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Wall Street Was Once The Home Of The Big Banks. 9/11 Led To A Radical Reinvention

People walk near the sight of Ground Zero and the One World Trade Center on Aug. 30. The Wall Street neighborhood changed drastically after the 9/11 attacks as banks moved out of what had long been their home.
People walk near the sight of Ground Zero and the One World Trade Center on Aug. 30. The Wall Street neighborhood changed drastically after the 9/11 attacks as banks moved out of what had long been their home.

Wick Simmons, the former CEO of Nasdaq, started working on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan after graduating from business school in 1966. Today, he barely recognizes the neighborhood.

"Wall Street, as I knew it, is gone," Simmons says.

For centuries, Wall Street was the home of the the biggest banks in the world. The attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 completely changed that as many executives questioned the wisdom of having an entire industry consolidated in one place.

And soon after, many banks and financial services firms pulled up stakes. Some of them moved to other New York City neighborhoods, while others decamped for Connecticut and New Jersey.

Simmons himself decided to move Nasdaq's staff to Times Square, which is now home to the exchange's global headquarters.

Facing an exodus, developers and city officials decided to reimagine and reinvent Lower Manhattan.

They envisioned a district that would attract residents and new businesses. It was to be be anchored by a gleaming tower that would be part of the new World Trade Center complex, along with a transit hub designed by famous architect Santiago Calatrava.

It worked.

New York Mayor's office released this view of proposed improvements to Water Street in Lower Manhattan on Dec. 12, 2002. The area around Wall Street has reinvented itself, with more non-financial companies pouring in and residential buildings going up.
Getty Images / Getty Images
New York Mayor's office released this view of proposed improvements to Water Street in Lower Manhattan on Dec. 12, 2002. The area around Wall Street has reinvented itself, with more non-financial companies pouring in and residential buildings going up.

Meet the new Wall Street

On a rainy September morning, Wall Street was bustling. Yes, there were traders and bankers in suits, darting down the cobblestones in front of the iconic New York Stock Exchange building.

But these financial workers were outnumbered by parents with kids, making their way to school. There are now more than two times as many apartments and condominiums as there were before Sept. 11, according to data from the Alliance for Downtown, a local business trade group.

Jonathan Corpina, who has been a trader in Wall Street for 23 years and is now a senior managing partner at Meridian Equity Partners, still marvels at the changes.

"This area down here has become a very hot area from a residential point of view," Corpina says, pointing out buildings that were previously anchored by banks but have been repurposed by developers.

It's a far cry from what it used to be.

"It was all business down here," Corpina says. "And then, at 4:30 p.m., everyone would just go away, and go back home to wherever they lived. It was very, very quiet."

Today, along narrow, winding streets, there are new bars and restaurants, along with boutiques and high-end retailers, including Hermès and Tiffany & Co.

The pandemic has dampened the neighborhood's nightlife, but residents have started to return, and many businesses have welcomed workers back.

People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Aug. 10 in Lower Manhattan. Residential buildings have injected new life to a district that would become largely deserted in the evenings.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Aug. 10 in Lower Manhattan. Residential buildings have injected new life to a district that would become largely deserted in the evenings.

Today, Uber and Spotify call Wall Street home

The professional nature of Wall Street has also changed.

Before 9/11, almost half of the jobs here were in finance, insurance, and real estate, according to the Alliance for Downtown. As of last year, it was a smaller proportion: roughly a third of them.

Dino Fusco, the COO at Silverstein Properties, a major real estate developer responsible for much of the World Trade Center complex, acknowledges the changes.

"There are fewer folks dressed like financial services executives, and many more individuals that are with the tech companies, media companies, and advertising companies," he says.

Many of them are located in Silverstein Properties buildings, including Spotify and Uber. Condé Nast is headquartered in One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Yet some Wall Street long-timers miss the old neighborhood.

Fred Price was a principal and founding partner at Sandler O'Neill when the attacks happened. Price's offices were on the 104th floor of World Trade Center's South Tower, and he lost more than 60 colleagues that day.

The firm had been based in the Wall Street neighborhood since 1988, but Price and his colleagues on the executive committee decided it was time to move.

Today, the firm – now known as Piper Sandler – is in Midtown, not far from Barclays and JPMorgan Chase.

Price, a managing director at Piper Sandler, acknowledges post-9/11 moves have changed Wall Street.

"When you landed yourself in that southern tip of Manhattan, you knew that you and everybody else were kind of doing the same thing," he recalls. "You were all in the financial services business of some kind."

Two traders argue after leaving the New York Stock Exchange March 15, 2001 after the closing bell. Before 9/11, almost half of the jobs here were in finance, insurance, and real estate, according to Downtown Alliance. Today, it's roughly a third.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Two traders argue after leaving the New York Stock Exchange March 15, 2001 after the closing bell. Before 9/11, almost half of the jobs here were in finance, insurance, and real estate, according to Downtown Alliance. Today, it's roughly a third.

Looking at Wall Street's past – and its future

Still, not every financial firm decided to move out of the neighborhood.

Ken Chenault, then the chairman and CEO of American Express, says a significant number of his colleagues wanted to move to another part of the city, or even out of New York altogether.

But to Chenault, the past was important: American Express has been based in Lower Manhattan since the 1850s. And he decided he wanted to be part of Wall Street's future, even if it would be drastically different from what he knew.

"I felt strongly that American Express could play an important role in the revitalization of Downtown New York," he says.

So American Express returned to its building on Vesey Street, across from One World Trade Center, back to the neighborhood it has called home for over a century.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.