Radio & Podcasts

Alvin Hall

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Wall Street - One Year On

BBC Radio 4

September 2002

One year after the 11 September attacks on the United States, Alvin Hall returns to New York's financial district and finds a very different Wall Street.

The first thing you notice walking down Wall Street is how much less crowded it feels and how people walk more slowly. The atmosphere in the area remains sombre, there is much less of a buzz. The old excitement seems muted, if not gone. When I first started working on Wall Street in the 1980s, most of the big firms had to have an office downtown. Since the attacks, however, the number of firms leaving the area has increased significantly. It is currently estimated that about 20% of office space in the financial sector is empty, even in some of the most famous buildings on Wall Street. Additionally many workers who witnessed the World Trade Center attacks have reassessed their priorities. Many have decided to leave New York altogether.

Kate Steffek worked for a company in the World Trade Center and many of her colleagues have left New York. For those who remain in the city, life has changed. She explains: "For a lot of people work was always the priority, and I think a lot of people after this have decided that others things are more important. they leave earlier, take more vacations, there's just a different emphasis on what's important in your life."

Widespread unemployment

For many, the emotional trauma is further compounded by unemployment. It is widespread, having hit all groups from investment bankers and secretaries to service workers. Jonathan Rosen from the New York Unemployment Project told me: "People who come out of the financial sector think this can't be happening to me...I can't be going from over $100,000 a year to considering bankruptcy." For those with little or no financial reserves, the long period of not earning a wage or salary is proving to be devastating. Unemployment benefits typically last for six months.

The government initially gave an extra three months of benefit to those who have been out of work since 11 September. But these have, or are about to, run out. And many of the unemployed are now running out of money and face continued hardship.

Emotional trauma

But for a number of people who directly experienced the attacks, the lack of a job is the least of their worries. Some are simply too damaged to go back to work yet.
A friend of mine, Philip Godfrey, was employed as a maintenance worker for a company located in the World Trade Center. He, along with other people at his company, managed to make his way down the narrow stairways from the 55th Floor to the lobby of Tower One, just as Tower Two collapsed. Philip is lucky to be alive and finds it hard to even think about the future. He says: "Like that metal was twisted, that's the way I feel." Talk to anyone who works in the Wall Street area and it quickly becomes clear that they feel vulnerable - vulnerable to attack, loss, unemployment, and perhaps worst of all, just plain uncertainty.

Resilient spirit

It makes one wonder if the long resilient spirit that has always been part of the financial markets and Wall Street itself was also destroyed by the attacks. Then you talk to someone like Larry Wachtel, a man in his 70s who has worked on Wall Street for over than 40 years, and you realise the resilience is still in the souls of the people. Larry told me: "It isn't like I got religion, or stopped beating my wife, or anything like that. I went back to what I usually do." And this resilience will live on in the hearts and ambitions of those people who come to Wall Street in the future. It may take a generation for a full recovery to happen, but it will happen. I strongly suspect that the tone of Wall Street will become more the way it was before the 1990s boom began - a place that is more serious, quieter, and more diligent. And it is that work ethic that will pave the way to a recovery, as it always has.