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Free Arts Festival Aimed at Attracting Consumers Back to Lower Manhattan - 2002-06-15

The largest free arts festival in New York City history is underway in lower Manhattan. Area residents and business people are hoping the summer-long event will breathe new life into their community, which continues to struggle in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks.

Since September 11, there has been a major push to rekindle consumer activity in the vicinity around what was once the World Trade Center. That push has included multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, an impromptu film festival, even the periodic suspension of sales tax throughout lower Manhattan.

The 2002 "Downtown NYC River to River Festival" is still another part of that push, and not a small one. It consists of 500 events, featuring 1.500 artists at 20 downtown locations. Festival organizer Debra Simon says it is actually an association of disparate events, such as the "Hudson River Festival" and "Summer at the Seaport," which existed before the terrorist attacks. "After the tragic events of this past September, everyone felt as though it would really be very effective for us to all come under one umbrella, to make the "call to action" for people to come to lower Manhattan that much grander," she says.

Almost all of the "River To River" events are free, and many will take place at the World Financial Center's riverside amphitheater, which used to bathe in the shadow of the World Trade Center's twin towers. Academy Award-winning composer Randy Newman is one of the featured performers. Solo at a grand piano, Mr. Newman charmed his audience as sailboats bobbed in the river just behind him.

Valerie Lewis of the Downtown Alliance, one of "River to River's" organizers, says the festival is a triumph in the midst of what continues to be challenging times in "the Big Apple." "Some days we feel like we have really made strides, and other days it feels like we have a lot to accomplish. It is a little bit of both. But we have come a long way since September 11. On September 12, if you had told me I would be sitting at a Randy Newman concert [at the World Financial Center] less than a year after everything had happened, I would have said "No way." I would not have believed you," she says.

Other festival performers include Sheryl Crow, Wynton Marsalis, Roseanne Cash and Jose Alberto.

On July 5, the New York Pops orchestra will perform. Conductor Skitch Henderson says the concert is dedicated to the people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks, but that it will not be a somber affair. "I would like to build a dam so we have no tears, just joy," he says.

But is the River to River Festival working? Is it bringing people back to the devastated area? Matt Winter, on hand for the Randy Newman show, believes so. "I think it definitely helps," he says. "This is the first time that I have been in this particular neighborhood in months. It brought me out here;we bought our dinner at a restaurant a few blocks over. It gets people to come down here; it gives them a reason to see a part of town they may have had a reason to stay away from for awhile."

Mr. Winter is one of what appears to be a great many, says festival organizer Debra Simon. But she is realistic about the task of revitalizing the neighborhood that was the focus of the worst attack on U.S. soil in history. "In Lower Manhattan as a whole, you really see this slow evolutionary return to what we are more familiar with as a summer in Lower Manhattan, although…it will never quite be the same," she says.

"The Downtown NYC River to River Festival" kicked off on May 30, and runs through September. And the message is clear to the world: come one, come all.