by the tragedy. "I feel like we've been through a war and back," says Jane Rosenthal of Tribeca Productions. "A year ago, it was Triburbia. We went about our business and it was only about our business. Now the Red Cross is sitting in our neighborhood."
Some changes -- like the introduction of hepa filter and asbestosis into the common lexicon -- aren't so welcome. For the southern reaches of TriBeCa, the air is still Topic A -- the creeping sense that the EPA hasn't been completely straight about asbestos, mercury, and other toxins. "My son goes to Stuyvesant, and his eyes are red," says Mary Salter, who used to love the way the wind swept through her Duane Street loft but now keeps those windows closed. And where the towers once stood, what you see now each night is what one neighbor calls a "blue volcano" of light -- a 2001-like stage set for the recovery and rebuilding effort.
And yet, more and more people seem willing to make the trade-off. Last August 6, Sunil and Blanca Hirani moved to Laight Street with their newborn baby. The fourth-floor, 3,300-square-foot loft, priced at about $1.5 million, had a stunning view of the World Trade Center. Blanca watched as it fell. "We were very careful not to take our daughter out," Sunil says. "We wouldn't open the windows. It was really bad the first few weeks."
Now, with most parks reopened and the lines at Nobu restored and the noisy barge on the Hudson scheduled to float away in the spring, there remains a small stigma. "We had friends over and they asked me, 'Do you worry about a decline in property value?' " Sunil says.
Still, they aren't moving. "A lot of the apartments we'd seen elsewhere were just white boxes," Sunil says. "The building is warm and cozy. You can walk to these great restaurants. On the street, you run into people you know. You can't replicate that."
The first two months, the world froze, and TriBeCa real estate froze along with it. The second two months got interesting. "People started to defrost," says Barrie Mandel, a Corcoran Group broker who lives on Harrison Street. "They came out and looked at a lot of properties. And looked and looked and looked."
And they asked questions. When are the schools reopening? What will it take to clean the air? What's the air quality in the street? What's the air quality in the buildings? Has this building been cleaned?
So Mandel found some studies and steered clients toward them: "I have led many people to the P.S. 234 Website, because it's a very encouraging Website. It says living here is analogous to living in any urban area."
One prospective buyer, a young married man from SoHo, was poised to buy in at the Atalanta, the seventeen-story former cold-storage warehouse on North Moore Street turned towering loft space with startling downtown views. "I saw he was hesitating," remembers Mandel. "I said, 'Why don't you tell me what's really going on?' "
"I can accept that the air quality looks good now," the man told her. "And I can see the studies are done by independent companies. But there's no way of knowing what could happen down the road." And that was the end of him. "He was talking about a vague, amorphous thing," Mandel says now. "And even I'm not grandiose enough to think I could answer that."
Finally, Mandel is seeing people actually write checks again. "I really had nothing until eight weeks ago," Mandel says. Now she has five resale properties and six new properties in or almost in contract. "Yesterday, nobody asked me about the air," she says. "I'd say in the last week or two, it hasn't been a question."
Are there bargains? Prices have rolled back -- but not nearly as much as the doomsayers would have you think. The Corcoran Group reports that its TriBeCa sales last summer averaged $598 per square foot, then fell 11.5 percent to $530 after the attack, and since November have floated back up to $562 -- so they're still off from last year by about 6 percent.
Not all of TriBeCa is created equal. There comes a point as you walk north that you can start ignoring the disaster, and a point to the south where you're still living it, reading up on the latest toxicology reports, wondering about the air. Some see North Moore Street, the area around Bubby's, as a sort of north-south demarcation; others put the line at Chambers, about where the landmarked district ends.
But of all the divisions, the greatest is downtown versus uptown. "People uptown are probably less inclined to talk about it," says Don Schuck. "People in TriBeCa, the conversation either starts or ends with something 9/11-related. It is really a part of our mantra."
"I've loved this neighborhood at every stage," says a smiling Susan Sonz. "Even the rich, fancy stage."
If TriBeCa's story has always been one of change, this new chapter feels a bit like a time warp. Sonz's 8-year-old son watched as people leaped out of the Trade towers. Months later, over coffee at Bubby's, she points out the window at the Issey Miyake store across the street, which opened shortly after the 11th, calling it a remnant of the past boom. "In many ways, for better or for worse, this is a step back in time," she says. "It was gonna happen sooner or later -- it just happened faster. I mean, how many $3 million lofts can you sell?"
I ask her if she feels like she's gotten her neighborhood back. Her eye twitches.
"Let me say this about the event: I don't think we're ever going to recover from it," she says.
"Because the thing we never talk about is that so many people died here. The grief is here. I've lived here practically all my life, and I considered leaving. And sometimes I think I should have. I think about it all the time."
Ron Crismon, Bubby's owner, stops by Sonz's booth. He opened the Saturday after the attack to serve pancakes. In January, he was still having nightmares. "How are you?" he says.
"Well," she says with a laugh, "I guess we all know things could be worse."