We're all familiar with what happened immediately after teams of al-Qaeda terrorists steered two Boeing 767 planes into the Twin Towers. There was the stinking wreckage that smoldered for months as rescuers and workers picked through the pile, and the checkpoints that barred access, first south of 14th Street, then south of Canal, gradually migrating and coalescing to form buffer zones around Ground Zero and other key locations downtown. It was clear on September 11th, 2001 that nothing would be the same going forward, but not how things would change.
As the weeks stretched into months and George W. Bush cooked up two wars and a color-coded threat level-ometer, daily life in lower Manhattan gradually resumed, the mourning and trauma not leaving, but moving into the background. Within a year, it had become obvious to residents and workers in lower Manhattan that the warren of police barricades, roadblocks, and guard booths they had to navigate each day was there to stay. Now, 15 years after 9/11, 31 blocks of downtown, including formerly crucial connectors to the rest of the city, are still blocked to car traffic and remain a heavily policed gauntlet for pedestrians, if people on foot are allowed to pass at all.
This summer in Midtown, NYPD barricades began to appear around Trump Tower as Donald Trump's improbable candidacy careened onward, the better to deal with the crowds of protesters, devotees, and tourists gathering there. Since Trump's November 9th win, the security apparatus has expanded dramatically and begun to calcify. Single layers of metal barricades have been replaced in some places with metal sandwiching concrete, and a ring of garbage trucks has given way to roadblocks, bag-search checkpoints, metal detectors, and police command posts. Trump Tower, and to a lesser extent Trump International Hotel and Tower at Columbus Circle, has become a fortress.
Red: Roads blocked to car traffic or, if specified otherwise, public spaces fully closed after 9/11
Yellow: Planned road closures around the new World Trade Center site
Orange: Security measures restricting public space around Trump properties
Purple: Parks and privately owned public spaces affected by security measures
Blue: Trump-owned, managed, or licensed properties
"It's not good," a hot dog vendor named Sam said, shaking his head and turning the dogs in the water of his cart on a corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street on Thursday evening. "This year is fucked up."
Sam, who declined to give his last name, citing danger in his home country of Egypt, said that he has been working the cart in Midtown for the last five years. On a typical night during the holiday season in years past, Sam said he made $1,000 a night, to be split with the cart's owner. Now, he said he averages $200 or $300. The day before we talked, an officer forced him to leave the corner at 9 p.m.—because of food cart turf wars, he cannot just up and move to another corner in the tourist-frequented area around Rockefeller Center—ending his shift three hours early.
"I have kids...The cart has been here for 17 years," he said, recalling the police interaction. "Why you tell me move?"
Heavily armed NYPD officers stroll through the lobby of Trump Tower, which is supposed to be open to the public in exchange for a zoning variance. (Drew Angerer/Getty)
Sam's hotdog cart is not the only business feeling the squeeze. A Comptroller's Office survey of 50 Midtown businesses in early December showed that 40 reported suffering impacts from the security measures since the November 8th election. Many of those surveyed reported delayed deliveries and trash pickups, and customers having difficulty getting in the door. Six said that they were anticipating either layoffs or having to relocate.
The clampdown has affected high-end juggernauts Tiffany and Gucci, which share a block with Trump Tower, along with smaller stores such as Central Park Electronics on Sixth Avenue. Employees there told the New York Post the store has already had to lay off workers.
Naturally, when Mayor Bill de Blasio informed reporters a week after the election, "I will not tell you that Gucci and Tiffany are my central concerns in life," it didn't sit well with local merchants and politicians. Since then, de Blasio's Department of Small Business Services has tried to patch things up by arranging scheduled deliveries with the NYPD, and reducing the footprint of barriers on West 56th Street west of Fifth Avenue. The NYPD and Secret Service also agreed to a request to reopen the front entrance to Tiffany, which had been blocked, and last week, in the biggest concession to date, to reopen one lane of car traffic on West 56th between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
"In the beginning it was pretty tough and now things have been opening up, and within the context of the Secret Service’s responsibility to protect the president-elect, they’ve been very responsive and made adjustments where they possibly could while sticking to their mission," said Tom Cusick, president of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District.
What remains is a block of East 56th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, still closed to everyone but cops and federal agents, and cattle chutes of barricades for pedestrians extending out for eight blocks around the tower. Taking pictures and walking past a roadblock at Madison and 56th twice was enough to draw this reporter a grilling from a keyed-up Secret Service agent in a bulletproof vest.
To get onto the side of Fifth Avenue where the Trump Tower entrance is, pedestrians have to swear they're headed to Gucci or some establishment within the Tower, then open up their bags for officers to rifle through. Inside the revolving doors, Secret Service metal detectors await visitors.
"It's worth it, if this is what it takes," said John Famularo, visiting Trump Tower from Hamilton, New Jersey with his wife and two sons.
"Who would've expected it?" he said of Trump's win. "It's a new world, like after 9/11 it was a new world."
One of two public terraces at Trump Tower is closed for reasons unknown (the Department of Buildings does not have a record of work being done on either). (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
The post-election security is costing the city roughly $500,000 a day, and pulling officers and resources from local precincts around the city. De Blasio and a host of other politicians have called for the federal government to reimburse the city for the $35 million or so they estimate it'll cost to protect Trump's family and property leading up to the inauguration. Thus far House Republicans have set aside just $7 million.
It's not entirely clear what the next four years will look like security-wise. The security apparatus grows dramatically when the president-elect is in town, and though in theory he will soon call the White House home, he has said his wife Melania will stay at their penthouse apartment until their 10-year-old son Barron "finishes school," and aides have indicated that Trump hopes to return to New York on weekends while president. He also gets a Secret Service detail for life upon leaving office.
"We need clarity from the president-elect as to what he intends to do here," said Councilman Dan Garodnick, whose district includes Midtown. Garodnick pushed for the reopening of West 56th Street, and is among those calling for federal reimbursement of Trump security costs. The Secret Service and NYPD declined to comment on what a post-presidency Trump security arrangement might look like for Midtown.
Also threatened by the current lock-down are privately owned public spaces in and around Trump properties. POPS, as they're called, are maintained by building owners in exchange for zoning variances that allow them to build bigger. The program has come under new scrutiny in the last year as Trump's abuses have spotlighted the fact that the Department of Buildings has no one proactively looking after the city's more than 500 POPS spaces, and that inspectors responding to complaints can only issue fines in the thousands of dollars—small potatoes to developers benefiting from millions of dollars worth of added floor space.
In Trump Tower, Trump got an additional 10 stories for maintaining a lobby that is supposed to be open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., along with garden terraces on the fourth and fifth floors that are supposed to be accessible when the retail outlets in the building are open. In the lead-up to the election, the DOB fined the Trump Organization three times for removing a bench near the lobby entrance and replacing it with kiosks hawking Make America Great Again swag.
A large section of the plaza around Trump International Hotel and Tower is also closed without explanation. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Trump management replaced the bench in July, but when Gothamist visited last week, a sign indicated that the fourth-floor terrace was "CLOSED DUE TO CONSTRUCTION." A Buildings Department spokesman said the agency has no permits on file for work involving the terrace.
Across 56th Street, the airy POPS arcade at 550 Madison Avenue is also closed on the Trump-Tower facing end as part of the police-Secret Service freeze of the street. "Send your letters [of complaint] to Donald J. Trump," said one of two vest-and-tie-wearing workers monitoring the roped-off-entrance.
Over at Columbus Circle's Trump-managed Trump International Hotel and Tower, scene of the president-elect's frog-legs summit with Mitt Romney, the vibe is also military, if less extreme. Four blocks of barricades wreathe the building; a cop in a squad car monitors traffic on the last block of West 61st Street, which is narrowed to one lane; and an NYPD command RV keeps an eye on things from a corner a block north.
This tower is also taller thanks to a surrounding POPS plaza. The area closest to Columbus Circle is untouched except for the barricades lining its preexisting bollards. However, the portion of the plaza along Broadway, an elevated area of benches and planters called "the most usable space" in the plaza by Harvard urban planning professor and POPS expert Jerold Kayden, is blocked off with NYPD barricades. The DOB was unaware of the closure, the NYPD didn't respond to a question about it, and the rationale for it is not clear.
A Trump Organization spokeswoman declined to comment on the closures shortly after this story was published.
The problem of unaccountable restrictions on POPS are not unique to counter-terrorism initiatives, according to one open-space advocate.
"POPS are the stupidest thing ever," said Paula Segal, director of the group 596 Acres, which helps New Yorkers gain use of neglected land. "We shouldn’t have them, we shouldn’t rely on them, we shouldn’t let developers build taller buildings based on promises that aren’t enforceable."
"And for the ones that we have," she argued, "we should take them back" and make them truly public spaces managed by the Parks Department.
Still, the seizure of public space by the NYPD and federal government in lower Manhattan following September 11th, and subsequent battles to reopen it, may hold lessons for Midtown residents and businesspeople in the era of Trump.
The aftermath of the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, which killed 38 and seriously injured 143. (Public domain)
To be sure, terrorism and related precautions are nothing new in New York. In 1920, a bomb left in a horse-drawn carriage on Wall Street, tentatively attributed to Italian anarchists, killed 38 people. And in the late 1960s and 1970s, radicals' bombs became a feature of everyday life in New York—271 went off in the city during a 28-month period between 1968 and early 1970 alone, and the 1975 Fraunces Tavern and the LaGuardia Airport bombings killed 15 altogether.
Compelled by the militant blasts rocking the city during this period to do something, anything, corporate landlords and government agencies rolled out a slew of security measures, as Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough outlines in his book on the radical underground Days of Rage. Those measures included requiring ID to enter police facilities, having doormen at skyscrapers call to confirm people's appointments, and installing electric door openers and surveillance cameras.
Already in 1970, in the aftermath of the bombing of a bathroom in NYPD headquarters, the New York Times was taking stock of efforts to ramp up security to combat terrorism. In an editorial, the paper concluded, "Nothing and no one can be made safe from a man determined to explode an infernal machine in a public building."
The NYPD disagrees with this stance, as became apparent again following the al-Qaeda truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, which killed six. Worried that a similar attack might be carried out near the New York Stock Exchange, the police in 1996 closed the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway to vehicular traffic. A bomb threat in 1998 prompted the closure of the sidewalks around the stock exchange every night from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
In the aftermath of 9/11, these sidewalk closures became permanent, and the roadblocks were extended to seven intersections around the stock exchange, prompting one of the first widely publicized conflicts over access to public space related to the security takeover. Joseph Vassallo, owner of a parking garage with an entrance behind the blockade at Exchange Place and William Street, sued the city in 2004, claiming that his business had dropped from 150 or 160 vehicles a day to 65. The NYPD had moved the checkpoint behind the garage entrance in the interim, but starting early that year, road construction moved it once more, forcing would-be customers to pass a checkpoint before they could park their cars. Also, after the NYPD set up the security perimeter, it handed off day-to-day management of the checkpoints and patrols to private security employed by the stock exchange.
Checkpoints along blocked-off portions of public streets and sidewalks around the New York Stock Exchange are staffed by private security guards. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
A state Supreme Court judge initially ruled that the NYPD had acted improperly in passing off control of public streets to a private entity, but ultimately decided that Vassallo didn't have a case because he couldn't demonstrate that he suffered harm "greater than that of the community in general." A parking garage continues to operate at the same address, its entrance again in front of the roadblock. Day-to-day management, if not ownership, seems to have passed to New York garage chain Icon Parking Systems. Efforts to reach Vassallo were unsuccessful, and no one who we spoke to at the garage and working on the block recalled the controversy over the closure.
Private security guards employed by the New York Stock exchange staff the area's checkpoints to this day.
Around the World Trade Center site, construction to flesh out the street-scape replacing the one we lost is in its final stages. In the redesign process that followed the 2001 attacks, neighborhood activists saw an opportunity to reintegrate parts of the neighborhood that had been cut off starting in 1966 by the super-blocks around what would become the World Trade Center. City planners shared this vision and drew up a street plan reconnecting some of downtown's old narrow lanes. By 2013, though, neighbors realized that the NYPD had other ideas. A dozen local residents and business owners sued that year to try to get the department to scale back its security plan, which called for ringing the blocks around the new trade center complex with barriers and guard booths, and blocking the streets to all but authorized vehicles—even though the new buildings on the site are built to be bomb-proof.
The NYPD security plan for the redeveloped area around the World Trade Center drew the ire of neighborhood residents who said it created a restrictive atmosphere where they saw the opportunity for a new openness. (NYPD)
A judge dismissed the suit the following year, and what is emerging now is basically a pedestrian-only area patrolled by hundreds of police officers and cut through with ghost streets, paved and marked up at great expense, though they won't see much car traffic in the foreseeable future.
"We worked very hard with the authorities, both the city, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the Port Authority to open up the whole street-scape, and we won that battle, but then the NYPD campus security plan has put in a lot of restrictions," Community Board 1 chairman Anthony Notaro Jr. said. "As much as I want certain things, I understand why some of these things might be the case."
"I don’t attribute bad intention to them," Notaro added, referring to the NYPD. "I just think their first reaction is to overreact."
Perhaps the most contentious post-9/11 takeover was that of of Park Row, once the most direct connector between the Financial District and Chinatown, along with five blocks of cross-streets and, for a time, a small triangular park called James Madison Plaza. The closures are part of measures that the NYPD says are to protect One Police Plaza from a possible car bombing. The department had to explain this at length in an environmental impact statement drawn up in 2006 in response to a lawsuit by locals seeking to reopen the street and the park.
Parks, it turns out, are protected under a state law called the Public Trust Doctrine. It mandates that parkland, unlike, for example, privately owned public space, is protected and can only be converted to another use through the passage of state legislation, typically including measures to mitigate the public's loss. Thanks to this protection, the neighbors who sued were able to force the NYPD to stop using James Madison Plaza as a parking lot in 2003 and turn it back over to the Parks Department.
"Parks are created as pleasure grounds and set apart for the recreation of the public," Judge Walter Tolub, the same judge who heard the Wall Street parking garage case, wrote in a decision. "Parks are not created to provide free parking."
The park reopened in 2013 after extensive renovations.
An NYPD roadblock bars car traffic from the Chinatown end of Park Row. (Google)
The closure of Park Row is still in effect, and has drastically limited tourist and commercial truck access to downtown, leading to increased vehicle congestion, and, residents argue, causing the shuttering of numerous small businesses in Chinatown. The NYPD environmental impact statement's authors found that the security zone "may have contributed to the general decline in business conditions," but concluded that because 9/11 and other factors affected the economy, the closures had "not resulted in significant adverse impacts."
The impact closure has been particularly directly felt by residents of Chatham Green, a 21-story coop complex, the driveway for which is behind the NYPD checkpoint on the Chinatown end of Park Row. Since 2001, residents have had to get the permission of cops at the roadblock to get dropped off in taxis, accept deliveries, or get picked up by Access-A-Ride. In a pinch, residents and their guests have to get picked up or dropped off around the corner, outside the secure zone.
"It's less of a big deal if you're able-bodied, and more of a big deal if you're a senior," an owner of an apartment in the complex said, asking that his name not be used because of the sensitive nature of his job.
Downtown Councilwoman Margaret Chin recalled that at one point, a senior couple who lived in the complex and were returning from the hospital were barred from entering by police because they didn't have ID. Chin's office has been in the building since 2009, and she said that even since then the NYPD has claimed more of the local roads.
"There were more streets that were taken over, and it was all for parking," she said. "There were no discussions about taking over those spaces for parking."
The NYPD environmental study found that more than 1,000 city vehicles, most belonging to police, were illegally parked in the neighborhoods around One Police Plaza, and though the street closures took away parking spaces for the general public, it created about 135 spots for cops. Therefore, the report concluded, getting rid of the secure zone would exacerbate downtown's illegal-parking-by-police problem.
Residents did succeed in getting the NYPD to let buses resume running down Park Row and under the pedestrian path to One Police Plaza. To actually de-map Park Row would require the NYPD to go through a contentious and public Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process, subject to approval by the City Council and the mayor, so for the time being the street is officially still closed under the police department's authority to "temporarily" close streets.
"It's been 15 years," Chin said. "How temporary is that?"
After years without movement on the negotiations, staffers for Chin and the Mayor's Office began talking last month about the possibility of broaching the subject with the NYPD once more. A spokesman for Chin said she would like to talk about a range of possibilities, from fully reopening road, to allowing just tour-buses through, to approving a network of "This Way To Chinatown" signs guiding tourists through the federal court and prison complex behind the Municipal Building to the portion of Park Row that is open to pedestrians in the know.
East 56th Street is completely closed to the public between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
In setting out to quantify the loss of public space to security measures, we wondered, could Midtown stakeholders learn anything from the struggles of downtown residents affected by post-9/11 closures?
The former Chatham Green resident we spoke to, who has since decamped to New Jersey but hopes to return one day, said that Midtown denizens may have more leverage with the powers that be because they have more money than the people of Chinatown.
"People can get used to anything, and I think that's what [the NYPD and federal authorities are] counting on," he said. "I think the economic argument is the strongest one," he added, recalling a meeting with the NYPD attended by representatives of major downtown retailers as well as Chinatown activists, where he said police officials were noticeably more attentive. "I think Fifth Avenue will fare better. The people there pay considerable amounts of rent."
Councilwoman Chin advised people affected by the security measures in Midtown to keep the pressure on their elected officials. On one level, she argued, the considerations around One Police Plaza are fundamentally different, because unlike relocating police headquarters to somewhere more spacious, it would be relatively uncomplicated, and in a typical presidency, expected, for the First Family to move.
"The issue with Trump Tower is they don't have to be here," she said. "They could be somewhere else."
Additional reporting by Scott Heins