Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

A Year of Dust, Ash and Anguish
By Randal C. Archibold, New York Times, September 6, 2002

    Enter 125 Cedar Street and time rushes backward. The apartments sit largely barren, still coated in dust and ash, with no sign of the vibrant life the residents enjoyed for a quarter century at the feet of the twin towers.
    Andy Jurinko and Patricia Moore, artists like many of the tenants, still sift through their belongings, deciding what to throw out and dumping everything else into black plastic bags for the cleaning contractor promised to come soon. Michael Cook looks upon walls that will probably have to be knocked out because of mold caused by burst pipes. Gail Priest, the so-called "bird lady" who raced from the building last Sept. 11 with several parrots she cares for, still has a pile of burned papers and other debris from the attack of the World Trade Center to sweep up.
    The rest of the city might have moved past 9/11, if mournfully. But a year after the destruction of the trade center flooded their living rooms and bedrooms with ash and debris, the residents of 125 Cedar Street — part of a small fraternity of people still displaced by the attacks — are still living 9/11 every day as they wait to move back in. " `Anniversary' has a connotation of sitting back and remembering with a little time and distance," Ms. Priest said. "We have no time and we have no distance."
    They have lived through a year of frustrations and delays clouded in a legal and bureaucratic thicket, a classic real estate story from hell. First, the police restricted access to the building. Then, concerns arose about the toxicity of the debris: who would clean it up, and when? Proposals to rebuild ground zero seemed to ignore the residential buildings already there, and when those plans were tossed out, anxiety burned over what might come next.
    On top of that, plumbing failures left mold in several places, and elevators in the 12-floor, 23-apartment building have malfunctioned. Just next door is the uncertain fate of the heavily damaged Deutsche Bank skyscraper, and there have been a series of thefts, with the residents' artwork among the items stolen. "The god of torment," said Andy Jurinko, an artist and longtime resident, "was working overtime with us."
    Still, all but a couple of tenants vow to come back, even with the uncertainty of what they will come back to. However damaged, the apartment building is still home, and an affordable, rent-stabilized one at that. Most rents range from $800 to $1,500 for up to 2,000 square feet of space filled with sunlight — unfathomable in Manhattan these days.
    A homesteading spirit still thrives among the tenants, many of whom have lived in the building since a small group of them helped pioneer downtown residential living a quarter century ago by taking up hammer and saw and renovating the century-old former office building themselves. But they are older now, and the long year has corroded that spirit.
    Mr. Jurinko lost several paintings, a few stolen during the months when emergency workers and contractors had the run of the building. His wife, Ms. Moore, lost her job. For a time, she balanced her work as a fashion designer with calling almost every bureaucratic agency in the city to inquire about the building, and when tenants could return, and who might clean it. But by spring she found her job increasingly irrelevant. "My house was blown up; do I care what is the right pink for the season?" she recalled thinking.
    Several tenants have seen counselors and a few have seen physicians to treat chronic respiratory trouble, for which they blame their frequent visits to the building to retrieve belongings. Others have led a nomadic life, bouncing from one temporary apartment to another, constantly filling out paperwork for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurers, and other government-sanctioned organizations to help cover rent and other living expenses. "I live like a dragonfly landing lightly on someone else's home," said Kathleen Moore, who has lived in five places in the past year.
    Displacement "doesn't get easier, it just gets longer," she said, adding, "There is this unreality about it." Many times the prospect of moving appeared on the horizon only to dim by some unexpected complication. Right after Sept. 11, the police cordoned off ground zero, restricting the tenants to visits of only 10 or 15 minutes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and emergency workers commandeered one of the apartments, setting up cameras and equipment. Residents did not know if the building sustained structural damage. But by October, inspections did not uncover any serious damage. Everyone figured they would be back by December or January.
    Negotiations with the landlord, Samson Management, began and dragged on for months over the tenants' concerns about the toxicity of the debris and ash and how thoroughly the landlord's contractor would clean. In addition, Samson began long negotiations with its insurance company over payment for the cleanup and what would be covered.
    More than anything, said Ellen Gesmer, the tenants' lawyer, residents were grasping for scientific standards on safe levels for asbestos, mercury, lead and other substances that simply did not exist for residential buildings. "There has never been an incident like this, so no one knows what to measure and what's safe," she said, adding that inquiries to government agencies proved fruitless.
    Arnold Goldstein, the president of Samson Management, said the tenants' anxiety slowed progress. "They refused to allow us to go ahead with the cleanup," Mr. Goldstein said. "There were interminable meetings with attorneys and the tenants' group. They were just scared to move back in. They did not know what to do with this thing."
    By spring, the tenants and landlord agreed on a contractor and terms of the cleaning, with a tentative move-in date of June or July. But in the beginning of April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would reverse its policy and arrange for the cleaning of residential buildings. That set off another round of long negotiations, this time with the E.P.A. and the city's Department of Environmental Conservation, which would administer the cleanup. It took the intervention of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose district includes Cedar Street, to bring everybody together for meetings that ultimately led to plans for the current cleanup. Contractors are scheduled to begin the work next week, and Mr. Goldstein said tenants might be able to move back by Oct. 1.
    Ms. Gesmer and the tenants, given the delays of the past, are not expecting any clearance for another few months. Mr. Silver said that there are a couple of other buildings on the block where residents also have not moved back, but those at 125 Cedar have been the most vocal about returning, with tenants making countless appearances on television — even on British and German and Italian stations — to plead their case. Despite that exposure, Ms. Moore said, "People still act like this is an abandoned building."
    When the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation released six proposals for the rebuilding of ground zero, Mr. Silver secured a letter from its executive director, Louis R. Tomson, saying the plans would not lead to demolition of 125 Cedar or the couple of other existing residential buildings on the block.
    Three of the plans listed "potential residential development" on the Cedar block, two identified "residential use," and the sixth showed public use in conjunction with a museum for the space where the building is. To the tenants, none explicitly recognized what is already there.
    Aside from such anxieties, moving back is not as simple as hauling their belongings back. Many residents said that even after the building is cleaned, they will worry about their health. Years of construction are expected right outside their windows, and the view of the trade center they once relished has been transformed into a mournful landscape of emptiness. "I don't know if I can work and look at a cemetery all day long," said Elena del Rivero, one of several artists whose studios were in their apartments. Some tenants, however, still view their return as an opportunity to watch the rebirth of the neighborhood, which could end up with far more amenities, like the proposed opera house, than before. That is, as long as the building remains.
    On Wednesday, some residents plan to stay out of town, a few plan to get together for dinner, and others plan to remember Sept. 11 in special ways. Ms. Del Rivero will be in Madrid, performing an "homage to my neighborhood." She will put on a white protective suit, like the one she wore to clean out her apartment, and a narrator will recite a monologue that she is writing about loss and hope. Ms. Priest is thinking of staying in and working on her own commemorative project. One by one, she has been gluing on fabric 3,000 discarded bird feathers, to symbolize the dead. And Sandra Rubell, a painter who scrambled out of the building after the second plane hit, is one of the few thinking of going to ground zero. "I feel the need to go over there just to be there and feel it," said Ms. Rubell, whose work now often includes images of the towers. "I'm not sure I want to hear anyone talk. Probably what I need to do is just stand there and be quiet."

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

Take me back to learn more