Paying respects tonight at the base of the Tribute in Light, 11 years on

September 11, 2012

(Rolando Pujol)

Essay: A forgotten lesson of 9/11 that we should embrace every day

The World Trade Center in 1993 (Courtesy: Isabel Santi)

The following essay was originally published in the Sept. 8, 2011 edition of amNewYork as part of the newspaper’s coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

By Rolando Pujol

New Yorkers have been thinking for days about where they were on a single day in particular: Sept. 11, 2001. Of course, it doesn’t take the prompting of a milestone anniversary to go back to that terrible place — the trading of 9/11 stories has become a distinct part of the American experience.

When those horrific 102 minutes were over and we had lost almost 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center, it was impossible to think there would again be a calm moment of reflection like this one, almost 10 years later — for it seemed we were barreling into a terrifying “new normal,” as the phrase of the day went. Certainly more terror was at hand — New York would be the new Tel Aviv, it was easy, if rash, to surmise.

Today, we can reflect on 9/11 in a city that has not been attacked again, in a region that has flourished in ways we could not have imagined at 10:28 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when the second tower collapsed. Today, the skyline is being transformed by the successors to the Twin Towers, and we are paying tribute to the 2,753 lives we lost in a stirring memorial it seemed would never get built. People are actually choosing to live in the shadow of the new World Trade Center, and downtown, it seems, is the place to live … you’d think Peter Stuyvesant and his Dutch brethren were back in City Hall.

It has taken a lot for us as a city to get here. For those first years after 9/11, it was impossible not to think about a new attack. We could seemingly cut the undercurrent of dread with a knife. We looked around as we hurried through Grand Central Terminal, or sized up the majesty of the Empire State Building, and we felt in our gut how vulnerable these seemingly indestructible edifices were, and by extension, how vulnerable we were.

That is, perhaps, the most salient thing that 9/11 left us with: It made us see the fragility and the beauty in everything (and everyone) around us, including ourselves.

Of course, we have regressed, but this unique perspective 9/11 gave us is one we should strive to embrace every day, without the prodding of a catastrophe. It is worthy of keeping in mind as we honor the dead on Sunday. What better tribute is there, after all, than to be our best selves, appreciating the people around us? And how wonderful it is to live as appreciative urbanists as well, treasuring our beautiful city and its one-of-a-kind landmarks, streets, parks and vistas. Cherish them, because we err to take them for granted.

We’ve made that mistake before.

Cryptic ghost letters that haunt a lower Manhattan building have a fascinating story to tell about the neighborhood’s transition from business to residential

Countless office workers hustle in and out of Hanover Gourmet Deli every day, but well before this was a place for an overpriced lunch, these walls cradled a different sort of commodity exchange. 

This building was once home to the New York Cotton Exchange, and you don’t have to refer to any history books to confirm this as fact. The ghost of its past is imprinted in stone just outside the deli.

One entrance to the deli, above, has the cryptic fragments “YORK” and “EXCHANGE.”  Another entrance, below, fills in the blanks with “NEW Y” on one line, and “COTTON” on the next.

Our urban archaeological dig is complete: We are standing before the former home of the New York Cotton Exchange.

What these ghost letters won’t tell you is that the cotton exchange is Wall Street’s oldest commodities exchange. They also won’t give away that the exchange eventually moved to 4 World Trade Center, and was destroyed on 9/11. Nor will the letters reveal that this building became the first major residential conversion in lower Manhattan, back in the late 1970s.

Today, of course, so much of lower Manhattan’s future is tied to the residential resurgence that took off after 9/11, but had quietly begun decades before, at places like the old Cotton Exchange building at 3 Hanover Square. This building’s history encompasses competing tensions in the life of the Financial District: it reflects the transition from a neighborhood that was largely focused on business, to one that is becoming a residential boomtown.

Those ghost letters are a fascinating window into an important part of the story of lower Manhattan.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol

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The No. 9 train long ago left the station for the last time, but this sign for the lost line has 9 lives

The No. 9 subway line did not have nine lives. The line served Manhattan’s West Side, and offered uptown skip-stop service along the No. 1’s route.

The No. 9 was retired in 2005 after a 16-year roll, leaving the No. 1 alone to run from South Ferry to 242nd Street in the Bronx.

But on this easy-to-miss tiny sign, the No. 9 train is alive and well. This sign is attached to a pole on Broad Street near the intersection with Water Street in lower Manhattan.

No. 9 sign sightings have become quite rare, but every so often, a discovery will pleasantly surprise me, and this one fits the bill.

Text and photo: Rolando Pujol

Across WTC, ghost signage reminds us that Century 21 department store was once a distinguished 20th century bank

On the side of the Century 21 clothing store building on the corner of Church & Dey Streets, directly across from the WTC site, you can make out the letters spelling out “East River Savings Bank Safe Deposit Vaults”

The building dates to the early 1930’s. There was also a branch in the lower level of the World Trade Center complex.                                                                                               
Text and photo: Jefferson Siegel

Editor’s note: This post is a guest contribution from New York-based photographer Jefferson Siegel, a longtime newspaper colleague of mine who has a sharp eye for uncovering traces of New York’s past. His contributions will appear on The Retrologist from time to time.