Behind Barricades, Tribecans Survive Off the City’s Grid

“We’re still here,” proclaimed a yellow poster board hanging on the chain-link fence of a basketball court on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue on Saturday, Sept. 15. Inside the fence, City Council member Kathryn Freed was struggling to make herself heard over a group of residents from Tribeca, the hip and extremely pricey sliver of a neighborhood just north of ground zero that has been ringed with police barricades since the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11.

“You have to understand,” Ms. Freed told the crowd, “there are so many problems.”

Just a few days earlier, the need for federal assistance in one of the most expensive zip codes in Manhattan would have been a joke. In fact, on Sept. 18, construction crews were back working to finish more luxury lofts, Tribeca’s No. 1 industry of late. But evidence of what happened a week ago not only lingers but mounts, as tow trucks pull crushed cars covered in debris out of the wreckage and onto their streets. The cars are evidence, and Manhattan south of Chambers Street and west of Broadway is a crime scene, according to the F.B.I. But to Tribeca residents–who were never formally evacuated and for days were only randomly allowed into their homes with police escorts to collect some belongings–the crushed cars had become makeshift shrines, covered in flowers and notes.

“It’s our neighborhood. We need to see it. We’re trying to digest and understand,” said one resident to Ms. Freed.

“Please understand,” one of Ms. Freed’s aides replied, “that they can’t have a million people down there trying to digest and understand when they are trying to do their jobs.”

On Monday, Sept. 17, the National Guard and the New York Police Department tried to open the streets above Chambers Street to general pedestrian traffic. “I guess they said they had such a flood [of people trying to get in] they closed it up again,” said Ms. Freed. “I have no idea how long this will go on.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, there were still barricades across Canal Street and down Broadway, though the streets were more crowded, some trucks were making deliveries and more businesses like Bubby’s were opening their doors. But at 10 a.m., a soft black attaché that police found inside the Western Union building at Worth Street and West Broadway caused that building and two blocks of Hudson Street to be evacuated again. The attaché was pulled out into the center of the intersection of Hudson and Jay streets, and for about an hour another scare ran through Tribeca.

In the 36 hours following the crash, the streets of Tribeca seemed deserted. There were a small number of people who had stayed in their apartments, through the Twin Towers’ collapse and the phone and electricity outages. What activity there was not the usual business of the neighborhood. On Thursday afternoon, Ellen Pearson was taking a cigarette break. She’d been towing a shopping cart stacked with water, soda and cans of Budweiser from a supermarket above 14th Street; the Food Emporium on Greenwich Street was shuttered and remained closed as of Sept. 18 in response to the attack. “We’re just taking these to some friends who don’t have anything,” she said, referring to some who’d remained in their Tribeca apartments. “And we’re hanging around at nighttime, seeing how we can help people.”

Later that day, a man with long black hair tied in a kerchief pulled his bags down from a loading bay on Harrison Street. He told a reporter, “I don’t have time to speak to you. But do you know where is the Soho Grand?” He was referring to the hotel at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street. One displaced Tribeca resident stopped there on Saturday and was told the hotel had been running a special discount of $200 per night–down from their normal rate of $400 per night, which resumed on Monday. According to a reservations-desk employee, however, special rates were still in effect: a $99-per-night rate for displaced residents and rescue workers and a $259 rate for credentialed media.

By Friday morning, Greenwich Street–still slick from rain–was eerily transformed. A fleet of 15 Verizon phone trucks lined Hudson Street below Jay, but the company’s efforts were concentrated on getting phone service back in the financial district, east of Broadway, and on the opening of the New York Stock Exchange–both of which are on a different electrical grid from Tribeca. Below Chambers Street at Greenwich sat the smoking mass of rubble; the architectural cladding of 7 World Trade Center was still visible in the wreckage. From a gate in the chain-link fence erected by the National Guard, rescue workers emerged to find a series of stalls, set up mostly by local residents and serving free food, water and soft drinks. From McDonald’s employees handing out burgers to two women who work in the neighborhood offering hot tacos, to Drew Nieporent’s cafeteria-pit stop set up outside Tribeca Grill, the scene was something like a macabre street fair. At one point, two middle-aged women carrying Xerox-paper boxes filled with fruit had to clear out of the street to let pass a black metallic truck with the words “Bellevue Morgue.”

At the Fourth Estate, the coffeehouse and magazine store on Hudson Street near N. Moore Street, the papers were delivered every day. When one man came in and said he needed a map of Manhattan, patrons immediately questioned him. “What are you looking for?” asked one woman. The man explained that his business had been destroyed in the World Trade Center attack and that he was looking for short-term residential leases his company could acquire for employees who were moving into the city to pick the business back up. He also needed commercial space. Before long, he was overwhelmed by business cards with the names of local brokers and places where space might be available.

“I also know the neighborhood really well,” said the inquisitive woman. “If you just need someone to walk you around.”

By Friday evening, only about 75 locals could be gathered up around Greenwich and Harrison streets to hold small tapers and sing songs: “America the Beautiful” and “New York, New York” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Some Tribeca residents left of their own accord shortly after the World Trade Center buildings came down. When they returned, they were relieved to find there was no lasting damage to any of the buildings. “It’s just dirty windows,” said Carla Bauer, who lives at 165 Duane Street but had been staying with friends uptown in the days after the attack. “We have no power and no phones. Our neighbors behind us have electricity, but we don’t.”

Some are desperate to return, but won’t yet. “There are a few people staying in their apartments in our building,” said a man who lives on Greenwich Street a couple blocks south of Canal Street and had come down on Wednesday with a neighbor. “But because [the former site of 7 World Trade Center] is still shifting, they’re telling us–it’s only five blocks from the building–I guess there are a few reasons they might not want to let us in.” Both men are staying uptown.

According to Ms. Freed, the Department of Buildings has now inspected every building in the Battery Park City complex as well as other buildings “that are really close to the site.” But some other buildings will remain off-limits until the department has finished with them. She said it was unclear how far the inspectors had gotten in Tribeca, or whether it was even necessary for them to check all the buildings before people returned.

On Thursday, a woman in her 30′s who lives at Duane and Hudson was bringing a bottle of Heineken to her building; she’d been staying with friends, but her building’s superintendent was still in his apartment, keeping an eye on things. “He was just like Superman,” she said. “He was just saying, ‘I’m sticking with my building! I’m saving the building!”

She said it was partly because the super had heard there were fears that looters could hit empty buildings in the neighborhood. “He keeps sweeping the hallways … and borrowing water from people to wash the sidewalks, so that it’s like home when we get back. His wife has been there with him, and his two kids, and they spend all day with the Salvation Army. I’m gonna bring him a beer because he keeps saying he really needs a beer, and he’s sitting outside the building right now.”

So far, no looting or other trouble has been reported, but in some places a little farther south, building-management companies have installed padlocks on individual apartments to make certain. At many of the new full-service loft buildings, the lobbies went unstaffed in the days just after the disaster. On Thursday, Nero Balideniaj was standing guard alone in the lobby of the Atalanta at 25 N. Moore Street. “There’s only one guy in here, on the second floor,” he said. “It’s quiet.” He said he had to go to the management company’s offices in midtown and get them to make him a makeshift company ID and then come back downtown to get through checkpoints.

Patty Freeman Evans said she couldn’t really stay in her building at 149 Franklin Street because there was no electricity or water, even though the building appears to be in good shape; she’s been staying elsewhere in Tribeca with friends. “We got in before they were really serious about blocking people off, and we talked to people who were here in the building [when the towers collapsed], and they said it was fine–it just shook a lot.”

For those who do remain–many of them long-term Tribeca residents–these days are reminiscent of the early days of the neighborhood, when people living here were considered pioneers. They seem to affect a naturalness about the situation that has befallen their neighborhood, and they like to display their newfound expertise in things like how to get past a New Jersey state trooper, or whether to use a sponge or a paper towel to remove the fine white ash that has settled over the neighborhood.

“Seems like a heavy ashfall tonight,” said Carla Bolte on Thursday afternoon as she drank a beer at Puffy’s, a pub on Hudson Street. Ms. Bolte, a graphic designer with curly, graying hair and sparkling green eyes, has lived in her Tribeca apartment since 1978.

Another veteran resident of Hudson Street not far from Chambers had been playing host to a series of emergency workers who followed the signs advertising hot showers to his door. “So we had those guys in all night,” he said.

Those who are still around–relief workers, neighborhood residents, reporters and the like–have been anxious for any information about what’s open in the neighborhood. “Where can you get cigarettes?” asked a man in a hard hat walking up Hudson Street. He was referred to Morgan’s Market, at Reade and Hudson Streets, which lost its electricity in the wake of the attack but remained open, with a series of votive and Shabbat candles standing sentinel on the racks of candy and small necessities at the front counter. By early Friday evening, Xeno Lights, a film-equipment rental business on Worth Street, which had been sealed off, had lent Morgan’s their portable generator, and one of the store’s employees was busily unloading crates of milk into a cooler.

“That was helpful, because people were definitely looking for places to get just basics,” said Ms. Freed, who lives in Tribeca and is currently running for Public Advocate. “I don’t know how long it will go on. But I think honestly that if [businesses] can get in, they’ll open up.”

At Yaffa’s Tea Room on Greenwich and Harrison streets, Yaffa Faro, the proprietress, came in on Wednesday and found her employees busily cleaning up to reopen the store. A group sitting at one table rose to ask for their check. “There is no check,” the young woman behind the counter said.

Ms. Faro bustled out from the back, her amber-tinted sunglasses still on. She’s a tall, thin woman with long hair, a T-shirt with Swarovski crystals affixed to it, tight jeans and platform heels, and she was carrying a box of pastries. “Do you want one?” she said in her Israeli accent to one customer, who stared at her as if in disbelief.

“We’re just trying to open up, give people a place to sit down,” she later explained.

Not surprisingly, perhaps the most noticeable institutions still present in the neighborhood since the Tuesday-morning attacks are its bars. Nancy Whisky, Puffy’s and Tribeca Tavern, as well as Walker’s, a neighborhood institution, have been serving beer and cocktails to a mixed bag of emergency workers and neighborhood residents trying to reclaim their apartments; Walker’s has even been serving almost its entire bill of American bistro fare.

Near midnight on Friday night, a group of men wearing shirts identifying them as policemen from Elizabeth, N.J., sat at a round corner table drinking beer that had been offered to them “on the house.” Emerging from the crowd in the next room was CBS sportscaster and Tribeca resident Warner Wolf, who uttered somber words to them in a low voice and then shook their hands. They nodded gruffly. “That was Warner Wolf,” one turned to say to another after Mr. Wolf left the table.

But this was a week in which fame and money meant little in a neighborhood that has rapidly become an exclusive precinct of the city. On Wednesday, two relief workers, brothers from southern Ohio with thick Midwestern accents and thickset features–one with dark curly hair and the other with a crew cut–sat in front of their beers, two $20 bills flapping in the breeze from the fans overhead. Every time they went to pay for another round, a Tribeca resident from a nearby table would swoop down and beat them to the punch. They were sick of reporters, and asked that their names not be used.

“This morning a woman was sticking a camera in our face, she was talking a mile a minute,” one of them explained. “She was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It just made me sick.”

When asked the same question, they smirked at each other. “Just couldn’t watch it on TV anymore,” the younger brother said.

Just then, another customer came in–a young man with his toddler daughter in tow–and spoke to the bartender.

“This round’s on me,” he said, and left the bar.