By Lisa Dickler Awano

Changing and Growing with Battery Park City - One mom’s story:


On 9/11, Renee Little fled from her Battery Park City apartment with her 11-month-old baby in her arms, descending 25 flights of a dark, dust-filled stairway to safety. Only five weeks earlier, Little, 34, had moved to Manhattan with her husband and son from Durham, North Carolina. During the attack, her husband was at work in his office nearby; he managed to return to his family before they were all evacuated from the site, physically unharmed. Three weeks later, when the Little family came back to their home, they found it covered with hazardous debris. "It was as if someone had dumped ashtrays all over our apartment," Little recalls. The parks where Little had taken her son on outings and playdates were also covered in ash. And because their neighborhood was a crime scene, it was in a state of lock-down. Army tanks surrounded them, and many areas were cordoned off. All persons entering Battery Park City, including residents, were required to show identification — an inconvenience for which most were grateful. Some apartments were without landline phone and email service for more than a month. Mail could not be delivered to personal addresses, and was held in central post office locations for pickup. In the midst of the confusion, correspondence and parcels were sometimes misplaced or returned to their senders. Most local shops and restaurants had shut down. Some neighborhood physicians had moved away, or become difficult to reach because of closed-off roads. Little found she had to travel uptown for many of her family's basic needs, such as particular groceries they depended on, clothing and baby supplies. But getting anywhere from Battery Park City proved difficult. Subway service was limited, and Little chose to avoid traveling underground with her child immediately after the attack because she feared further terrorist activity. On ground level, traffic was restricted because of security, recovery and clean-up efforts. Where vehicles were permitted, navigation was difficult, due to impassible roads and security checkpoints. As a result, there was little in the way of bus service, and taxis were almost impossible to find. One of Little's first thoughts was to move somewhere, anywhere, away from the area. But an even stronger instinct told her to stay put. "We had settled in, and this was our home," she says. "I thought, why should we run and hide because the building up the street has been attacked?" Immediately after the disaster, Little found it painful to be apart from her son — even for a few moments — to go downstairs to do laundry. But as autumn gave way to winter and the temperature dropped, she, too, evolved, and began to look for a babysitter who could care for her little one at home while she traveled uptown to do household shopping. When she couldn't find a sitter in her neighborhood, she looked further field — but no one could or would travel to the Battery Park City area. So wherever she went, Little took her infant with her. She would navigate the stroller through the masses of tourists who had come downtown to see the site. People would bump into her child with their bags, then point at her and say, "Imagine bringing a baby to see this." When Little finally reached her uptown destination, she always worried about how she would get back home. She remembers one winter morning when she climbed into a cab in midtown with her son, his stroller, and armfuls of packages. When she told the driver her address, he ordered her out of the cab. She heard herself begging him to take her downtown. When he refused, she walked home, juggling the stroller and parcels, while trying to keep the baby bundled against the cold. Families continued to move out of her building until only two remained. The few people she knew uptown were afraid to travel downtown to visit her. There were few opportunities for her son to have playdates. "I sometimes felt that my baby and I lived alone on the island of Battery Park City," she says now. Then, beginning in mid-November, Little discovered a new community — a support group for new moms with babies under the age of one, led by Kiki Schaffer, social worker and director of the Parenting and Family Center at the 14th Street Y. All the participating mothers had escaped Battery Park City with their families on 9/11, and then returned to live in the neighborhood. "They had a pioneering spirit," Schaffer says. The program was funded by the Educational Alliance, which has been helping immigrants settle in New York for over 100 years. While discussing parenting issues during their group meetings, the women shared their experiences and anxieties relating to the attack and its aftermath. Because they were all survivors, they were uniquely able to identify and empathize with one another's stories and perspectives. They talked about everything — from how to change the diaper of a baby who won't lie still, to the art of living in a war zone with an infant, and the loneliness they felt when they tried to speak of their anguish with people who urged them to get on with their lives. Together they began to recover and grow. Little believes the daily challenge of raising her child in Battery Park City has led her to discover her personal strength and resourcefulness. "Every time my son catches a cold, I worry about the air quality," she says. When asked how she lives with such ambivalence, she replies, "I pray for certainty, for balance. But balance is my ability to adapt to change. It's something I have to create for myself." Little says her son seems oblivious to what transpired on 9/11. But she and her husband have been greatly changed. "We feel as if it's us against the world," she says. "We're lucky and grateful to have each other. Before the attack, we were two kids with a baby. Now we're parents."

The decision of some residents, like the Littles, to continue to live in the World Trade Center neighborhood after surviving the events of 9/11 helped keep the area from becoming a ghost town, and sped up the renewal of what the Battery Park City Neighbors and Parents' Association calls "the best small town in the Big Apple”. The area has reemerged as a thriving, family-friendly community of spectacular river views, parks, shops, restaurants, and abundant medical services. Residential apartments are about 97 percent occupied and construction continues. On the morning of 9/11, Battery Park City Day Nursery, an area pre-school, was at full capacity with an enrollment of 120 children. By November 1, 2001, that number had plummeted to 37. Today, the program again boasts 120 students, and is expanding to make room for more. The Battery Park City Neighbors and Parents' Association is evidence that the events of 9/11 have led to an ever stronger sense of community in the area. In September 2003, it threw a block party on Vesey Street and 5,000 people came. This past January, nine downtown nursery schools participated in its pre-school fair, held at Stuyvesant High School; it attracted both local families and parents from throughout the city and outer boroughs who are considering moving to the area. The association has also developed the city's first FEMA-trained and certified Community Emergency Response Team, composed of neighborhood volunteers who have been prepared to help those around them survive and cope with natural or manmade emergency situations. On September 11, 2002, Little's new moms group gathered to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack. Many of the women felt they might be overcome by grief if they met near the World Trade Center site, and some feared another act of terrorism, so they chose to lunch with their children at a restaurant in Chelsea. On, September 11, 2003, the second anniversary of the attack, the group unanimously agreed to meet in Battery Park City to memorialize the day. As they sat on the grass, looking out on the Statue of Liberty and watching their children play, they spoke of the tragedy that had changed their lives, of their triumph over despair, and of how far they and their community had come since 9/11.