NEW YORK – On his way to work each morning, Antonio Collac stops to light a candle at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, a stone-columned sanctuary two blocks from lower Manhattan's ground zero.
There, beneath a vaulted roof that was pierced by the landing gear from one of the jets that felled the World Trade Center, and before the altar where firefighters laid the broken body of Mychal Judge — the chaplain often counted as Sept. 11's first victim — the tragedy of that morning 16 autumns ago is anything but abstract. Collac, a designer who has worked in the neighborhood for many years, says he, too, is a vessel for memories of that day.
But on Wednesday morning, Collac came to offer a new prayer — this one for the eight people killed and 12 seriously injured when terror again targeted lower Manhattan the day before, again just a few blocks away. The attack served as a reminder, he said, for a neighborhood that has been transformed by construction and washed over by a tide of tourism in the years since 9/11. For all the area's success in pushing to remake itself, people here acknowledge that the memories of its past still help shape their state of mind.
"You know, this area is Target A. We know. Everybody knows," Collac said, pausing at the bottom of the church steps. "But there is nothing we can do, my friend. We have to continue and the only thing we can do is pray."
It is not clear whether Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan who mowed down bikers and pedestrians Tuesday with a rented pickup truck, knew just how close he was to the site of the 2001 terror attack. When his truck struck a school bus and came to a halt, just five short blocks separated him the crowds that flock to the 9/11 Memorial. On Wednesday morning, the chop from the police helicopters deployed to keep watch over the new terror site overwhelmed the sound of the waterfalls that continuously fill the memorial's reflection pools.
But for many of the thousands who live, work and study in this neighborhood, the notion that it might again find itself in the crosshairs of a terrorist attack was hardly surprising.
Most days, caught up in their rush from the subways to the area's new condominiums and office towers, they said it is easy to forget what seem like existential worries. Then, they walk around the corner and gaze up at the new Freedom Tower and remember that for all the neighborhood's new wealth and cosmopolitan energy, for much of the rest of the world it remains defined by what came before. This week's attack, if anything, is just a fresh, albeit horrifying, confirmation.
Postal worker Lorraine Bell took a cigarette break at the base of the glassy new 7 World Trade Center tower, in a triangular pocket park dedicated to those who survived 9/11. In September 2001, Bell said, she was working at a union office about 2 miles away when a TV began showing images of the smoke billowing from the Trade Center. She rushed out to a supermarket and headed downtown, handing out bottles of water to those stumbling out of the complex, covered head to toe in white soot.
Now, with a new job in this neighborhood, she marvels at what it has become.
"They did almost a 360 degree turn," she said.
But that has not stopped Bell from worrying that some of the grime that gathers on the ground here is not from construction, but residue of ash from the 2001 attack, even around the newest buildings. Her discomfort with the neighborhood is not unique, she said.
"People go along every day like its normal," she said. "But do you know there are lots of people who don't want to work down here?"
Samantha Aponte, 19, is too young to remember 9/11, but she, too, knows that feeling. Long before this week's attack, she said, she had spent years in school watching documentaries about the 2001 attack and hearing about it from those who went through it. When she was admitted last year to the Borough of Manhattan Community College, a commuter school with more than 27,000 students that sits between the memorial site and the location of this week's attack, she told her mother she felt uncomfortable with the idea.
On Wednesday, when just seven of the 21 students enrolled in her math class showed up for the lecture, it occurred to her that she may not be alone in her doubts.
"I feel as though this is a targeted place," Aponte said.
Aponte is quick to note that, after more than a year of classes here, her relationship with the neighborhood has changed. When the weather is nice, she loves sitting by the river. The bike path where Saipov ran down tourists borders a park that fringes the Hudson for miles, filled with runners in the morning, office workers at lunch time and free yoga classes on summer evenings.
In streets once cordoned off by rescuers, students from Stuyvesant High School and the community college now fill benches and fast-food joints on weekday afternoons. On some blocks, sidewalks are thronged by young couples with babies in strollers, residents of the many buildings that have been converted into luxury apartments.
Since the 2001 attacks, "it's like God threw money to this area," said Louisa Lopez, who lives nearby and stopped in Wednesday at St. Peter's.
Within hours of this week's attack, kids in costumes were out trick or treating and by Wednesday morning, tourists were flocking again to the Memorial, threading streets choked with honking traffic. They meant the victims no disrespect, people said, but it is a sign of the necessary adjustments that this neighborhood — and the world that has watched it rebuild — have made since 9/11.
After hearing about the attack Tuesday night, David Dodds of Wayne, New Jersey, said his daughter suggested he put off a long-planned visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. On Wednesday, though, Dodds stood by the reflecting pools, thinking about the two people he knew who'd escaped the World Trade Center before it fell, and one who did not make it. It didn't matter that terrorism had again found this neighborhood. He needed to be here, he said.
"I have that same feeling here as when I go to the Vietnam War Memorial. It's that same kind of quiet, grateful feeling," Dodds said, sitting on a stone block at the edge of the memorial plaza.
"We have to move on, but we have to remember the past," he said. "Do we have a choice? Of course we're here. What are you guys going to do, hibernate? Then for sure, they've won."