A Pillar of the Community Considers His Next Chapter
Above: The beginnings of Battery Park City Below: Mr. Ouranitsas and his staff clearing snow after a blizzard in the mid-1990s
Behind the glittering facades of a neighborhood like Battery Park City lies a mass of invisible soft tissue—the web of relationships and personalities that comprises the beating heart of a thriving community.
For decades, one essential part of that collective flesh and blood has been Gus Ouranitsas, who has served as the superintendent of the Liberty Court condominium building, on Rector Place, since it finished construction in June, 1987.
“Once or twice, in the mid-1980s, I had come to visit friends who were living in Gateway Plaza,” Mr. Ouranitsas recalls, “and I was amazed by what I saw in Battery Park City. It was mostly open fields at the time, but Gateway was finished, along with part of South End Avenue. Some of the roads in the south had been laid out, like Albany Street and Rector Place, but not yet paved, and no buildings had been constructed there yet. What used to be called the World Financial Center,” the office and retail complex now known as Brookfield Place, “was still a construction site.”
“Even then,” he remembers, “I could see that this was about to grow into an amazing community, and I thought it would be wonderful to live here someday. A few years later, I was called to interview with a developer who was finishing a new residential building in the East 30s. The discussion went well, but they surprised me by offering a job not at the tower in Midtown, but for a new building they had just finished in Battery Park City.
“I was surprised and delighted,” Mr. Ouranitsas notes. “By June, 1987, Liberty House and Liberty Terrace were open at the end of Rector Place, overlooking the Esplanade. And Liberty Court,” at 200 Rector, “was just nearing completion.”
Mr. Ouranitsas (right) coaching one of the multiple soccer teams on which his three children played
“The first residents began moving in around November, and the building was nearly at full occupancy within a year,” he recalls. “In those days, there were no traffic lights anywhere in Battery Park City, because there wasn’t any traffic. And there was unlimited free parking on the streets. The only downside was that almost nothing was within walking distance — no supermarkets or restaurants.”
“In the fields south of Rector Place, they used to pitch a tent for Cirque du Soleil each summer, which was one of the few things that ever brought outsiders into Battery Park City in those days. But for the people who lived here, it was becoming a very close-knit community. I could feel that spirit almost from the first day.”
Mr. Ouranitsas threw himself into the job, working up to 15 hours per day, and often seven days per week, attending to the myriad tasks that crop up when a new building opens and hundreds of residents move in at the same time.
But in the early 1990s, he and his wife, Maria, found time to do something that many other households in Battery Park City were undertaking simultaneously: building a family. “Our son, Konstantine, was born in 1990,” Mrs. Ouranitsas recalls. “Our second son, Nestor, came in 1992, and our daughter, Marina, was born in 1996.”
“We were a typical Battery Park City household in the sense that everybody we knew was suddenly having kids,” she adds. “And the friendships that our children formed, first in the parks, and then in school, led to us becoming friends with those parents. Many of those attachments have turned into lifelong relationships.”
As the community grew in prominence, Mr. Ouranitsas received job offers to manage other buildings, elsewhere in Manhattan. “Some of them would have meant a lot more money,” he acknowledges, “but by that time, Battery Park City was our home, and we couldn’t imagine leaving. We knew that no other neighborhood would offer the same quality of life.”
In the late 1990s, as the first wave of children born in the community outgrew their strollers, “schools began opening nearby,” Mrs. Ouranitsas recalls. “Konstantine and Nestor were in the inaugural classes of the first and third grade of P.S. 89. By the time they were ready for middle school and high school, I.S. 289 and Millennium had opened. So we had 12 years of public education at great schools — all of them close enough to walk to.” Mrs. Ouranitsas would later serve with the Parent-Teacher Associations of all three schools, and eventually become the school secretary at a fourth — the Lower Manhattan Community School, on Broadway, near Bowling Green.
“All of those new schools really served as building blocks for the community,” she reflects, “helping to solidify the sense that this was a place where people came to build homes and families and lives.”
“I remember around that time, standing at West Street and West Thames Street in the evening,” he says, “and looking at the construction that was just being completed all around me. And I thought, ‘wow—this place is finally finished.’” That was September 10, 2001.
A photograph taken by Mr. Ouranitsas of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, from the top of the Rector Place building he managed, Liberty Court
“In Battery Park City,” her husband notes, “we got the chance to help build the community from the ground up. That would not have been possible anyplace else.” While Mrs. Ouranitsas was volunteering at local schools, he was coaching the multiple soccer teams for which his three children played. In the few spare moments that remained, Mr. Ouranitsas also presided over a local Boy Scout troop and was among the first volunteers on the Community Emergency Response Team. The couple would also preside over the annual holiday party at Liberty Court, personally catering it with home-cooked Greek delicacies.
The next morning, Mrs. Ouranitsas was volunteering at P.S. 89, “when I saw the first plane hit the North Tower,” she recalls. “So I called Gus immediately.”
“I got on a bike and headed to the school,” he says. “Maria and I helped organize the evacuation of the kids from the building. As Maria started to head uptown with the children, she looked at me and said, ‘okay, let’s go.’”
“I couldn’t go,” Mr. Ouranitsas remembers. “Once I knew that our kids were safe, I had to go back and take care of the building.” This translated into helping with the evacuation of residents, providing emergency aid and equipment, and securing the entrances to prevent vandalism.
“When the first tower collapsed,” he remembers, “I was in basement, and heard this rumble, which felt like an earthquake. When I came upstairs, the windows in the lobby had a view of blackout conditions on the streets outside.” By the time evening came, “the neighborhood that I had thought was complete 24 hours earlier had been transformed into a war zone.”
In the days that followed, Mr. Ouranitsas slept in the building and worked around the clock, helping homeowners who briefly returned to retrieve pets and essential belongings, while presiding over a skeleton crew of staff. “We went into every apartment to remove perishables from more than 500 refrigerators, because the power had been cut,” he says, “and shut off the gas in every unit.”
“Our building also had the only working generator,” he notes, “which meant that many dozens of first responders would come by at all hours to charge their radios and and phones. And the small amount of power we could generate also enabled me to rig up hot plates in the lobby, and begin cooking breakfast each day for the building staff who were working around the clock. For the first few days, this was essential, because there was no place nearby to get food. About a week later, a boat started pulling into North Cove each morning with supplies.”
When not occupied with readying Liberty Court for the return of residents, which would come a few months later, Mr. Ouranitsas also volunteered to help remove debris from the site of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church (where two of his children had been baptized), directly adjacent to the World Trade Center.
“We both always knew that this community would come back,” Mrs. Ouranitsas says. “It was too beautiful and had too much going for it for anything else to happen.”
Mr. and Mrs. Ouranitsas family, with their three grown children (from left): Nestor, Marina, and Konstantine
What they did not foresee, however, was the impact that Mr. Ouranitsas’s months of toil following September 11 would later have on their lives. In 2019, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with which he continues to struggle, and which recently forced him (with great reluctance) to announce his retirement, after 34 years of service.
“We definitely see a connection between my husband staying at the site for all those months and his current illness,” Mrs. Ouranitsas says, noting that pancreatic cancer is among the diseases identified as being directly related to exposure to toxins at or near the World Trade Center site.
As residents gradually returned to Liberty Court and surrounding buildings, “we were living each day wondering how we were going to get through this,” Mr. Ouranitsas recalls. “Each step was a milestone. When Picasso Pizza reopened, that was a big event. When the pharmacy next door came back, that was another reason to celebrate. It was the same when people could go back into the Winter Garden.”
“Even to this day,” he notes, “some of our closest friends are people who lived here before September 11, and then returned. We share a unique understanding of what that experience was like, and what the recovery meant to us.”
Asked to reflect on the biggest changes they have witnessed in three decades, Mr. Ouranitsas says, “this was once a solidly middle-class community. But today, the costs, driven by ground rent and payments in lieu of taxes, are making Battery Park City increasingly unaffordable for anyone but the very rich to live here.”
Mrs. Ouranitsas adds, “these costs make it very hard for people who have spent their working lives here, but are now retiring, to stay. It is devastating that older residents are being forced out. A lot of us have no desire to go to Florida.”
And Mr. Ouranitsas elaborates, “when they were young, our kids couldn’t wait to move out on their own. But now that they are adults, they appreciate the quality of life they grew up with, and would love to come back to start families of their own. The spiraling costs make this impossible, however.”
“But deciding to stay here for all of these years was definitely the right decision,” he muses. “This community was, and will always be, our home.”
BPCA Announces New Advisory Commission to Consult on Location and Design of Monument
The Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) announced Wednesday the formation of a Battery Park City Essential Workers Monument Advisory Committee, which will formulate recommendations on the design and location of a new memorial in Battery Park City.
This move comes in the wake of a month of controversy, which began on June 24, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he planned to create a monument located in Rockefeller Park to honor the service and sacrifice of New York’s essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more…
September 11 Survivors May Lose Rights to Compensation After Today’s Registration Cut-Off
There is a drop-dead date approaching for all individuals who may someday wish to file a claim with the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund (VCF). Such people are required to register by today, Thursday (July 29). This is a simple process, which can be completed in a few minutes, either online or over the telephone. Registering does not waive any legal rights, or commit you to filing a claim in the future. It merely preserves your legal right to file such a claim, if you someday choose to do so.
Those who must register by July 29 fall into two categories:
Anybody who was certified by the World Trade Center Health Program for a September 11-related physical health condition before July 29, 2019 must sign up.
Anyone planning to file a claim for an individual whom they believe died of a September 11-related physical health condition before July 29, 2019 must also register.
Dedicated to raising consciousness for social justice, activist, theologian, and musician Rev. Sekou brings passionate preaching to life through the language of Delta Blues. Free. Battery Park City Authority
Who Will Be Short Changed?
Local Leader Thinks Locally, Acts Nationally
New York is losing its voice, on the installment plan. From a peak of 45 seats in the House of Representatives (in the two decades preceding 1953), the Empire State has been gradually whittled down to 27 members of Congress.
In a reverse of the state motto of “Excelsior” (meaning “ever upward”), New York lost two seats each after each census in 1950, 1960, 1970, 2000, and 2010—plus five seats after 1980 and three seats after 1990. And now, after coming up 89 residents short in the 2020 census (in spite of a population that grew by almost five percent in the last decade), New York is slated to lose one more seat. But which one?
Hint: When the Department of Education Gives Its Word
Community leaders and education advocates are fuming over an apparent about-face by the City’s Department of Education (DOE), which has backed away from a 2016 promise about the design of the new public elementary school on Trinity Place, in the Financial District (slated to open in September, 2022).
As Tricia Joyce, chair of the Youth and Education Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1) explained at the Board’s June 22 meeting, “the School Construction Authority and the DOE gave a presentation to Community Education Council that included the design of the new school, and it showed gymnatorium.”
Construction Milestones and Hiring Mark Progress Toward Planned Arts Venue at World Trade Center
Lower Manhattan is two steps closer to the 2023 debut of its next great amenity. The Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, at the World Trade Center, topped off the 138-foot structure in June, and the organization has hired a Director of Civic Alliances, who will cultivate relationships with community-based organizations, public housing residents, community boards, immigrant groups, cultural institutions and elected officials.
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Lower Manhattan residents once again have access to the ever-popular weekend summer ferry to Red Hook.
Provided by NY Waterway, the free service is nominally about providing access to Ikea, but also offers the bonus of a slew of waterfront restaurants and parks within walking distance of the furniture store.
The service departs from two Downtown locations (Pier 11/Wall Street and the Battery Park City ferry terminal) starting at 11:00 am.
The Battery Park City Authority asks that the public not interact with or feed the urban wildlife in the neighborhood’s parks and green spaces, and at the waterfront.
9/11 Victim Compensation Fund Report
More Survivors than Responders Now are Submitting Claims
The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) has released its annual report for 2020, which documents some significant developments.
Over the course of its ten years of operation thus far, the VCF has awarded $7.76 billion to more than 34,400 individuals who have suffered death or personal injury as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. The vast majority of these injuries take the form of illness caused by exposure to toxic materials that were released by the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Tribeca Sailing offers two-hour private sailing charters of the Harbor, setting sail five times each day, seven days a week. Captain David Caporale, the owner and captain of Tribeca Sailing and a Lower Manhattan resident, also offers private sailing charters for a maximum of six passengers, for those having a staycation, or celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. His sailboat, Tara, is a 1964 custom Hinckley Pilot 35. Hinckleys are noted as a Rolls Royce of sailboats, based on their solid construction, the artistry of the wood trim, and other design features. For more information or to book a sail, contact David Caporale 917-593-2281 or David@Tribecasailing.com
TODAY IN HISTORY
David Richard Berkowitz, also known as ‘Son of Sam’ began his killing spree on this date in 1976. Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images
238 – The Praetorian Guard storm the palace and capture Pupienus and Balbinus. They are dragged through the streets of Rome and executed. On the same day, Gordian III, age 13, is proclaimed emperor, the sixth emperor of the year.
1148 – The Siege of Damascus ends in a decisive crusader defeat and leads to the disintegration of the Second Crusade.
1818 – French physicist Augustin Fresnel submits his prizewinning “Memoir on the Diffraction of Light”, precisely accounting for the limited extent to which light spreads into shadows, and thereby demolishing the oldest objection to the wave theory of light.
1836 – Inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.
1871 – The Connecticut Valley Railroad opens between Old Saybrook and Hartford, Connecticut
1914 – The Cape Cod Canal opens.
1932 – Great Depression: In Washington, D.C., troops disperse the last of the “Bonus Army” of World War I veterans.
1948 – Olympic Games: The Games of the XIV Olympiad: After a hiatus of 12 years caused by World War II, the first Summer Olympics to be held since the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, open in London.
1957 – The Tonight Show – Tonight Starring Jack Paar premieres on NBC with Jack Paar beginning the modern day talk show.
1976 – In New York City, David Berkowitz (a.k.a. the “Son of Sam”) kills one person and seriously wounds another in the first of a series of attacks.
From the DAILY NEWS archive:
“What made the difference in the end was Berkowitz’s compulsion to harass his neighbors with anonymous notes, one of whom claimed his dog had been shot with the same kind of gun used by the serial killer. When another neighbor returned home to find a fire near his apartment, he alerted the police, who realized that this was a pattern in Berkowitz’s behavior. They figured out his car make and license number, and began to look at him as a potential suspect in the case:
[The] tip that broke the case … came from Cacilia Davis, 49, a terrified woman who told a belated story to New York police. Davis, who lives near the Gravesend Bay site where Stacy Moskowitz was killed, said she was walking her dog Snowball near her apartment at 2:30 a.m. on the night of the murder. A young man “who walked strange, like a cat” approached her on the sidewalk, looked directly into her face, then passed. She said he held his right arm down stiffly, as though he were carrying something partly up his sleeve. Five minutes later she heard shots and the wail of a car horn. Next day, learning of the double shooting, she was certain the passing stranger had been the killer. When detectives questioned her, she recalled another vital detail: she had seen a cop tagging a cream-colored car parked illegally near a fire hydrant one block from the murder site.
Incredibly, Berkowitz, who had so cleverly eluded police for so long, had used his own properly registered 1970 Ford Galaxie sedan as his getaway car for each attack, not bothering even to acquire stolen license plates. When New York police checked parking tickets for the murder night in the Gravesend neighborhood, they found one issued to Berkowitz; it led to his Yonkers address. They wondered: What was a Yonkers resident doing 25 miles away in Brooklyn at 2:30 a.m.?”
1981 – A worldwide television audience of over 700 million people watch the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
2005 – Astronomers announce their discovery of the dwarf planet Eris.
1801 – George Bradshaw, English cartographer and publisher (d. 1853)
1805 – Alexis de Tocqueville, French historian and philosopher (d. 1859)
1883 – Benito Mussolini, Italian fascist revolutionary and politician, 27th Prime Minister of Italy (d. 1945)
1905 – Dag Hammarskjцld, Swedish economist and diplomat, 2nd Secretary-General of the United Nations, Nobel Prize Laureate (d. 1961)
1930 – Paul Taylor, American dancer and choreographer (d. 2018)
1108 – Philip I of France (b. 1052)
1974 – Cass Elliot, American singer (b. 1941)
1981 – Robert Moses, American urban planner, designed the Northern State Parkway and Southern State Parkway (b. 1888)