15th anniversary of 9/11 sees rebirth and renewal at Ground Zero

Arts centre and other new buildings are 'a testament to life, to hope,' developer says

September 11, 2016

A visiting couple read the names of the victims of the 9/11 attack at the memorial site in downtown New York City. (9/11 Museum)

William Ahearn will never forget what it was like on the streets on New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

"The one thing that got me, it smelled like Vietnam," said the retired firefighter. The visceral memory of the hours after the towers fell still weighs on him.


Ahearn is one of the owners of Suspenders Bar. Fifteen years ago, it was located on Broadway, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. When the towers came down in the attacks, thousands of volunteers from across North America came to New York to help sift through the rubble. Suspenders became their second home. 

William Ahearn, co-owner of Suspenders Bar in New York City, remembers the first responders who made the spot their second home during recovery efforts at Ground Zero. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"We were closed as a crime scene but we literally broke the chains with bolt cutters and invited all of these people that were sleeping on the streets to at least sleep on the floor of the restaurant," Ahearn said, seated at the bar's new location, still in the shadows of Ground Zero.

For Ahearn the 15th anniversary of the attack is a chance to remember the victims, to thank those who helped and to show the city's resilience.

The Oculus is the newly opened entrance to the Westfield World Trade Center mall beneath Ground Zero. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"We weren't destroyed after the '93 (World Trade Center) bombing, we weren't destroyed after this one," he said.

The emotional recovery from 9/11 is still very much a work in progress for many New Yorkers, a process that mirrors the physical transformation of the site itself.

The 9/11 Memorial park opened in 2011, and the One World Trade Center tower opened in 2014. The tower has instantly become an iconic part of the city's skyline, enshrined in souvenir kitsch in everything from paperweights to calendars to magnets. 

An artist's rendering shows the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, slated to open in 2020 beside the World Trade Center. (Luxigon Digital Renderings)

In August a mall opened beneath the complex with a stunning entrance called the Oculus. A new transit hub connects the site to all corners of the city. The area has become a must-see on any tourist to-do list.

The community around the World Trade Center is also undergoing a renaissance. There are now 29 hotels in the area, compared to just six in 2001. More than 60,000 people live in neighbourhood now, triple the number in 2000.

But for all of the improvements, Ground Zero itself is still a construction site. Visitors must navigate their way around construction fencing and along temporary roadways. Two buildings are under construction, and last week the design for the long-delayed Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the site was finally unveiled.

"What you have is a testament to life, to hope and to the desire to live in the best possible environment that we can create," said developer Larry Silverstein at the launch of the centre.

Designed by New York-based REX Architecture, the building will sit beside the One World Trade Center and will be wrapped in translucent marble, allowing light to shine out at night and giving the building an amber glow. 

Famed architect Daniel Libeskind, who created the master plan for the site in 2003, says the area has lived up to goals he set out.

"The aim of the project is to show the victory of life over the evil deeds that befell New York," he said.

"It is a space that has the dignity of memory and a record of what has been. It pays homage to those who fell, but at the same time it's a picture of liveliness and the beauty of diversity and freedom of New York."

Back at Suspenders, Ahearn is expanding the new location to include two floors. Eventually he'll put back on display all the pins, patches, pictures and letters he received from the first responders who visited the old location.

He says the resurgence of the neighbourhood is one more step in the long road to recovery for New Yorkers.

"We don't quit. You can knock us down, but we get up, and we got up with the help of the entire world."

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Sunday marks 15 years since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Here's a look at some of the lasting images from the tragedies. (Mario Tama/Getty)
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The 9/11 attacks involved four hijacked airliners. Two of those planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan in New York City the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. (Robert Giroux/Getty)
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The attacks on lower Manhattan resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Here, New Yorkers look up towards the still-standing trade centre towers on Sept. 11, 2001. By 10:30 a.m. ET, both towers had collapsed. (Spencer Platt/Getty)
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Hundreds of firefighters and over 70 law enforcement officers were killed in New York City in the trade centre attacks. This is now-retired fire chief Joseph Curry giving orders in the immediate aftermath. (Jim Watson/Getty)
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Marcy Borders, left, was outside the World Trade Center when a wall of cloud and smoke enveloped the area where she was taking refuge. Edward Fine was on the 78th floor of the first tower when it was hit and made his way to the street where he was photographed by Stan Honda. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty)
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U.S. President George W. Bush was told about the second plane hitting the World Trade Center by White House chief of staff Andrew Card during a stop at a Florida elementary school. (Win McNamee/Reuters)
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At 9:37 a.m. ET, a half-hour after the second plane hit in New York, a third airliner crashed into the Pentagon building in Arlington, Va., killing 125 people plus those on the American Airlines flight. This is the scene on Sept. 14, 2001. (Stephen J. Boitano/Getty)
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The fourth plane to go down was United Airlines Flight 93 that was headed for Washington, but changed course to eventually crash in a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers confronted the jet's hijackers. A memorial now stands near the site of the crash. (Archie Carpenter/Getty)
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The airport in Gander, N.L., was filled on 9/11 when 38 planes were rerouted there following the attacks. Some 7,000 passengers were taken in by the community which, to mark the 15th anniversary, will get a piece of steel beam from New York. (Nav Canada/Canadian Press)
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The attacks were claimed by the Islamist group al-Qaeda and led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. A decade later, in 2011, group leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid in Pakistan. This is the ruin of the World Trade Center taken in the days following the 2001 attacks. (Alex Fuchs/AFP/Getty)
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Post-9/11, there has been an increase in security, from airports to at times heavily armed police at public gatherings, and a backlash against Muslim communities notably in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. This is Ground Zero on Sept. 13, 2001. (Chris Hondros/Getty)
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This picture of Robert Peraza paused at his son's name at the North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial on the 10-year anniversary remains as one of the most enduring images of grief in the wake of the worst attacks of their kind in the U.S. (Justin Lane/Getty)


Steven D'Souza
CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.

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