As the ruins of New York’s World Trade Center smoldered following the September 11 attacks of 2001, skeptics doubted it could ever rise again.
Now, as the 19th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the grand vision set forth after its destruction has largely been realized. But the rebuilt World Trade Center complex is under threat anew – this time, from a microscopic virus.
“People are much more worried about someone coughing on them than someone blowing up a building,” said Vishal Garg, chief executive of mortgage refinance startup Better.com, headquartered at 7 World Trade Center adjacent to the site known as Ground Zero.
After the Twin Towers and surrounding buildings were destroyed by al Qaeda hijackers, killing 2,753 of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, the economy of lower Manhattan was devastated.
But a plan was born, and a lengthy metamorphosis turned the disaster zone into a giant pit, then a walled-off construction site, and finally, some $25 billion later, a tourist attraction and business center with three skyscrapers, a transportation hub, a museum and a memorial.
The coronavirus pandemic has stalled its completion, with a performing arts center under construction and a fourth and final skyscraper planned. Six months after New York City began shutting down due to COVID-19, the World Trade Center and the once-bustling Financial District are now eerily devoid of crowds.
“It’s pretty melancholy. A bit gloomy,” said James Busse, a retail stock broker taking a cigarette break nearby.
Ground Zero became both a solemn memorial and a leisure destination. Choked-up visitors to the 9/11 museum or memorial could step onto an esplanade of children eating ice cream or out-of-town visitors admiring the glass-sheathed towers.
One World Trade Center, America’s tallest building at 1,776 feet (541 meters), was built with a bomb-resistant base, as the old World Trade Center had been attacked in a truck bombing in 1993.
The vision laid out in Daniel Libeskind’s 2003 master plan drove a renaissance that has diversified the local economy, previously reliant on finance.
The public and private sectors have invested some $25 billion in reconstruction, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land.
“Everybody coming to New York wants to come to Ground Zero,” Libeskind said in an interview. “It is the center of New York. It is the great public space.”
At its heart are two reflecting pools designed by Michael Arad, marking the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood, with a pair of four-sided waterfalls draining into an abyss. The names of the victims are etched into its bronze borders.
Pre-pandemic, hundreds of visitors would gather there. But on a recent afternoon a family from Wichita, Kansas, were the only people at the south tower pool.