The hazmat trucks and flashing cruisers come and go through the chain-link fence that now bisects TriBeCa. It’s a six-foot fence that arrived last weekend, 12,000 feet of it, ten truckloads, proudly shipped from New Jersey by National Rent-A-Fence, whose employees unwound it along Chambers Street, from Broadway to the West Side Highway.
The mayor urged people to go back to work, to normalcy. That was easier for those uptown, where, to look around, nothing much had changed. “I don’t know if TriBeCa will ever be the same,” said one business owner.
TriBeCa has long been home to well-off families who wanted space and good schools – “Triburbia,” they called it – and weekend places as well. Now, from almost any spot, you could look past the fence and see a rise of smoke hundreds of feet high where the Trade Center used to be. The digging hardly ever stopped, and residents talked about the progress made in tagging body parts. At night, stadium lights went on and the site was, if anything, even more surreal. And almost always there was the fiery electrical odor in the air.
South of the fence was the “frozen zone,” as officials called it. It was manned by the National Guard in battle fatigues and helmets, and inside it residents were still evacuated. “I don’t know when I’ll get back,”said one woman who’d moved in with her mother on 14th Street. Businesses were closed – you could stand on the north side of Chambers and gaze at the shuttered stores on the south: Burritoville, Mudville 9, North Fork Bank. Mark Dimor’s BioContinuum Group, a medical-communications firm at 116 Chambers Street, was in the frozen zone. “I was heartbroken when I saw the fence,” said Dimor, who loaded what he could onto a child’s redwagon – one backpack and a messenger bag – and moved to a borrowed “storage space” farther uptown, in Inch.com’s offices.
TriBeCa’s elementary school, P.S. 234, one of the best in the city, was also in the frozen zone; temporarily, it was being used as a staging area. “It was an anchor in the community, it was why we moved there,” said Howard Berman, who has two kids at P.S. 234. “The neighborhood met there every morning. All those things which made TriBeCa a family place are gone … for the moment.”
Washington Market Park was off-limits. So were the soccer and baseball fields – perhaps the most expensive in the city, considering the real estate they occupy near the Hudson. “It’s very disheartening,” said Berman, an advertising photographer who moved to Murray Street six years ago. “TriBeCa was the one place in the city where you could live a decent life with children and not surrender to the suburbs.” Berman had run from the gym to school to rescue his kids, who were screaming hysterically.
Some kids have nightmares now; a mother who’d hightailed it off to New Hampshire said she was keeping her children away – “They couldn’t sleep at night,” she told a friend. Some – those with other homes – had already enrolled their kids in other districts. “Our greatest fear is that people will flee the area,” said one local school-board member.
For the moment, the 650 children of P.S. 234 have moved in with P.S. 41 on West 11th Street. “It’s very overcrowded,” said Anna Switzer, the principal, who got a standing ovation Friday when she told hundreds of parents they’d return to the school and rebuild their lives. “It was like a movement in the sixties,” said one parent.
Even north of the fence, TriBeCa was different. Phone service was chaotic, communication difficult; most traffic was blocked south of Canal. The familiar double-parked Town Cars in front of Nobu and Bouley were nowhere to be seen. “We’re out of business for nine days,” said Drew Nieporent, owner of Tribeca Grill, Montrachet, Nobu, and others. “I’m going broke day by day.” (Chanterelle had at one point wondered about bringing its reservation list to the checkpoint.)
But something else seemed to be going on. A strange communal feeling had settled in. “There’s love in the air,” said Wendy Tabb, a jewelry designer. People stepped across flatbed trucks piled with twisted steel girders to say, “Oh, hello, I’m so glad you’re all right.” Strangers had taken each other in on the day of the disaster – architect Alexander Gorlin and his wife had been offered a room by strangers near Franklin Street and took it – and now neighbors fell into each other’s arms. The taciturn Korean cashier at Morgan’s deli on Hudson cried in Lisa Schiller’s embrace. “Maybe facing death together is a bonding experience,” she said. George Tabb hugged the postman.
For several evenings, people – those who’d made their way home – wandered into the mostly car-less streets. On the corner of Greenwich Street, Roc restaurant taped signs to the door welcoming the neighborhood to a free dinner. “Rather than sit home and do nothing,” said owner Rocco Cadolini, he decided to cook. He cooked what he had and got donations from fellow restaurateurs. He served bow-tie pasta and calamari from a table in Greenwich Street. Gigino, next door, did the pizza. “I think the neighborhood is more alive,” said Cadolini. On Greenwich, dozens of white TV trucks were lined up like big ships waiting for news. Nearer the restaurant, neighbors and workers took a plate, got a meal, and sat on Roc’s terrace, where he’d set out tables.
“TriBeCa is like a cross between a war zone and Woodstock,” said one passerby.
Around the corner, Juniper gave out free drinks. “Just to hear each other’s heartbeats,” said manager Deflon Sallahr. People told each other awful stories. “I think I can smell the bodies,” said one.
Rescue workers ate at any of the few open restaurants for free. (Fliers blocks away urged firemen to stop by for free food or coffee.) Bouley and Danube, David Bouley’s restaurants, were closed. The week before, pedestrians had raced past to save their lives. This week, the restaurants were closed, and Bouley used the kitchens to cook for workers still searching for bodies. (“White beans with a nice little red sauce,” said a chef.)
TriBeCa had recently been a place where Shalom Harlow could dine without makeup and with little notice, and Tom Green and his wife, Drew Barrymore, could walk their dog unaccosted, and Ed Burns and Heather Graham could quietly walk into the bank. Lately, however, celebrities were nowhere to be seen – though someone reported hearing news of the Pentagon attack from Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos. But the Odeon fed a table of firefighters in their gear; and a neighborhood usually cool toward celebrities in its midst shifted. People approached the firefighters, thanked them, just seeming to want to get close.
“We’re all in this together – that’s the feeling,” said one school director. The Knitting Factory offered free space to the Park PreSchool, which was in the frozen zone, as did the Civic Center Synagogue on White Street. Even Eden Day Spa chipped in massages to workers.
Realtors and boutique owners put the most hopeful face on things. “I don’t know if I’m opened or closed,” said Guido Zwicker of Pescepalla Docks gallery, which was open but had no customers all week. Real estate is, in part, a location game – TriBeCa had been a walk-to-work location for the financial crowd. The real-estate market may remain strong. “It’s all about space in Manhattan,” and the neighborhood still has plenty of it, said Ken Malian, TriBeCa sales manager for Douglas Elliman.
Some restaurateurs worried, too. “A lot of our customers are in the financial business,” said Henry Meer, chef and owner of City Hall restaurant, which tossed out tens of thousands of dollars of spoiled food. “Prior to last Tuesday, it was fragile, and this was a huge economic blow.”
There was a larger concern. “Will people want to do fine dining near ground zero?” asked one chef at Bouley. Sometimes, as one store owner remarked, “it’s hard to believe the limos will ever line up again.”
The streets will open to traffic soon. Each day brought cleaner sidewalks. Food Emporium’s rotten stock – the stink had infiltrated nearby apartments – had been thrown away. And yet, perhaps oddest of all, some wondered – even hoped – that a few of the changes would last. They liked what they sensed in the new TriBeCa – it was as if the village of TriBeCa had rediscovered its true self. “Maybe it will be like Greenwich Village now, more neighborhoody,” said one store owner.
“Maybe TriBeCa will become artists and families again,” said Berman, who’s living temporarily in the Gramercy Park Hotel. “Maybe we won’t have to worry about high-end furniture places taking over every conceivable space.”