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Downtown Alliance, October 2008
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WHERE WALL STREET AND MAIN STREET ARE THE SAME STREET
By Liz Berger
The seventh anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center came and went, and then, suddenly, a financial crisis of enormous proportion unfolded with breathtaking speed and consequences. Wall Street, the pundits said, was finished.
But Wall Street had already died several times before. In the winter of 1835, a small fire on the corner of Pearl Street and Exchange Place spread over 50 acres. Almost 700 buildings on 17 blocks were destroyed, including the Stock Exchange, the Merchant’s Exchange and several major banks. The devastation was so great that 23 of the city’s 26 insurance companies went bankrupt. Wall Street was “dead,” a full century before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.
The “death” of Wall Street is not just ancient history. When I first moved to Lower Manhattan in 1982, New York City was emerging from the brink of financial collapse. Wall Street fueled the city’s resurgence, then burned and crashed, first on Black Monday in 1987 and again when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.
And, last Sunday, The New York Times said yet again that Wall Street was over, delivering a eulogy that began with Gordon Gekko and ended with Harry Poulakakos.
Wall Street is a powerful metaphor for how America does business, and while no one can deny or at this moment fully appreciate the implications of the recent mortgage crisis, it is no more “over” in 2008 than it was in 1835, 1929, 1987 or 2000. How the financial services industry will reconstitute itself and what that new paradigm will mean for our economy is of course the source of much anxiety and uncertainty, but here in Lower Manhattan, where Wall Street is also Main Street, one thing is for sure: rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Wall Street is anything but dead, and neither is Lower Manhattan.
Real challenges lie ahead, for Wall Street firms, their employees, their landlords and the rest of us. But, while it is unfortunately easy to predict increases in unemployment and commercial vacancy rates, this, too, is true: around the world, New York City is still the place where financial services and other companies want to do business and will continue to do business. And Lower Manhattan, the fourth largest central business district in the United States, remains at the center of that action, where it has been for almost 400 years.
A few things, however, have changed recently. Financial services remain Lower Manhattan’s signature industry, but they are no longer our only industry. Since 2005, more than 200 businesses have relocated to Lower Manhattan, media and publishing companies, law and accounting firms and a wide variety of non-profits. Our residential population has more than doubled, and tourism is at an all-time high, with 6 million visitors last year alone. As our economy has diversified, so, too, has our ability to withstand Wall Street’s historic ups and downs.
This diversity does not make Lower Manhattan immune to our nation’s current economic troubles, but buffers our community as it grows and changes in fascinating and important ways. We’ve come too far since 9/11 to turn back and, counter-intuitive as it may seem, now is the time to take a deep breath and encourage our public and private sector leaders to hold on to our collective dreams: to continue to make the kind of sound investments that will sharpen our competitive edge well into the next century.
Now is the time to make Lower Manhattan more attractive, accessible, sustainable and hospitable, the time to build better infrastructure, the Fulton Transit Center, new industries and more culture, hotel rooms, school yards and retail. In this sense, the future is now, and we cannot lose sight of what will be necessary as we contemplate what seems possible.
For almost 400 years, Lower Manhattan has been a bellwether of what was once known as the New World, epitomized in what became New York City. And, for a brief, shining moment, there was no more powerful symbol of the totality of its ambition than the World Trade Center. Last week, Chris Ward, the Executive Director of the Port Authority, announced a new timetable for rebuilding the World Trade Center site. His was not the first revision to the original schedule, but hopefully it will be the last.
Rebuilding the World Trade Center site will advance Lower Manhattan as a global model for a 21st century central business district, a bustling and open commercial center with superior transportation, retail and cultural amenities. Achieving this goal within the new proposed timetable will require steadfast commitment and leadership from both the public and private sectors, but it must be done. Lower Manhattan deserves and requires nothing less.