9/11 Anniversary: The Story Of Two Lower Manhattan Small Biz Owners
by Katie Morell
Contributor/American Express OPEN Forum
Katie Morell is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Over the past 10 years, Morell has covered topics ranging from business and politics to travel and social justice.
On a recent trip to New York City, my husband and I took the train from Midtown to Lower Manhattan with a deep sense of heaviness in our hearts. Our outward mission was to visit Ground Zero, but inside we were hoping to witness neighborhood progress — something to tell us that, 10 years later, things were getting better.
Climbing the subway stairs on a sunny afternoon, we walked in tandem with crowds of quiet tourists all there for the same reason. I took it all in, but kept an eye out for the existence of small businesses.
I saw a few, but vowed to find more — those tucked in high-rise buildings and around less traveled streets, those that survived the attacks and learned to thrive again, and those that recently settled in the area with hope for a better tomorrow.
Once back in Chicago, I researched and found two small business owners who fit the bill: Shelley J. Spector, co-founder and president of Spector & Associates, Inc., and Marc Epstein, founder and owner of Milk Street Café.
Here are their stories.
Shelley J. Spector
Spector and her husband launched Spector & Associates, a public relations firm, in April 1991. The pair was looking to specialize in the financial services sector, so they set up shop at 26 Broadway, right near the Merrill Lynch Bull and in the heart of Wall Street. Business and life was good.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, the couple was running late for work. They needed to pick up a prescription before getting on the train and had to wait until the pharmacy, located near their New Jersey home, opened 9 a.m.
"Our television was on and we were standing in our house with briefcases on our shoulders; I looked at the screen and saw the first plane hit," remembers Spector.
Thinking it was a commuter aircraft, she called into the office to check on her team; her building was just a few blocks from the World Trade Center and she wanted to know firsthand what was going on.
"Our office was on the 22nd floor and we could see the World Trade Center; they put me on speaker and all of a sudden I heard a loud roar through the phone; the second plane was flying right next to my building — my employees could see its wing," she says.
Screams rang out across her office as the second plane hit. Employees raced for cover under desks. Spector tried to calm her team over the phone.
Then the line went dead.
"I had a feeling of absolute terror; I couldn't reach anyone by cell phone and the land lines were gone," she says.
Over the next few days, Spector learned that her employees were ok, but the same could not be said for her clients. "So many of our clients were in the World Trade Center; we had Cantor Fitzgerald as a client and I’d been in their offices just a week before," she says. [Note: Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 employees in the attack.]
Spector wasn't able to return to New York City until a week after the attacks and when she did, she found Lower Manhattan a ghost town. "It was like walking into a war zone; people were there, but it was like looking at the walking dead — it was horrible," she says.
It wasn't until five months later that the neighborhood started picking up the pieces. To help that effort, Spector banned together with fellow neighborhood small business owners to develop the Downtown Business Network. "We wanted governments to favor small businesses when developing contracts to revitalize Lower Manhattan," she says.
But as hard as she tried, the plan didn't work. What did work was the development of a small business directory that is still in effect today.
Over the next few years, Spector & Associates moved office locations (they are now at 65 Broadway — one block closer to Ground Zero) and developed patents for emergency SMS messages to help prevent communication issues similar to ones experienced on 9/11. Today, the firm is doing well, and Spector is still dedicated to staying in Lower Manhattan.
"Our business doesn't require us to stay in this location, but we aren't leaving; we believe in this neighborhood and we are seeing signs of growth," she says. "Real estate prices are fantastic; it is a great time for small businesses to come down here — and I really think the neighborhood attitude is more positive...cautious, but positive."
Epstein is part of the new guard of small businesses in Lower Manhattan. On June 23, he opened Milk Street Café at 40 Wall Street, inside The Trump Building, and is excited to contribute to the rebirth of a neighborhood.
He says, "If stores remain empty and people remain unemployed, the terrorists won; I found this vacant spot and thought it was a perfect place to help develop this area — as entrepreneurs, if we don't create jobs, who will?"
And create jobs he did — 100 of them in his café, which operates as an 8,000-square-foot food hall consisting of stations offering everything from sushi to stir-fry.
How is business going?
"We've had a fantastic opening; tons of people are coming here to enjoy lunch," he says.
One of his recent customers was Spector, who visited the location last week. She says, "He has a great spot; the food is fantastic and they even have kosher options — I think he is filling a void in this area and it is exciting to see new small businesses come into Lower Manhattan."