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Four Small Business Owners Who Stayed Put After 9/11

By Julie Shapiro on September 10, 2011 10:36am 

Suellen Epstein started Children's Tumbling in her Murray Street loft in 1978.
Suellen Epstein started Children's Tumbling in her Murray Street loft in 1978.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

LOWER MANHATTAN — By the summer of 2001, business was finally picking up at the Battery Park Veterinary Hospital.

Veterinarian Mark Burns had opened the practice in early 2000 after noticing more residents — and more pets — on the previously underpopulated streets of the neighborhood. The practice grew slowly at first, but by its second year it had a roster of regular clients, many who already knew Burns from his TriBeCa and West Village locations.

Then, on Sept. 11, the World Trade Center collapsed four blocks away.

Dust and ash filled the South End Avenue clinic. The fires at Ground Zero burned for months, infusing the air with a penetrating stench. Clients and their pets moved away, and new ones did not replace them.

"I probably should have closed the practice," Burns, 64, said recently. "There were not enough people left. But I didn't."

While many Downtown businesses shut their doors for good after 9/11, hundreds more managed to survive, or even flourish. And each year, dozens of new businesses have opened, seeing opportunity where some saw only destruction.

Burns reopened the Battery Park Veterinary Hospital in early October 2001, after cleaning out the small 800-square-foot space and replacing thousands of dollars of refrigerated vaccines and medications he lost when the power went out.

"I had people tell me I was crazy," said Burns, who lives in Stamford with his wife and three children. "But we're committed to our clients and our pets. I believed in the long run, everything [would] be fine."

The quiet practice hobbled along for the next few years, supported by income from the West Village and TriBeCa locations, until, in the spring of 2004, the clientele finally reached pre-9/11 levels.

Since then, the neighborhood has added thousands of new residents, increasing demand so much that Burns is now planning to open a fourth location later this year in Southbridge Towers.

"The alternative is unthinkable," Burns said when asked why he kept his business in lower Manhattan. "We're established here. We have people who depend on us."

Ten years after 9/11, Burns still clearly remembers watching with horror as the attacks unfolded on his TV, then wrangling his way into a smoking lower Manhattan at 4 a.m. Sept. 12 to ensure that all the animals under his care were safe.

He also remembers a moment three weeks later, when several firefighters entered his office carrying a tiny white kitten they had found in the rubble at Ground Zero.

Burns realized the kitten must have been born within a few days of 9/11. He named her Zero and decided to bring her home. This week, Zero will celebrate her 10th birthday.

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When Suellen Epstein opened Children's Tumbling in TriBeCa in 1978, the neighborhood was known more for artists than kids.

But Epstein, an aerial dancer, noticed that there were no other children's gyms south of 23rd Street, and soon she was drawing two-dozen students a week to classes in her Murray Street loft.

Epstein didn't just teach forward rolls and back handsprings — she also took her students on imaginative journeys through outer space and invited them to make-believe balls, infusing all lessons with a playfulness that won over her young students.

As TriBeCa grew, so did Children's Tumbling, and by the late 1990s Epstein was teaching 150 students a week, with all of the classes booked solid.

She was flying home from Venice on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and watched the World Trade Center collapse on an airport TV. It was weeks before she saw the inside of her loft, every surface coated in layers of gray dust.

Many families had already paid Epstein deposits to hold their place in fall classes. Some demanded their money back. Others had moved out of lower Manhattan or left the city altogether.

"I wondered if I was going to keep going," Epstein said. "But the clients asked me to do it."

Epstein cleaned out her loft and started classes in late November, with just a third as many students as the year before.

Children's Tumbling hosted its first post-9/11 birthday party that December, and as the children played, their parents greeted each other with prolonged hugs, relieved at even a partial return to normalcy.

"We were many of us just on the verge of tears to have that happen," Epstein said of the party.

In the years since then, as TriBeCa rebounded dramatically, the neighborhood's baby boom has been a mixed blessing for Epstein.

On the one hand, there are more children Downtown than ever before. On the other hand, there are also more children's programs, from chains like Gymboree to newcomers backed with hundreds of thousands of dollars of private investment, like Exerblast.

Now, after a recession that didn't help matters, Epstein expects just 70 students-a-week this fall. This past summer, she had 30 students a week rather than her usual 60.

"It's exciting to see the neighborhood grow and it's exciting to see people have choices they never had before, but a lot of the choices are aimed for their kids to be super stars to get into the right college," Epstein said.

"I just don't see these kids truly taking a breath and having some fun."

So Epstein will continue offering her imaginative classes, often to students whose parents she taught 30 years ago. After all that has happened, she feels lucky to spend her days playing with children and absorbing their laughter.

"I'm very proud of what I've done and how I've endured," Epstein said. "I'm just going to keep going as long as I can."

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One of the most successful Downtown entrepreneurs over the past 10 years is Peter Poulakakos, who has launched more than half-a-dozen new restaurants since 9/11 and has several more on the way.

Poulakakos' roots in the neighborhood run deep, through his father, Harry, a Greek immigrant who opened his first restaurant, Harry's at Hanover Square, in 1972.

Poulakakos grew up working in Harry's and Bayard's, his family's Downtown restaurants. During the summer of 2001, Poulakakos was planning his first solo venture: a French bistro and pastry shop in the Financial District.

After the terror attacks, Poulakakos didn't just put his plans on hold — he also wondered if his father's restaurants could keep their doors open, with the neighborhood in ashes and hundreds of customers killed.

"My dad was a big inspiration," Poulakakos said. "He said, 'We will bounce back. It's just a matter of time, but there's no way it's not going to happen.' We just held onto what he was saying. And he was right."

Poulakakos finally opened his French pastry shop in December 2002 on Stone Street. Called Financier Patisserie, the cafe was not the full bistro Poulakakos had envisioned, but the fresh-roasted coffee and decadent cakes were just what the neighborhood needed.

Financier Patisserie soon added two more locations on Cedar Street and in the World Financial Center and now has 11 outposts across Manhattan.

But Poulakakos kept his focus on Stone Street, turning a quiet cobblestone block into the center of Downtown's dining scene by opening Ulysses', Adrienne's Pizza Bar, Vintry Wine & Whiskey and a rebooted Harry's Cafe and Steak. On warm afternoons and evenings, the outdoor seating is packed with bankers, tourists and residents, all the individual conversations merging into a happy din.

This fall, Poulakakos — who lives in Battery Park City with his wife and year-old son — plans to open the dog-themed Growler Bites and Brews on Stone Street and the classic Harry's Italian in Battery Park City. He is also working on an oyster bar and catering hall at lower Manhattan's Pier A.

After 9/11, Poulakakos initially mourned for the Downtown neighborhood, which had been on the rise but which seemed irreversibly decimated.

"Now I wonder how much farther ahead we'd be [if 9/11 hadn't happened], and I think the gap has closed," Poulakakos said. "Everyone's hard work has paid off."

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Among the many changes in lower Manhattan in the years following 9/11, one of the biggest happened on Front Street between Beekman Street and Peck Slip — a quiet block just a few steps from the South Street Seaport — that has become Downtown's version of Restaurant Row.

One of the first pioneers to invest in Front Street was Claudio Marini, an Italian immigrant and restaurateur who opened Barbarini, a restaurant and market, in 2006.

"Now [Front Street] is becoming a destination place, but at the time, it was like, 'Where are you?'" Marini recalled recently.

"We were only the second store on the block. It was winter. This area was like Siberia."

Marini, 47, built his clientele slowly, stocking imported Italian foods that no one else carried and memorizing customers' names and tastes. Marini treats both regulars and newcomers like family, greeting them with a wide grin and relaxed banter.

As the block gradually filled with other restaurants, Marini decided 2 ½ years ago that it was time to expand. He took over an adjacent space, greatly increasing the size of his market and adding a dining space with sky lights.

Marini — who likes to joke that Mario Batali stole his market-restaurant concept to create Eataly — said his business has grown each year. The growth slowed during the recession as corporate clients dropped their accounts, but still, sales continued to climb.

The transformation of Front Street, and of lower Manhattan as a whole, is something Marini could not have imagined 10 years ago, as he fled his TriBeCa home while the Twin Towers thundered to the ground behind him.

Marini and his wife could not return to their home for three months. When they finally got back, like many Downtown couples, they focused on rebuilding their lives. Two years after 9/11, they had twins, Federica and Sebastiano, followed by a daughter, Camilla, three years later.

Marini said the gradual revival of lower Manhattan was a lot like the painstaking process of building his restaurant.

"Like a farmer when you plant seeds — that's what we did," Marini said. "Every year has been a better year, little by little."

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