Volume 17 • Issue 17 | SEPTEMBER 17 - 23, 2004

A homecoming at long last

By Ronda Kaysen

When Karen Greenspan fled her apartment on Sept. 11, 2001, as the World Trade Center’s north building collapsed a few yards away, she assumed she would never go home again. When word came later that night from the building’s managing agent that her building at 114 Liberty St. had been spared, she breathed a sigh of relief — three years too soon. Two weeks ago, Greenspan and her family finally returned to their condo: the first residents of the last residential building damaged by the attacks to come home.

“It’s the most fabulous feeling on the face of the earth,” said Greenspan, who had moved into her loft condominium apartment six weeks before the attacks. “I don’t think I realized how unsettled I felt for the past three years until I got here.” Since Greenspan, her husband Steven Abramson and their twelve-year-old daughter Lila moved back in, two other families have returned. Many of the remaining residents will return to the 12-story loft building sometime in early autumn. The pale, stone building with sweeping windows still boasts banners hailing “No War,” “Dissent is Patriotic” and “No More Lies” from the windows of rap mogul Russell Simmons’ unoccupied penthouse. (Simmons moved out of the building shortly before the attacks.)

In the three years that Greenspan and her family waited for their apartment to be decontaminated, cleaned and restored, they lived in two different apartments, one at North Moore and Hudson Sts. and another on Chambers St. “It was just a place to put our heads at night until we got to the right place,” she said of the family’s interim homes.
The restoration process is still a long way from over. The walls of the lobby, which faces the W.T.C. site are slabs of sheetrock with glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, an eerie reminder of a previous entryway. The sweeping glass doors are plastered with work permits and tape. Residents do not expect the lobby to be finished for another few months.

Seated on a folding chair in the dust-covered lobby one recent cloudy afternoon was Curtis Neal, the building’s doorman for the past five years. “I miss the kids,” he said. “They used to be fun.” Six days a week, eight hours a day, Neal has sat in this vacated lobby and waited for his residents to return. “I didn’t think it was going to be that long.”

A drawn out legal battle with the building’s insurance company, Admiral Indemnity Company, delayed the restoration process for two years. “Towards the end of the first year, we realized that we had a major insurance battle on our hands,” said Greenspan. “What they were offering to pay was not going to fix this place.” In August 2003, Admiral Indemnity finally gave the residents the go ahead for the restoration.

The contamination at 114 Liberty St. was extensive. All of the windows in the front of the building, which faces the W.T.C., were blown out. “We were more contaminated because of our ventilation systems,” said David Stanke, another 114 Liberty St. resident who recently returned to the building with his family. “Our ventilation systems pulled the dust in between the walls and in the ceilings. We did the DEP sponsored cleaning and did not consider that to be sufficient. The testing did not confirm to us that we were safe.”

Abramson, Greenspan’s husband, remembers his first post-9/11 visit to his apartment. “We went back to the building two weeks later under police escort to inspect it,” he said. “It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. We were reeling in shock.”

Pointing to old EPA and DEP asbestos contamination standards, the building’s insurance company balked at the claim, said Stanke. “[Admiral] was falling back on the old world standards for asbestos contamination and the old world testing standards did not meet these conditions,” said Stanke. “Due to old world rules, insurance companies followed suit and it took a lot to convince them otherwise. We had to fight for it with the insurance companies, with the DEP and with the EPA.”

Admiral Indemnity could not be reached by press time for comment.

Stanke returned to his apartment with his wife and four children after living in a total of six temporary apartments, including one in New Jersey. Their first full day home — the third Sept. 11 anniversary — was surreal. “We were having an emotional day in the morning and in the afternoon it has a circus-like feeling with tons of motorcycles driving down the road,” he said. “It’s one of those things we’re going to have to live with.”

Settled at last, Stanke is looking forward to watching his neighborhood rebuild. “It’s great to go walking around the neighborhood with the kids,” he said. “You look out the windows and you see the visions. It’s going to be incredible to sit by these windows and watch it happen.”

One of the next changes in sight is the deconstruction of the badly contaminated former Deutsche Bank building, located a block away at 130 Liberty St. After purchasing the building on Aug. 31, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation announced on Sept. 13 that it plans to begin the dismantling process sometime in November. The 114 Liberty St. residents wait with cautious optimism. “It’s not comforting having a contaminated structure near you, but it’s comforting knowing [the L.M.D.C.] is doing this well,” said Abramson. “Do I wish this building was down already? You bet I do, but what can I say? Litigation is what it is. That’s why it’s three years later and nothing has happened” at the former Deutsche Bank building.

Despite the work that lies ahead for the neighborhood, the 114 Liberty St. residents are relieved to have their own personal legal battle settled. “We were like a donkey with an apple hanging on a stick in front of us,” said Stanke of the legal process. “But, you don’t have a choice. You’ve just got to keep walking.”


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