Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
A Year of Dust, Ash and
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
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
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
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
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."
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