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New York City Still Transforming Since 9/11

It was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. That soil in New York City -- seven hectares of it -- is at the center of a debate five years after the tragedy that transformed it. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports security and safety are only part of the concern at the World Trade Center site in a city that is very different five years after the September 11 attacks.

She has majestically stood in New York harbor since 1886. For more than a century, thousands of ships have brought millions of the "tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free" under the watchful eye and glowing torch of Lady Liberty.

It took just one cataclysmic event in New York City on September 11th, 2001 to change this landmark's relationship with its visitors -- for example, the 354 stairs that once led to her crown were sealed off to the public -- perhaps forever.

As a bill to reopen those stairs is being debated in the House and Senate, the Statue of Liberty continues to symbolize New York City, post 9/11. A city in the middle of a debate about how to move forward.

If Ground Zero is the most famous real estate in Lower Manhattan, it is also the most controversial. So far the only construction completed at the site is World Trade Center Number 7, where the floors are beginning to fill up with tenants.

World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein says most of his problems in moving forward with the rest of the site do not come from terrorists, but from politicians who had little to do with getting World Trade Center 7 built.

"It is a reflection of what private enterprise can accomplish when government interference does not exist."

Until April of this year, Silverstein was locked in a battle with state and local government over an insurance payout on the original twin towers, which he purchased only six weeks before the attacks.

He's also been at odds with the master architect of the site, Daniel Libeskind. The two have disagreed about how to construct a permanent memorial to honor the thousands that perished here. They also cannot decide how to create 10 million square feet of useable, comfortable office space.

"There are many people who believed that we should build one story houses after the attack. I was not one of them. Nor were New Yorkers. The idea of a tall building didn't emanate from me… it emanated from the desire of New Yorkers at the Javits Center who voted overwhelmingly that Ground Zero should have an iconic high rise building."

That iconic high rise building is called the Freedom Tower. It is at the center of Lower Manhattan's transformation after 9/11. Freedom Tower is leading the way in next-generation building design based on lessons learned from the World Trade Center collapse.

Current plans call for the structure to rise to 541 meters, which translates into 1,776 feet -- to honor the year the United States declared independence from Britain.

It will be one of the tallest structures in the world. It will also be the most secure building in the city according to one of the architects, David Childs. "We always worked above and beyond the local codes, but now we were able to change to codes to what will be the most secure buildings of all. And I think, and I just wanted to underline Larry's statement ,that the concern that people have, they should be concerned about all the other buildings, not about these, what set the pace for what security should be."

But some family members are skeptical. Norman Siegel represents the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, originally founded by the families of Christian ReganHard.

He was a 28 year old probationary firefighter who died in the World Trade Center collapse. "The old World Trade Center was above the law. The firemen couldn't even come in and investigate. That's a continuing fight that we have now. To get whatever is going to be built there to be in compliance with the New York codes. The Port Authority has not agreed to that. They always say 'We exceed the codes.' We're very suspicious of that."

Ground Zero is also a final resting place. There were no bodies to bury for 1,152 families that lost loved ones on September 11th. As construction moves forward, and condemned buildings damaged by the attacks are taken down, workers continue to find human remains.

Mr. Siegel adds, "Two years ago, the city of New York told the family members that in regards to human body parts at the Deutsche Bank building right next to the World Trade Center, that everything was cleaned. The last few months over 700 body parts have been located. It leads to more and more family members not trusting their government."

New York City is a metropolis that continues to change -- many say, for the better.

Retired New York City police detective and Ground Zero photographer John Botte echoes the feelings many New Yorkers have about their city. "The city is better off the way it is. Aside from the attacks, safety wise, crime is -- you know -- the homicide rate is down. I notice the streets aren't polluted with drugs the way they used to be. It seems like a cleaner, happier place wherever you go. It's a much different New York City than it was 17 or 18 years ago. I love New York. What can I say? I'm a New York City cop."

And many New Yorkers now feel a closer bond with police officers and firefighters.

Jan Ramirez is with the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. "I will never walk past a policeman or fireman again without seeing some incredible depth of heroism, humanity, resourcefulness in them."

New Yorkers are also more aware of their surroundings.

While most think another attack is likely, using planes as missiles to destroy buildings seems to be less of a concern.

That is something reinforced to Larry Silverstein during a recent flight he took from California. "The gentleman sitting in the first row back from the cockpit, he rose also to get out of the plane, and as he turned around he said, 'Mr. Silverstein - you're doing a good job. Keep up the work.' I didn't know who he was but he obviously recognized me. I said, 'Thank you very much. What do you do?' He said, 'Well, I'm here to make sure this plane is not used as it was used on 9/11.' I said, 'You must be a federal air marshall.' He said, 'I am.' I said, 'Are you guys on all the flights?' He said, 'All I can tell you is a plane will never again be used in America as it was used on 9/11.'"

Work continues around the clock to prepare Ground Zero for the building ahead. In the midst of construction, the hole in the ground itself is a security concern.

Police have stepped up patrols along the perimeter, where the slurry wall that holds the Hudson River back could be breached by a terrorist attack.

Terrorists also reportedly have targeted the bridges and tunnels providing the link between Manhattan and New Jersey. The FBI announced in July it had uncovered an al-Qaida plot to attack one of the tunnels leading to lower Manhattan, with the intention of flooding the financial district.