- Associated Press - Sunday, July 11, 2010

NEW YORK | The street below Danny Chen’s window in lower Manhattan has changed over the last decade from a bustling four-lane thoroughfare to an empty road lined with police barricades.

To get home each day, Mr. Chen has to present his ID at a police checkpoint. When the officer lowers the metal gate into the ground to let him in, he drives through as quickly as he can. More than once, the barricade has risen too soon, lifting his wife’s minivan into the air.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the New York Police Department barricaded off its headquarters on Park Row. About 2,000 residents in two apartment complexes found themselves living inside a security zone.

Nine years later, they still are.

Many vehicles, including commercial traffic, are forbidden on the street, which used to be a key link between the Financial District and Chinatown.

“This used to be a bustling area,” said Mr. Chen, a 52-year-old software engineer. “Now, it’s ghost-townish.”

In big cities across the country, security planters, metal gates and the concrete slabs called Jersey barriers have sprung up near government buildings.

Washington, D.C., is littered with bollards. Nearly half of Los Angeles’ financial district is now partially restricted, according to a study at the University of Colorado Denver. Roads across dams have been closed to traffic for security concerns.

“I don’t want us to lose a way of life that we’ve had, but sometimes we have to consider security, too,” said Pace University Professor Joe Ryan, whose daily commute has been rerouted because of a road closure over the Kensico Dam in Valhalla.

The restrictions are especially noticeable to those sharing a backyard with the NYPD.

Park Row residents say ambulance response times have risen and traffic has become bottlenecked since they began living behind barricades.

Business owners say foot traffic has plummeted.

Paul Lee said his family’s 113-year-old general store folded in 2003 because of the new security measures. “The suppliers don’t want to come down anymore, and you have no more customers,” he said.

Those who live and work behind the barricades said 9/11 is when everything changed, but, in a way, their struggle started long before.

John Ost, who lives near Park Row, said community members opposed the arrival of the police headquarters in the 1970s. They fought the transformation of a public parking lot to a police-only lot. They filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for constructing a $30 million command center next door, which they say makes the neighborhood an even bigger terrorism target.

Local elected officials also want Park Row reopened. Last month, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, and other politicians sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urging that the street be reopened.

“Right after 9/11, you say, ‘OK, fine,’ but nine years later, people are saying, ‘How much longer am I going to have to suffer?’” Mr. Nadler said.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the department has received the letter and will respond directly rather than through the media.

Residents have had some wins, such as when a judge ordered police to stop using a park as a parking lot.

But for the most part, the interests of police — and ostensibly, public security — have won out. The eastern half of the street, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Chatham Square, has been closed to commuter traffic even as other spaces have reopened. Three other streets near headquarters have been blocked off entirely or partly.

Police officials say most of Park Row must be blocked off to protect its headquarters against terrorist threats, especially truck bombs.

One problem is that the security interests of police and the community don’t always align.

The barricades, for example, stand right outside the Chatham Towers apartments.

Resident Jeanie Chin, 61, said any bombing attempt to disable the barricades would occur at a safe distance from police headquarters, but right on her doorstep.

“They seem to be completely disregarding the safety of people who are living here and actually providing a human shield,” said Mrs. Chin, who works at a PR firm.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said he understands residents’ frustration, but the street will remain closed.

“People are burdened by it, they’re inconvenienced by it,” he said. “And we’re sensitive to that issue, but unfortunately I can’t see opening it.”

Besides the practical inconveniences, some residents dislike the emptiness of the street. Park Row today has an abandoned air, with a rust-streaked median and thistles creeping out of cracks in the asphalt.

“It feels like a war zone,” Mr. Ost said.

There are some residents who like the tight security.

Elaine Nachanis, 76, has lived on the street for 48 years and said she feels safer. “As long as there’s the word ‘terrorism’ in the dictionary, we need it,” she said.

But Mr. Ost said the police brought the security risks along with them when they set up headquarters in the neighborhood, about a mile south of their old home in Little Italy.

“We thought we could coexist with the police department, but they’re making it difficult,” he said.

Residents said they are angry that their neighborhood is being sacrificed for a greater security cause.

“If this were Park Avenue, not Park Row, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Mr. Chen, referring to the more prestigious Manhattan address.

Mr. Chen said despite the inconveniences, he isn’t considering moving.

“My parents moved into Chatham Green in 1963,” he said. “I got my own place here in ‘95. I’m just trying to defend home.”