The Resilience of Downtown Manhattan

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The most remarkable sequel of the September 11th attacks, now approaching their tenth anniversary, was rarely reported as such: the continued rise of New York real-estate prices. Since many pundits swiftly declared that the question was not whether but when future terrorist attacks would come, it was plausible to believe that commercial and residential prices in New York, Washington, and other major urban centers would drop significantly to reflect the risk of destruction, from hijackings to suitcase bombs. Certainly other plots have been discovered, and some experts believe risks are increasing.

But at Ground Zero itself, results have been the opposite of what terrorists expected. The area, once in limbo, is thriving, according to this Associated Press report.

Virginia Lam, a publicist and former City Hall operative who moved into a newly converted residential building on Wall Street in 2006, said the site is a source of inspiration, rather than fear or gloom.

"It's pretty amazing," she said of the new towers rising from the 16-acre hole created by the attacks. "I feel like, being a New Yorker who was here on 9/11, and who has worked for the Fire Department and for the city, I think it is always in the back of my mind, but it's not something that dominates my thinking. I go about living my life."

About 45,750 people now live in the part of Manhattan south of Chambers Street, which encompasses ground zero. That is more than twice as many as there were during the last census.

All this may reflect a false sense of security, which we've seen in finance and nuclear power. Crowds may be wise, but every so often they stampede and people get hurt. Still, terrorism specialists might also consider real-estate prices as a form of prediction market.

That doesn't mean the attacks were necessarily futile from a terrorist perspective. They may indirectly have promoted the financial crisis of the decade's end -- a possibility that economists and economic historians will be discussing for a long time, as it's hard to separate Sept. 11 from other trends. (See this report from the St. Louis Fed.) The Lower Manhattan real-estate boom may be a harbinger of a national renaissance -- or just the other side of the gloomy, bitter mood still haunting this country and much of the European Union.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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