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Restaurants Near Ground Zero Provide Assistance to Rescue Workers

Since the terrorist attacks in September, New York City appears, in some ways, to be back to "business as usual." But for residents and businesses in Lower Manhattan the area nearest the Ground Zero site life has drastically changed.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, many people in the surrounding neighborhoods found themselves without water, electricity, and, in many cases, food and shelter.

Several restaurants stepped up to the challenge of feeding the rescue workers who had the task of clearing away millions of tons of debris.

Alan Elkaim is general Manager of F. Illi Ponte, an Italian restaurant overlooking the Hudson River. His beautiful, wood paneled establishment, used to serving Wall Street stock brokers and other high-powered businesspeople, found itself, instead, working round the clock to get hot meals out to rescue workers at Ground Zero. Mr. Elkaim says his restaurant's effort was typical of many businesses in the neighborhood.

"Everybody was so helpful - from your corner grocery stores that were giving out free milk, water, everything to a lot of tri-state (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) vendors, everybody stuck together. New Yorkers this is a big city and it's not. Everybody knows each other. While we were feeding all the volunteers and the policemen, and firemen, a lot of our employees came and worked for free. Our chef, Giuseppe Fanelli did a phenomenal job with the food, he worked 18-20 hours a day," he said.

This went on for several weeks, says Alan Elkhaim. In November, F. Illi Ponte held a week-long comedy benefit, where proceeds went to families of firefighters. Nationally-known comedians flew in from all over the country to perform for free.

Other restaurants also transformed themselves into 24-hour rescue operations. Bouley's Bakery named for its chef, David Bouley, and known for its award-wining haute cuisine where the elite compete for a table - was closed for more than two months to the public. Instead, the space was occupied by volunteers who sat at long tables chopping vegetables and working in the kitchen making thousands of meals a day. Brian Lowe was one of those volunteers.

"It's hard to understand how David Bouley has pulled it together. This has been a crazy effort he has been working longer hours than anyone else, trying to plan this out and keep his business running at the same time," he says. Everyone working here is just so appreciative that they can do something, anything, you know? And I think this is as cathartic for the people doing this as it is helpful to the workers eating the food," he says.

A few blocks north of Bouley's Bakery, on the edge of Chinatown is a restaurant that today is known to every police officer in New York City and beyond. Nino's Italian Restaurant for many years a comfortable, neighborhood establishment, is now operating to serve only police and rescue personnel, 24-hours a day, for free. Owner Nino Vendome, whose restaurant is being supported by volunteers, plans to do this for one year.

"We want to do this to make a few statements the most important one is that these uniformed officers should never think again that they're alone," he says.

But today, several months after the World Trade Center attack, with 100,000 fewer people visiting Lower Manhattan, it is the restaurants that also need help. Neighborhood and city-wide campaigns have been coordinated to bring more diners to Lower Manhattan. F. Illi Ponte General manager Alan Elkhaim says,

"It's tough. It's still not back. I feel like we're maybe 15 percent back, we need another 85 percent to go. Because people are still hesitant to come down here, because of security, because of police presence, and the air quality is scaring people away but we have no problem with the air quality it's beautiful. Anything above Canal Street is doing well, but below Canal Street Tribeca, Soho, is taking a big beating."

To help residents and businesses in Lower Manhattan, the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce is also putting together a revitalization campaign to promote restaurants, museums and other cultural institutions in downtown Manhattan.

And, actor Robert DeNiro, a local resident, announced the organization of a Tribeca film festival. The neighborhood festival scheduled for May, will showcase forty world premiers of independent and studio films, with the goal of helping to bring long-awaited economic and emotional relief to a struggling community.