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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Battery Park

Air Date: Week of

After the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, many New Yorkers were displaced from their homes in downtown Manhattan. John Rudolph spoke to some residents of Battery Park City for whom "home" will never be the same again.


CURWOOD: About 30,000 residents of lower Manhattan were evacuated from their neighborhoods when the twin towers collapsed on September 11th. Many of these people have now returned home, but some have badly damaged dwellings and may never be able to go back. Others don't want to return. They're moving out of lower Manhattan and, in some cases, completely out of the city. John Rudolph prepared our report on the displaced New Yorkers.

MATSUOKA: So this is our apartment, it's a one bedroom. One of the things that we love about this apartment was the view.

RUDOLPH: The view from Bob and Brigitte Matsuoka's apartment is spectacular. In their living room, floor to ceiling windows offer a panorama of lower Manhattan and New York harbor, as seen from 36 stories above ground. There's the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, ferry boats and tugs coming and going.

MATSUOKA: You keep looking across now, where what used to be pretty much the dominating view of the whole area, which was--in fact, we lived--you know, the World Trade Center would cast a shadow over our apartment, in the middle of the day, but now, of course, it's just a huge mess of cranes and the pieces of the remaining building, and dust and smoke.

RUDOLPH: So, do you stand here a lot and watch, or do you try to not watch, or what do you do?

MATSUOKA: You know, it's just hard not to look at it, because it's just such a dramatic, stark, awful thing to see. And in some ways we can't help thinking about all the people that are buried in that hole there, and how close it is. And we were actually watching out this window when everything happened. I was on my way to work...

RUDOLPH: A once beautiful view is now painful to look at. And so, the Matsuoka's do something they almost never used to do. They close the blinds on their living room windows. They also have stopped drinking the tap water in their apartment. Despite official assurances that the water is safe, Bob worries that it contains asbestos and other toxic debris from the collapse of the twin towers. He worries, too, about air-borne asbestos, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says its tests show that the amount of asbestos and other toxins in the air is below what the agency calls "the level of concern."

On the day of the attack, Bob and Brigitte, their eight month old baby and Bob's mother, who was visiting, managed to escape from their apartment unharmed. A week and a half later, they got permission to go back. But Bob says their return may be temporary.

MATSUOKA: My wife and I both work in the city and I actually own a business that was also affected by this because we were shut down for some time. We can't afford not to come back, at least for the short term, but our lease is up in November and chances are we probably will move, but we're concerned about what it's going to be like living here. We've heard a lot of conflicting things about the air quality and the effect of the dust and so on, so we're very nervous.

RUDOLPH: The Matsuoka's are far from alone in their concern. Their neighborhood, Battery Park City, is directly adjacent to the World Trade Center site. It's a planned, 92 acre community of high-rise apartment buildings, beautiful parks, and sweeping river vistas. Battery Park City residents speak of their neighborhood as a village, a peaceful refuge from the fast pace of life in other parts of Manhattan. A good place to raise children.

But the September 11th attack changed that. At a recent meeting attended by over 1,000 displaced Battery Park City residents it was clear that restoring the fabric of the neighborhood will be difficult. Life is slowly returning to normal, stores are reopening, dust and debris are being cleared away. Still, many residents, like Rebecca Parish, just want to move out.

PARISH: We want to leave. We want to be able to take our remains of what we have that's left in the apartment as far as furniture that we can move. Because, at this point, we've been crashing at other people's houses, and now we're staying at the Hudson Hotel because we can only stay at other people's houses for so long, and we just want to get our things so we can move into a new apartment and start a new life. Again.

We had no intentions of leaving that area. We always thought we would raise even children in that area, and then we'll be one of those Battery Park couples that you see on the street, with the strollers, and that's not going to happen.

RUDOLPH: Right now, lower Manhattan is a difficult place to live. In addition to the smoke and dust from the wreckage of the twin towers, subway service has been disrupted; parks have been transformed into parking lots for emergency equipment. And access to some areas is still controlled by police officers and National Guard troops. Moving out of the neighborhood is a way to escape from these grim circumstances.

But even for those who leave it may still be hard to avoid the psychological impact of the terrorist attack.

DANIELI: Immediately, people felt totally violated, and to this day, actually, people still very violated. And the sense of home, in their own place, is gone for most.

RUDOLPH: Dr. Yael Danieli is a clinical psychologist, who counts among her patients a number of people displaced in the September 11th attack. She's also a founder of the International Society for Traumatic Stress studies. Loneliness and helplessness are some of the feelings Dr. Danieli says she has encountered in those who have turned to her for counseling. These feelings reflect the tragedy of the attack, as well as what has, and has not, occurred in its aftermath.

DANIELI: Some of what happened here, nobody ever thought about. So, it's not only that they feel victimized or neglected, it's the systems are not there yet to even respond. In some ways, we are all learning as we go, and thinking through. It will take time for all the needs to even be articulated and defined and formulated, and to either create or find the structures that will be able to respond.


RUDOLPH: The public schools were among the first institutions to respond to the needs of displaced families. The attack shut down four schools, but within days, students, faculty and administrators were transferred to other schools around the city. P.S. 41, in Greenwich Village, is one school where this temporary doubling up is going on.

On a recent afternoon, Robin Begley came up to pick up her ten-year-old daughter. The Begley's have three children. All saw the attack on their way to school on the morning of September 11th. Debris from the collapsing towers destroyed the Begley's apartment. Robin says they want to move back but right now they can't, and the strain is affecting her kids.

BEGLEY: My daughter woke up in the middle of the night, screaming, "get out of the buildings before they fall down." They're sad. Fortunately, they didn't lose any friends. And they're disconnected. Their school isn't there. They can't have play dates, because nobody has a real home. It's hard, it's very hard for them. I mean, everybody's trying to make it work, but here we are.

RUDOLPH: The need to make life decisions under very difficult circumstances is a challenge faced by many of the displaced New Yorkers. Mark Sauter is a former army officer who lives in Battery Park City. Before September 11th Mark was already thinking about moving out of the neighborhood. He's still thinking about it, but now, he wants to be sure he does it for the right reasons.

SAUTER: I, for personal reasons, was thinking of leaving the neighborhood, and I think I've come to the following conclusion: that there's no way I'm going to leave this neighborhood because of what these lunatics did. On the other hand, I'm not going to stay here to prove a point and stay despite what they did. I'm going to go on and do what's right for me, for my family, for my company, to the extent it's there for my society or country.

RUDOLPH: But what is the right thing to do?

DANIELI: It's difficult to soberly and clearly see where to go from here.

RUDOLPH: Again, Dr. Yael Danieli.

DANIELI: I ask people, what does having a home now mean to you? What would you like your apartment to look like now? Where do you want to see it? And some of them are not even ready to--they resent the question. Because, I mean, they have a home--what do you mean? I have a home. I have an apartment. I know exactly what it looks like, that's how it should look like. And then they go home, and the dust, and the dirt, and the smell. So it's a process. This one will take a long time to solve. And right now, that neighborhood is defined by being a traumatized neighborhood, so it will take time.

RUDOLPH: There's a lot of talk these days about the concentric circles of impact caused by the September 11th attack. Those who died, their families, co-workers and friends, occupy the innermost circle. The people in Battery City and other nearby residential neighborhoods are part of the second ring. They are thankful to be alive. But they miss the way home used to be, and they are confused about the future.

For Living on Earth, I'm John Rudolph, in New York.



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