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New York

While the nation's capital and financial center are forever changed, their residents find strength to go forward

By Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 9/10/2002

Tearful visit
Lisa Topaltzas at the grave of her aunt, Claribel Hernandez, who worked and died in the North Tower of the World Trade center. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

The missing ones
St. Francis de Sales Church, in the Rockaways' Belle Harbor section, lost 12 parishioners. "I can still see the ones who are missing in church," says the Rev. Martin Geraghty. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

For nearly three decades, New Yorkers such as Dean Mills looked to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to guide them home. Two stunning beacons set on an island, the 110-story skyscrapers were markers that parents taught children to look for if they ever lost their way. Weary drivers relied on the Manhattan landmarks as well.

''I used to come around the corner in Jersey, and I just remember a spot where I used to see the Twin Towers and nothing else. I was always like, `Ah. I am almost home,''' said Mills, 35, a native New Yorker who lives in Battery Park City, a neighborhood along the Hudson River.

The people who live and work in the nation's largest city are still searching to find their way one year after the towers tumbled. Office buildings are reopening in Lower Manhattan, and many residents who had fled their homes are returning, but the rhythms and patterns of downtown life have changed. Some fixtures once taken for granted, like the shoeshine men who used to congregate near the towers, are gone. Also missing are a popular Borders bookstore, the bustling gourmet market, and those wide-eyed tourists staring upward.

In the Rockaways in Queens, the human toll includes a dozen parishioners of one Catholic church. The void that tragedy has left extends to the far reaches of the five boroughs, to both sides of New York Harbor, to the urban jungle of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. What is missing everywhere is some of that edge New Yorkers are famous for. They still push through crowded streets, but their fixed gazes now nervously turn to the sky whenever an airplane flickers behind a tall building.

''There is an insecurity that is not a trait of New Yorkers,'' said Betsy Gotbaum, the city's public advocate. ''We are a little less rough at the edges.''

The most powerful evidence of change in the city is not always what is missing but sometimes what is being discovered.

''I walk out of the front door of my building, and there is blue sky where there shouldn't be,'' said Alison Simko, who lives in Battery Park City. ''Framed between the World Financial Center is a view of the Woolworth Building. You never used to see that. Then you think, `Oh yeah. It is not there anymore.' ''


Coming home to New York City to see her family has been a bittersweet experience for Maribel Topaltzas, a Queens native who lives in Albany.

''I used to visit New York, not because I missed the city, but just because I missed my family and sister. We were close and we would do a lot of things together . . . Now, New York City feels different,'' Topaltzas said. ''There is this feeling that something is missing, that something is out of place.''

Missing is her other half, an identical twin. On Sept. 11, Claribel Hernandez, a secretary for a software company, was on the 106th floor of the North Tower, helping to organize a breakfast at Windows on the World restaurant. Maribel, 32, never imagined life without Claribel.

Their mother and stepfather still live in the brick apartment complex where the twins grew up near Astoria. Until her death, Hernandez lived with her husband and two children in the same building. She is buried in a cemetery several blocks away.

''As a child I must have passed that cemetery so many times,'' Topaltzas said as she drove to the gravesite. ''I never thought my sister would be in there.''

The working-class neighborhood looks the same, but Topaltzas sees everything - from the cemetery to some residents - differently.

Topaltzas, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, loved growing up in a community with so many different races and ethnic groups, but she has grown openly suspicious of the Arabs who own small corner stores and live in apartments nearby.

''I don't trust them,'' she said. ''This neighborhood is full of Arabs.''

These days some of her old acquaintances from the neighborhood look at her differently, too. Her face, so similar to her sister's, can raise false hopes.

''Claribel?'' some ask. ''We thought you were in that building.''

Topaltzas said her answer is painfully direct: ''I say, `Claribel is gone.' ''

Her sister is not the only person close to the family to die on Sept. 11. Eslyn Hernandez, her twin sister's husband, also lost his brother Norberto, who was working as a pastry chef that morning at Windows on the World. Gabriel ''Gabby'' Waisman, the twins' best friend, worked with Hernandez.

The deaths have been so upsetting to Topaltzas that at times she did not want to deal with anyone, not even her husband or three daughters. The antidepressants she now takes soothe her nerves and help her refocus her attention on the children.

''My sister was very strong, and she would want me to keep on living,'' she said.

Despite the pain, she feels fortunate that her sister's body was recovered. The family held a funeral in the spring, but Topaltzas wants to know more about what happened to her sister that day. She is considering consulting a psychic.

''Did she suffer?'' she wonders. ''Did she know she was going to die? What were her last moments like?''

Standing near her sister's gravesite with her two oldest daughters, Topaltzas says she does not want her sister to be forgotten. She makes regular payments on her own burial plot, next to her sister's. Sometimes, she wears her sister's clothes. This day, she is wearing her sister's Oxford shirt and khaki pants.

''I know it sounds weird,'' Topaltzas said, referring to her unusual dressing habits. ''I want my sister to live on. If it's only through me, I want her to live on.''


Lower Manhattan is where the physical damage is. On Sept. 11, 115 tons of ash rained down on Battery Park City, and 9,000 residents of that neighborhood fled like refugees. These days the Dumpsters and moving vans that abounded in the neighborhood for months have been replaced by in-line skaters and parents pushing baby carriages. On a recent afternoon, an elderly man sitting along the esplanade snapped open a newspaper before gazing out at the harbor, where the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are in full view.

Mills, a native New Yorker, and his wife, Eve, who is from Israel, returned to their airy Battery Park City condo in December after living elsewhere for months. Mills's brother and his wife have also come back. But many neighbors have not. And those who have returned recall disturbing images.

''There are a lot of people who can't relate to it or can't deal with it,'' said Mills. ''I understand. We had debris on our stuff. There were shoes on my brother's window sill and business cards.'' Material from the collapsed towers coated much of the neighborhood.

''It was horrific,'' Mills said.

Lured by federal grants of up to $12,000, new residents have moved near the devastated site, including in Battery Park City. Almost 95 percent of the apartments in the complex are occupied, said Timothy S. Carey, president of the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority. About half the office space in the area is filled, and Carey thinks occupancy will soon increase to 70 percent.

There are many other signs of what is missing. Some are large, some small: Edward Moran's Bar & Grill, a favorite sidewalk cafe in the World Financial Center, is closed, and the Wall Street crowd that used to hang out there is gone, too, either because the former patrons have been laid off, found a new place to dine, or are among the dead. The Corlandt Street subway station directly beneath the World Trade Center is closed. And bargain hunters must look elsewhere for discounted tickets to Broadway plays, because the TKTS booth in the Trade Center is gone, too.

An estimated 100,000 workers have lost jobs in the downtown area since Sept. 11. As a result, many of the mom-and-pop businesses they patronized have left. The vendor who sold woven purses from Latin America is gone. The Amish deli left Wall Street and moved to a smaller shop downtown. The farmers who sold vegetables in the World Trade Center plaza are nowhere in sight.

''You used to see shoeshine men - they used to be all be around the front of the World Trade Center,'' said ufspanish Lupe Todd, a Peabody native who lives in New York and works at City Hall.

Todd and others say they are still adjusting.

Sometimes, she finds herself going out of her way to avoid ground zero. Instead of taking the more direct subway route to work, ending at the World Trade Center stop on the E train, she avoids the disaster site by taking four trains from her apartment in Queens.

A popular footbridge that snaked over the West Side Highway and connected Battery Park City to the rest of the downtown was destroyed when the towers collapsed.

''We are lucky. We have only been inconvenienced,'' said Mills.

Mills, who owns a real estate company, has had to lay off four of his 12 employees. The couple used to travel a lot, but Eve Mills, 32, would rather not get on an airplane. Like most people in Lower Manhattan, the Millses are concerned about the air quality. They keep two industrial-sized air purifiers humming all day.

Frequent visitors to the city have been forced to change their routines as well. Lillian Tate of Tallahassee remembers being in the towers a month before the attacks. Year after year, she had stood at the base of the towers craning her neck toward the sky, but on this summer day, she is one of many tourists from across the nation making a quiet pilgrimage to ground zero.

''It's a shame so many people lost their lives because of hatred,'' said Tate, wiping tears from her eyes.

The Rockaways

From ground zero, it can take more than an hour to get to the Rockaways by subway, but few communities outside Manhattan are as closely linked to the tragedy. Residents of the Rockaways estimate about 70 of their neighbors - mostly firefighters or stockbrokers - perished when the two jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center. From one Catholic church in the neighborhood, St. Francis de Sales, 12 parishioners were killed.

''I think it was hard at the beginning to see a family without the spouse, to see a mother with her daughters and not the father,'' said the Rev. Martin Geraghty, St. Francis's pastor. ''In some sense, I can still see the ones who are missing in the church.''

The brick church has twice become a gathering place for grieving relatives: About two months after the attacks, American Airlines Flight 587 plummeted into the neighborhood, killing all 260 on board and five on the ground.

''On this block, one woman lost her husband'' on Sept. 11, said Gail Allen, whose son Richie, a 31-year-old firefighter, died in the attack. ''On the next block, three more people lost someone. What happens is, you used to nod, and now you give a person a hug.''

The loss of so many neighborhood residents is felt in the churches, the diners, at birthday parties, and on the nearby beach, which has always been a summer hangout.

''We have had all the firsts,'' Allen said as she nibbled on a bagel in her kitchen. ''We've had the first Christmas, the first birthday without him. But the first summer was tough.''

Richie Allen, who was a lifeguard and a surfer, spent much of his time on the beach. On a recent scorcher of a day, hundreds of people lay on the Atlantic Ocean's edge. Beach umbrellas were everywhere. Boys on bicycles raced toward the sand. And Sandra Zam, 33, said nothing is as normal as it seems.

''You know who is missing on the beach,'' Zam said. ''The world as I know it has changed forever, and the skyline is evidence of it.''

Marina Callaghan, a 45-year-old lifelong resident, said the Twin Towers had comforted the community, which lies on a narrow peninsula.

''When they came to view, I just knew I was coming close to home,'' Callaghan said. ''Now that they are gone, we still look for them.''

No one believes it will be easy, but Gotbaum, the public advocate, is sure New Yorkers will eventually find their way again.

''We might have lost our beacon, but we will find something else to guide us home,'' she said. ''That's just how New Yorkers are.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/10/2002.
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