Escaped from New York

Dirty Sand

In August of 20001 Leslie Vanderlee was attending “yet another goodbye dinner,” this one for a family moving to Chappequa. It was a regular ritual for the moms of Battery Park City, saying farewell to families who had decided for the usual New York reasons – kids, schools, space – to leave the city for the suburbs and it segued, as always, into a “conversation about who was a confirmed city person and who was sitting on the fence,” recalls Vanderlee.

“I remember being in the confirmed city camp,” says the 30-tk mother of two. She and her husband Peter had first moved to Gateway Plaza, one of Battery Park City’s three major residential areas, in 1990. The couple moved to Paris for a while (she is originally from South Africa, her husband from Holland) but couldn’t stand it. “All these whiny people and the shops are always closed,” is how she recalls it. “A few months into living in Paris we realized we were really New Yorkers.” In 1999 they returned to the city and bought a condo across the street from Gateway Plaza and in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

On September 11th Vanderlee was at home with her nine-month old baby, Nicole, and her two-year-old daughter Caroline. “Nicole was asleep,” she recalls, “and Caroline said to me, ‘Mommy, what’s that noise?’ She had always been afraid of loud noises, couldn’t take the lawnmower and the blender. I immediately said, ‘That’s the truck going over the hole in the road.’ But I looked out the window and I saw all the people looking up, paper like confetti on the ground. I saw the tower on fire.” She closed the blinds right away so her daughter couldn’t see and called her husband, who was working in 7 World Trade. When the second plane hit he said he was coming home.

“I remember him saying to me, ‘I love you, honey,’” she recalls. “And I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this is really bad. He should not be saying this to me at 10 o’clock in the morning.’”

At the same time security called and told her to evacuate the building. Grabbing her passport, her green card and a double-stroller for the kids she went to the lobby without telling the oldest what was going on “because I didn’t know what to say.” Downstairs it was controlled chaos; the real panic was yet to come. Battery Park City is a sort of mom’s paradise, surrounded as it is by parks and playgrounds. There were nannies uncertain where their employers worked and stay-at-home moms like Vanderlee, hoping to be reunited with their husbands. Hers showed up just as the park police told people to leave the building and head north. Peter didn’t think that was such a good idea. He’d already seen the people leaping to their death.

The Vanderlees were on the Promenade when the first tower collapsed, “and you could see the dust cloud and it’s like a ball in a horror movie, literally rolling down our street.” They dumped the stroller, put the baby in a Bjorn which she carried while Peter held Caroline who was screaming now, “Daddy, make the sand go away! It’s in my mouth!” Now there was panic in the streets, people running through the storm of debris. At the Regatta a police boat was evacuating people on a women-and-children-first basis. “We have a baby!” Peter yelled and the crowd surrounding the boat parted. The boat was small and the baby was passed through strangers’ hands to get there.

By day’s end the family would come to know the kindness of many strangers, including a woman in Jersey City who opened her brownstone to a handful of refugees. “We were very lucky,” says Vanderlee. No one slept that evening; they took turns watching the news and Teletubbies videos. The one time she watched television that day she saw her husband’s building, 7 World Trade Center, fall down.

Over the next few weeks Caroline kept asking, “What about the dirty sand?” “We’re going to be away until the dirty sand is gone,” her parents would say, and she would repeat it. “When they clean up the sand, we’ll go home.” But that day was the beginning of a journey that would take them, and countless others, on a tour of the Tri-State area, from Jersey to Long Island and finally Connecticut, where they now live. (Each family has their own horrible story to tell; Jeanne Kaplan, who went from Gateway Plaza to Bridgewater, CT, was home with her two toddler sons that morning. “I thought I was going to have to decide which child to save,” she says now.) For all intents and purposes these families left that morning and never came home. 

Lots of New Yorkers talk about leaving town; it’s a regional pastime. “When you live in New York, you can’t stop thinking of ways to get out,” says Jamie Fee, whose own family was evacuated from Battery Park City that day. “The curse is when you leave, you can’t stop thinking of ways to get back.” It is estimated that two-thirds of the residents of Battery Park City, a 90-acre planned community on the southern tip of Manhattan, fled in the wake of the WTC’s collapse but most of them returned. An untold number of other New Yorkers left in the months that followed, frightened by the potentially toxic environment downtown, the prospect of future terrorist attacks in the city or just haunted by the horrors of what they witnessed. A lot of them might have left eventually anyway. Ishbel Burnet, a professional chef and painter, had dallied with the idea of moving back to the UK for years. “I didn’t know how I was going to let go, how I was going to walk away from my life in New York,” she says now. She knew people who were working at Windows on the World that day, and in the following months watched as the catering business dried up and the galleries closed. For her and untold others thinking of leaving, September 11th made the decision for them.

Suddenly Suburban

The first time Michelle Elliman, Jamie Fee’s wife, suggested they think about leaving he said, “Maybe we ought to see a marriage counselor to help resolve this issue.” It was the year 2000, on her 39th birthday, and the idea seemed crazy to him. “I fought it kicking and screaming,” he says now; he’d lived in suburbs as a teenager and found them soulless and impersonal. “9.11 took all the arguments away from me.” They were both born in New York and the city had been good to them. She had founded a dance company called Neo Labos in ’89 and taught dance at NYU and Long Island College; he worked as a banker and enjoyed the company of their Tribeca artist friends on the weekends. They adopted two children – Lucas, 6, and Zazie, 5 – from Korea and she describes Battery Park City as an idyllic place for children.

     “I could be in the sandbox down there and there would be five other families of international adoption,” she says now. “I miss that terribly.”

     Elliman, now 43, looks like a dancer. She has short, salt-and-pepper hair and a dancer’s erect, light carriage. She does not look like most of the moms in Noroton Heights, the middle-class neighborhood of Darien, CT where she and her family have landed – much to her continual surprise.

     “We didn’t need to make a decision about anything for five years,” she says not, almost wistfully. “We had just signed a two-year lease on our apartment, we were renting and hopefully down the road we would be able to buy something.”

     Like her friend Leslie Vanderlee, Elliman and her children were evacuated by boat that day. “Then I was in the middle of the Hudson,” she recalls, “Scarlet O’Hara looking back at Atlanta burning.” On a lawn near the Liberty Science Center a tent filled with gold-gilt chairs that been set up for a wedding was transformed into a triage center where Elliman tried in vain to call her husband. Finally reunited, the family made its way to Darien where Elliman’s mother and sister lived.

     “At that point we were the only displaced family in Darien, which made it all the more surreal,” she says. She recalls the first beautiful fall weeks in Darien, the family still stunned, “and I’m in my black leather jacket and short, short haircut trying to maneuver my way through what to me was a huge supermarket…

“The move here was very much directed by familial ties and going where there was an intact support system. We needed help. Life just takes you sometimes. You wake up a few years later and say, ‘Okay, here we are!’”

     In the months that followed, as they learned the extent of the damage to their building, Lucas, then 3, began to show signs of regression. “He couldn’t stand anyone touching his things,” says Elliman, and small wonder: She had left that day with the kids’ special blankets and diapers and the clothes on their back. “When we moved to this house,” she says, referring to the three-bedroom house they bought a year-and-a-half ago, “the neighbors came to say hello and Lucas went to the screen door and screamed at them, ‘Get away! Go away!’ He thought they were going to come and take the house away. That was a little tough for play dates.”

     Today Lucas’s blue bedroom is a shrine to firemen – a drawer full of toy fire trucks, a framed poster featuring all the emblems of the NYFD companies – a fascination he came to independently of the rest of the nation. “They’re going to need a really tall ladder to get those people off the top of the Twin Towers,” he told his mommy late one night. He thought a plane was going to hit their new home and he was very afraid of fire. A therapist recommended fire drills that Lucas took to with great enthusiasm, carrying a big flashlight, climbing out of windows, crossing the street.

     The kids certainly seem well adjusted now, swinging on their play-set in the backyard, screaming about what they’re going to be for Halloween. It’s the parents who still feel a little out of place. Earlier, having negotiated Darien’s acres of close-cropped lawns in her Honda Pilot, Elliman joined a wagon-train circle of SUVs waiting to pick up their kids at the Darien Nature Center. A woman with a walkie-talkie radioed ahead (“Send out Lucas and Zazie”) while she told me of her humbling experiences trying to work locally, teaching dance to third graders.

     “I figured there would be a shedding period as I lost my pride and self-respect,” she says with a laugh. “But if it came to doing birthday parties I knew I was going to shoot myself.”

     “Michelle and Jamie were the last people I could imagine leaving New York,” a mutual friend of ours tells me. When I meet Fee in a midtown bar the following week, he says he has come to an uneasy peace with his new home and his role as a commuter. “I walk onto this train and everyone is me,” he says. “They’re all white, they’re all in their forties, they all have kids, a lot of them work in finance. We’re all at the same time in our lives.”

     Fee is a fit man in his late forties, intense and bespectacled; as a new commuter he fights for his identity in small ways. “I don’t want to adapt entirely,” he says, “I want to avoid the trappings. The major trapping is the commute.” So coming home he watches DVDs of foreign films (checked out from the Darien public library) and refuses to golf. He does not define himself by where he lives. “’Downtown New Yorker’ is an identification that is very superficial,” he says. “My major definition is husband and father. I had no regret leaving Manhattan and Michelle had no regret not dancing or leaving her company, because this was critical. The kids really needed her attention.”

     About a year ago he was involved in one of his late night conversations with his son when Lucas asked him, “Daddy, tell me about the World Trade Center.” Why, Jamie wanted to know.

     “Because I forget.”

O, Pioneers!

There is no record of how many people left New York in the wake of 9.11, and how many may have replaced them, but the numbers have not affected the population’s overall ebb and flow. In April the US Census Bureau reported that the city’s population had grown for the second straight year with Manhattan accounting for much of the growth (9364 new residents came between July 2002 and June 2003). Though the renewal of Battery Park City is still a work-in-progress (the Irish Hunger Memorial, meant to look like a blighted ruin in the old country, blends right in with the ongoing reconstruction by the river), the rate of residency remains high, spurred in part by such incentives as rent. Air quality is still a contentious and possibly actionable issue, as it was in the weeks following 9.11. “The EPA was saying one thing, NPR reports were saying another,” as Elliman puts it. On BPC bulletin boards a debate was raging between those who advocated immediate return and others who said it was a toxic dump where you’d be crazy to live. The quality of the air was a major factor in the Vanderlees’ decision to move, as it was for Elliman and her family.

     But not everyone who left NY lived downtown. There were people in other parts of Manhattan or the outer boroughs who were shaken and affected by the attacks and their aftershocks. For many escapees the decision to flee was arrived at quietly, over time, in conversations after dinner, or at midnight in a bar. New York had changed, some said, and it was hard to argue in the face of the anthrax scare, the Sarin scare, the ongoing threats to buildings, train stations, helicopters… Many of the people who left had been thinking about it for years and for them 9.11 was the tipping point, albeit one delivered with a baseball bat and a blowtorch.

     Betsy Gardella had just emerged from the subway by City Hall when the first plane hit. “Everybody was standing on the sidewalk looking up,” she recalls. “And I just got on line to get my coffee.” New Yorkers are no less creatures of habit than anyone else and Gardella, like so many others, figured life would go on as usual that day, disaster or no. She was working as COO at WNYC and if nothing else she figured it was going to be a busy news day.

     Upstairs, in her office on the 25th floor of One Centre Street, she called her husband, David White, in Brooklyn to tell him not to take the tunnel into town because the West Side Highway was sure to be a mess. “I was on the phone with him looking out the window when I saw the wing of the second plane come around the South Tower and the tower burst into flames,” says Gardella. “And I remember not understanding what I had seen.”

     The couple decided that she would pick up their daughter Catherine, then nine, at Brooklyn Friends School in downtown Brooklyn and that David would meet them both at a restaurant in Boerum Hill. Gardella and some of the radio station’s non-reporting staff decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. “I don’t remember seeing the North Tower collapse because there was so much dust from the South Tower,” she says. When the bridge shook for a second time she thought it was being bombed.

     “I remember feeling unbelievable rage,” she recalls, “and I wanted to get to Catherine. I thought, ‘If anything happens to me this child will never go to the dentist again.’”

     In the weeks that followed Catherine did not want to talk about 9.11 and was impatient with the grownups for doing so. She was troubled to learn that some BFS kids had lost their father that day; another died of a heart attack after his family was relocated from Battery Park City. “It made it so immediate for her,” says Gardella. “Also she was very sensitive to the cement barricades and the police house right outside her school. There was this kind of war-zone feeling to her little Quaker school that was so incongruous.”

     I’ve known Betsy and David for years and always thought of them as real New York people. Even though they had moved to Brooklyn after adopting Catherine, their professional affiliations had peerless downtown cred. Before coming to WNYC, Gardella had worked for the National Dance Institute’s Jacques D’Amboise and the Public Theater’s Joseph Papp, while for 28 years White had been the director of the Dance Theater Workshop, a performance venue for emerging artists that began in the seventies under Jerome Robbins. He was born in New York Hospital and moved here as an adult in 1971; Gardella is from New Jersey but lived in NY for 22 years.

     “It was hard to think about living anywhere else,” she says. “What would I do? Who would I have dinner with? Could you have a dinner party in some other city and actually have interesting people around the table?”

     But in the months following 9.11 she found herself thinking about more than entertaining. The WNYC staff was allowed back in their building in October but downtown was still a disaster area. “They were clearing the site and every day there were new fires,” says Gardella. “You’d be in your office and look out the window and see these huge plumes of black smoke, and the smell of burning debris was ever-present, in your clothes, in your hair. Every day was really painful.”

     Moreover, their daughter was becoming increasingly anxious on the subway. On the 45-minute ride from their house in Ditmas Park to Brooklyn Friends, Catherine would sometimes get frightened. “She would look around and other riders would make her uneasy so we would get off and wait for the next train,” Gardella recalls. “I started to worry about how she felt coming home with the babysitter and then worry, what if something happened?”

     Which is the big what-if hanging over the head of every parent who was here on 9.11. Some changed their wills; others took out more life insurance. Gardella took another tack. She got out a map of the United States and started to talk about moving.

     Not for the first time. The couple had looked at the suburbs before (she still has family in New Jersey, and White spent some of his childhood in Darien) but “it was just a rhythm and an environment that neither of us felt particularly comfortable with,” she says. “We were much more urban, we couldn’t imagine not living in a city.” But by working all the time to afford being here, the couple was spending less time with Catherine, causing them to wonder what it was all for.

     “I felt there were so many things about the city that I loved that I didn’t have the time and the resources to enjoy,” says Gardella. “Over time that immediacy of New York, that electricity that New York creates, was something that I was just kind of swimming through to get from one place to the next.”

     So after some back and forth on the marital front – “One parent more than the other is always more rattled by these events,” White observes dryly – they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, with Gardella and her daughter arriving nine months before White. They did not choose the Twin Cities by accident. Gardella’s sister and mother had both lived there in the past, she has friends and contacts there from the world of public radio and White knew people from the Walker Museum; Catherine’s godfather, a friend of White’s from college, lives there. The Twin Cities had all the pre-requisites: good schools; affordable housing; a liberal, educated populace; and the feeling of a small town, even within the city.

     “I really wanted a place we could have some balance,” says Gardella now. “I looked at Catherine and thought, She’s going to be in college in seven years and I don’t want to work like a dog and miss it all.”

     It is the small town aspects that Gardella feels her daughter is benefiting from most. In the summer she gets up, gets on her skateboard and meets a friend at the playground at nearby Macalester College before stopping for a 25-cent ice cream cone at the St. Paul Corner Drug. Says mom, “It’s kind of what you think a childhood should be about.” It was about a week after moving in, when Gardella was putting Catherine to bed that her daughter said, “Mom, I don’t think Osama bin Laden knows where Minnesota is.”

Gardella, 53, is a warm and vivacious woman who would probably make friends anywhere. We are sitting in her backyard in a verdant St. Paul neighborhood known as Macalester-Groveland while she confesses she didn’t really know what she was getting into when she decided to move her family here. “Most of my ideas about the Midwest came from Willa Cather,” she says, referring to the author who chronicled the lives of Nebraska Argonauts in novels such as O Pioneers!, “and there are times that blame it all on her.” The family has come to love the weather (including the winters where temperatures reach 30-below and the fluid on your eyeballs freezes), the big sky, the sunlight, the stars, even as they navigate the cultural differences at work. (She is currently working as a project director on a series on globalization being done out of Minnesota Public Radio, while White is in the first year of a three-year consultancy deal with DTW.)

“My work life was shaped in New York City and if I hear a bad idea I’m likely to say, ‘Gee, that’s a terrible idea,’” she says. “And I’ve learned that’s not very Minnesotan.”

On my visit there Gardella took me to the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, where a string quartet serenaded hordes of Minnesotans buying fresh strawberries and vegetables from Hmong farmers. We had dinner at Kincaid’s, a fine restaurant in the steak-and-trout school located in downtown St. Paul. I couldn’t help but notice that by 10:30 on a Friday night the place was almost empty.

“Minneapolis is becoming a travel destination,” Gardella insisted.

“Yeah,” said her husband, “for people from Wisconsin.”

Still, the couple feel accepted and welcomed in the greater community and never feels removed from the rest of the world, whether or not Al Quaeda is aware of her locale. “You can feel connected to the world the same way New Yorkers do,” she maintains. “Though I’m not sure you feel like you’re in the center of the world like New Yorkers do.”

At Home in the World

Of course a lot of people lost much more than their sense of their children’s well-being on September 11th. Nicole De Martini was visiting her husband Frank’s office on the 88th floor of the north tower when the first plane hit on the floor above them. Frank De Martini was construction manager of the World Trade Center and knew the buildings inside and out. After scouting escape routes he herded people toward a clear stairway, sending his wife off with them despite her pleas. He felt that he had to stay and help others.

     “What got me out of that building that day was that I was so hell-bent on getting home to my kids,” says his widow today. She was headed for the Brooklyn Bridge when the tower collapsed, which she has described as “the onset of a nuclear winter.” It is still hard for her to go downtown; she has never visited Ground Zero and on a recent walk across the Brooklyn Bridge she had to hide her emotions from her 11-year-old son. 

     As a native of Switzerland, De Martini had an obvious out with her family there encouraging her to come home. “I certainly would have wanted to,” she says. “I thought about it many times. I just wanted to fill up a suitcase and leave.” But just as some left NY with their kids in mind, she feels that she stayed here for her children’s sake. (She also has a daughter who is now 13.) “I had lost my partner and the father of my kids but I didn’t lose my home, and my home was the only stable thing at the time. It would have been terrible for my kids to not only lose their father but also to have to move into a completely new situation.”

     Besides, “it was important to me to be here with people who understood what we had gone through,” she says, describing a visit to her family the following summer. “When I went to Switzerland [9.11] was already in the past. People talked about it like it was some accident.” Nearly three years later her kids are doing great; they are attending a summer camp for children who lost parents on September 11th (it’s her daughter’s third time) and she says she can’t think of a family that lost a loved one that day who left New York. Maybe, as strange as it seems, they need the connection.

To this day,” says De Martini, “everyone is still bleeding a little bit here in NY. It’s good to know that I’m not alone.”

That sense of connection is something several of the escaped parents I talked to professed wanting. “I’m aware of having missed a large part of the mourning process that my friends in the city got to share and go through,” says Michelle Elliman in Darien, while her friend Leslie Vanderlee feels even more isolated in the picture-perfect town of New Canaan where they ended up. Sitting in a coffee shop on a weekday morning, Vanderlee – an intense brunette with brilliant blue eyes – tells me her daughter’s tantrums stopped around Easter 2002. She admits to feeling alienated in her new town but saves her worst criticism for herself.

“I’m one of these New York moms – I stopped working, I breast fed, I did all the right things,” she says. “And this thing out of my control happened to my kid. I tried so hard to do everything right by my child and I have this terrible anger that this thing happened to me and that messed up a year of my child’s life and made me not such a good mother.”

Back in Minnesota, Betsy Gardella organized a dinner party for my visit – perhaps to prove you could have a stimulating evening with the people here. And it is; everyone I meet – a radio producer, an architect, a special education teacher – is funny and well informed, welcoming and curious about me and the story I’m writing. At least one of them has lived in New York and all profess affection for it.  

But at some point after dinner the talk turns to 9.11 and the New Yorkers at the table speak of where we were that day, what we saw and how we felt, and the air becomes static with emotion. The Minnesotans are polite and very quiet as we finally drop the topic and almost immediately afterwards they launch into a very impassioned debate about – traffic! It seems you used to be able to get to downtown Minneapolis from here in ten minutes and now it takes twice as long. “We have two seasons in Minnesota,” one of them tells me, “winter and road work.”

Every city has its own concerns; the problems of getting through the Twin Cities are no less vexing to the people living there than the presence of metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs are to New Yorkers. During one of the worst periods of violence in Lebanon’s civil war, researchers polled Beirut’s citizens and asked them what the biggest problem facing their city was. “A recent increase in traffic,” they replied.

Earlier that day David White was comparing New York to the great European cities that have endured so much – the Nazi occupation of Paris, the blitz in London. White, 55, is a gregarious fellow who seems at home anywhere, albeit a little sardonic by Minnesota standards. “The lessons you have in fact are that cities are incredibly resilient and they will continue to function,” he said, “short of nuclear holocaust.” While his wife and daughter feel safer here, he says he can’t visit the massive Mall of America without thinking about what a great target it would make. “All they’d have to do is drive up to the P3 parking level and set off a van.”

Maybe all that matters is who you’re with when that moment comes. Ishbel Burnet, the chef and painter who returned to London, is well aware that her city is a likely target too – but she’s got people there, including a new husband and baby. “I knew it wasn’t safer,” she says, “I felt that the end of the world was nigh. But if I was going to be blown up I wanted to be blown up with my family.”

Spoken like a real New Yorker.

(2004)

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