Emphasizing the Vital in Revitalization
By Christine McKenna
There's a new normal in the neighborhoods surrounding the World Trade Center, says Madelyn G. Wils. "People keep asking me, is it back to normal yet? Is it better?" For Wils, Chairperson of the Community Board One, the local planning board representing the financial district, Battery Park City, the Civic Center, Tribeca and the South Street Seaport, the World Trade Center area will never be the way it was. Normal is new. "People will always carry this with them. It is one of those big life-changing moments. It certainly was for me. That is just the way it is."
At times, says Wils, a 46-year-old Tribeca resident, it seems that people underestimate how traumatic the attack has been for those living in the area as they try to piece their lives back together. "Many of them almost died," says Wils. "Or they saw their neighbors die. They lost their homes, their businesses." Until January, it was like living in a war zone, she says. Some residents were without phones or electricity. They had men with rifles on their corner or had to show identification to get into their homes.
On the morning of September 11th, Wils was standing three blocks north of the towers, in front of P.S. 234 where her eight-year-old attended school. "We heard an unbelievable noise, a roar that was just so close. We looked up and saw the belly of a very large plane right over our heads." When the second plane hit, Wils retrieved her son from school. It would take months before he would stop having nightmares about what he witnessed while walking home to their Tribeca loft, six blocks from the complex. "He saw people jumping out of the tower," says Wils. "They didn't fall, they floated."
The Wils family was out of their home for five days after the attack, due to fears that a gas line might break. Some of the other 30,000 displaced residents were out for months. Most have returned, says Wils, but the community continues to suffer from the attack economically, psychologically and physically. Many families have moved out of Battery Park City, and the surrounding areas. Others have moved in, but the turnover has been disruptive to the community. About 100,000 jobs were lost, she adds.
"People have gone from fear to anger to resentment back to fear," says Wils. Psychiatrists and psychologists tell her it is a predictable cycle. It may be decades before the long-term psychological or physical impact of the event and the subsequent 24-hour, 7-days a week site clean-up on the children, says Wils. "Some of them talk about watching bodies be removed sort of like it's a recreational afternoon."
Dismayed at what she felt was the Giuliani administration's inadequate effort to assess the environmental impact on the community, Wils found her own experts to do an indoor air study in residences near the site. "The scientists determined we needed a hazardous waste clean-up," says Wils. Now, nearly a year after the attack, the Environmental Protection Agency is about to start a decontamination of area apartments, she adds.