By Sonja Sharp
Special to DNAinfo
LOWER MANHATTAN — The first time Joannitte Rodriguez walked past her childhood friend Mario Santoro, she didn’t see him. The second time, she burst into tears.
“I wasn’t expecting to feel like this,” she said, waving her hand over her face as she looked back over her shoulder, where her sister Yesenia, 38, had just found his name among the first responders at the 9/11 Memorial.
They were seeing it for the first time.
Like Santoro, an off-duty EMT whose name sits beside others who died on 9/11, Joannitte, 35, and her family all hail from the Lower East Side. They were among a few thousand residents of Lower Manhattan who accepted New York Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s invitation to visit the memorial on Sunday evening, in recognition of the special burden this swath of the city has borne in the decade since the attacks.
“The community has suffered as a result of the rebuilding effort,” Silver told reporters at the site. “I think it’s important for them to see the result of their suffering.”
Gabriella Czarnobay, 23, didn’t spend much time suffering — she’s only lived in the neighborhood for a year. Still, she said she was curious about the new landmark she could see from the window of her Battery Park City apartment and appreciated the opportunity to check it out up close.
“It’s different than what I thought it would be, but it’s beautiful,” she said.
Many residents were visibly overcome with emotion at the site. Some struggled to find friends in the memorial’s unique layout — the Rodriguez family said they used an iPhone app — while others simply snapped a few shots to remember the day.
“I broke down,” said Lower East Side resident Debbie Cox. “It was very emotional, but I’m glad I got to come here and pay my respects.”
For Rosa Gonzalez, a longtime South Street residents who lost friends in the attacks and suffered through the reconstruction, finally seeing the memorial in person brought a measure of comfort.
“It’s bigger than what I expected,” Gonzalez said. “I feel a lot of peace here."