Were it not for the coronavirus, Vishal Garg would be doing the same thing on Sept. 11, 2020, that he did on Sept. 11, 2001: going to work in the cluster of skyscrapers that comprise the World Trade Center complex in lower Manhattan.
These days, Mr. Garg, 42, goes there as the founder and CEO of his company, Better.com, whereas he was an intern on the day hijackers flew two jets laden with people and fuel at top speed into the towers.
Nineteen years after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, people are again working in the clouds high above the Hudson River, and Mr. Garg and others say the focus must be on the now and next, not then.
“I think about all the lives lost, and of course I’m very sad about that,” Mr. Garg said when asked what he thinks about on the Sept. 11 anniversary. “But I also think about America being this amazing place. We’ve rebuilt and made it better. Today, this is a testament to America rather than a focus on the past.”
COVID-19 has emptied office buildings in New York and many other cities, throwing its own wrinkle into an already heavy day in Manhattan. For the roughly 25,000 people who normally work in the World Trade Center’s four towers, however, the current atmosphere has helped settle the clouds that formed over the nation’s financial canyons.
Taxpayers have shouldered much of the rebuilding load, but no small part of the comeback at ground zero has been fueled by the vision — and wallet — of Larry Silverstein, a New York City real estate legend who signed the biggest office space deal in the history of the Big Apple when he leased the World Trade Center for 99 years.
He did so in July 2001. Six weeks later, his $3.2 billion investment was 16 acres of smoking rubble.
Mr. Silverstein, now 91, wakes up looking at an urban landscape that he said he has poured $20 billion into making.
“It happened when I was 70 years of age, and it’s only been about 20 years, so, you know, no big deal,” Mr. Silverstein said. “I’ve got one tower done in 20 years, and I still have one tower to go to finish it.”
Mr. Silverstein shared with The Washington Times a letter he is sending to all his employees on Sept. 11 in which he stresses the rejuvenation.
“We had to restore the commerce that has defined and animated the lower tip of Manhattan throughout the city’s history,” he writes. “Our goal was to create a place full of life and vibrancy that would reflect who we are as New Yorkers. Simply put, our vision was to create a better version of New York. Today, that vision is a reality.”
The tenant lineup of today’s World Trade Center reflects the downtown economy’s shift from the paper-piled, hand-dialed trading floors that once dominated it. Spotify is a huge presence, as is Mr. Garg’s online home mortgage and refinancing company. There are law firms and magazine staffs. The 69th floor of 4 WTC has 34,000 square feet of walls painted by city street artists.
The old-fashioned financial world isn’t completely gone. Moody’s is a major tenant in One WTC, better known as the Freedom Tower.
While 2020 is an off anniversary for the attacks, it marks the fifth for the Freedom Tower, which stands where the twin towers did on Sept. 10, 2001. One WTC is the most expensive office building ever erected at $3.9 billion. The 1,776-foot height is designed to match the year when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
The 104-floor One WTC towers over the 72-floor 4 WTC (which cost $1.7 billion) and the 52-floor 7 WTC (which cost $700 million). The three monuments to modern capitalism that al Qaeda wanted to annihilate dwarf the Oculus below, which cost even more than the skyscrapers at $4 billion.
The Oculus, or “the Hub,” is a group of retail outlets atop a subway stop. Even glitzy coffee table books cast a gimlet eye at the money it took to construct the white, arched edifice.
“By the time the Hub opened, on March 3, 2016, many New Yorkers, subjected daily to the indignities of a crumbling subway system, were understandably vexed that the city’s 18th-busiest subway station — beneath a tourist trap of a high-end mall — could cost $4 billion,” Matt Kapp wrote in “A Century Downtown,” a gorgeously produced, $50 history of what amounts to a few city blocks.
To Mr. Garg, Mr. Silverstein and others, however, the Oculus is one more indication of how something vibrant and impressive has replaced a spot so wounded and depressing.
“That thing is pretty cool. It is a deep, moving thing to look at,” said Benjamin Capshaw, a Louisiana investment banker who took his family to the modern WTC several months ago. In the summer of 2001, he worked in one of the twin towers.
“My daughter saw it and said, ‘Why did they dig out such a big hole?’ And I said, ‘They didn’t, sweetheart. That was already there,” Mr. Capshaw said.
As a trainee with Morgan Stanley/Dean Witter, Mr. Capshaw spent the summer of 2001 shuttling between the 66th and 72nd floors of the southern tower, the second to be hit on 9/11, just a couple of weeks after he left the building and while he was trying to get his paperwork mailed out of it.
“I remember watching the boat patterns out in the Hudson River, and that if you had a glass of water, sometimes it would move and bubble because the buildings would move,” he said.
The boat patterns are more visible than ever now. The architect of the twin towers, Minoru Yamasaki, had a fear of heights, so the old windows were narrow strips.
“The windows on each of the new towers are huge. At One WTC, they are 5 feet wide by 13.5 feet high,” said Dara McQuillan, whose office with Silverstein Properties at 7 WTC has “floor-to-ceiling glass, so the views are unbelievable. It’s actually hard to concentrate sometimes because there is so much to see outside.”
The memory of the scene 19 years ago gave Mr. Garg pause when Mr. Silverstein tried to lure Better.com out of its SoHo headquarters.
But he found the capitalist pulse beating as strongly as it had when he was on the 78th floor of One WTC.
“I was walking to work on John Street when I heard the first plane hit above me,” Mr. Garg said. “So I wasn’t sure what I was going to think, and I wasn’t sure what my team was going to think about working there. But when I stepped inside, it was awesome. The juju of Salomon Brothers was still there, it was column-free with high ceilings, but everything works. I’m kind of superstitious, but the space has the same vibe, and I loved 7 World Trade Center for that reason.”
A similar vibe prompted Mr. Silverstein to make downtown his home and office after a lifetime in Midtown.
“My God, this is all vastly superior to what there was. There ain’t no comparison,” he said. “Downtown makes me feel young again.”