The Sky Deck of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) now teems with 4,000 tourists a day. Vacancy rates soared after 9/11.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Road from 9/11: Chicago brawls its way past fear

  • Article by: CURT BROWN
  • Star Tribune
  • September 9, 2011 - 4:24 PM

CHICAGO -- Gingerly at first, then with more resolve, they step out into a reinforced glass box jutting from the 103rd floor of the nation's tallest skyscraper.

They marvel at the view of Lake Michigan arcing into the eastern horizon, the canyon of high-rises, far-off factories and yellow taxis scurrying like insects 1,353 feet straight down below their shoes.

Melissa Paretti grins as her 8-year-old twin boys and their 7-year-old sister sprawl on the clear glass floor of the Sky Deck atop the Willis Tower, seemingly floating in space. But her smile masks a smidgen of anxiety.

"I saw an airplane and, in the back of my mind, I started thinking: How would I get my three kids out of here if something happened?'' she says. "I started looking around for exits and got a little nervous."

The top of this building most still refer to as the Sears Tower is a good place to take the pulse of Chicago a decade after Sept. 11. A scrappy town, rich in ethnic flavors and enclaves, it typifies a nation regaining its balance after our generation's equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

Everyone was evacuated from the city's tallest buildings that sun-splashed day a decade ago, amid fears that terrorists might turn planes toward Midwestern targets. Courthouses were shuttered and thousands of displaced office workers wandered aimlessly in the downtown Loop.

In the years that followed, vacancy rates soared as skittish tenants retreated to lower office space or fled to the suburbs. As recently as 2008, nearly one-quarter of the massive tower's 3.4 million square feet of office space sat empty. Most of the ground floor retail, including Bonwit Teller department store, was boarded up.

Fast-forward to today.

The Willis Group, a London insurer, assessed the risks and felt safe enough to lease 140,000 square feet and wrest the formal naming rights of the building in 2009. United Airlines, which lost two jets to the 9/11 hijackers, announced this summer that it was gobbling up 12 floors, moving in 1,300 additional workers by the end of next year. That's knocked the vacancy rate down around 10 percent at the 1,450-foot Willis Tower. It soon will be eclipsed as the tallest building in the western hemisphere when One World Trade Center rises to a patriotic 1,776 feet where the twin towers once stood.

The Willis Sky Deck teems with 4,000 tourists a day, zooming toward a record 1.5 million annual visitors. One of them, Joe Lopez of Dallas, is leading a church group of 30 middle-schoolers, who tiptoe onto the Ledge, exhale and start squealing.

"You can't live in fear -- once you start doing that, it's mission accomplished for the bad guys," says Lopez, 67.

Near misses

Learning to get on with life in Chicago -- and around the country -- comes with the reality that constant vigilance now has to be part of the daily routine.

That's not just theoretical for Chicago. It may not have been attacked on Sept. 11, but it has been a terrorist target since, though unsuccessfully. Last October, two explosive packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues were seized aboard cargo jets.

The city has made some bold moves to stay a step ahead of terrorists. In 2003, insisting that the 55-year-old, lake-hugging Meigs Field Airport near the Loop jeopardized his citizens, former Mayor Richard Daley bucked federal aviation authorities and ordered city bulldozers to demolish it. After Osama bin Laden's death last spring, security ratcheted up when hints of future Al-Qaida plans, potentially tied to the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, surfaced in his compound in Pakistan.

"There was never a credible threat on the Willis Tower," FBI spokesman Ross Rice reassured reporters in May. But in the next breath he added that the city's big size, central location, infrastructure and tall buildings heighten concerns.

It's easy to wander this city and stumble across signs of the range of Sept. 11's effects. On the North Side, along Devon Avenue, new halal butcher shops catering to displaced Iraqis are sandwiched between older sari stores and Hindu groceries. Near O'Hare Airport, a luxury travel accessories business retooled and now makes accessories for travelers facing a gantlet of security checks.

On the Chicago River, Leah Barsanti, 19, is leading boat tours of Chicago's architecture before returning to college in St. Louis, where she studies theater. With her hair pulled tight in a ponytail and bullhorn at the ready, she points out Ludwig Mies van der Rohe buildings and the site of Abraham Lincoln's 1860 presidential nomination as the boat slices through the Loop's labyrinth.

But the shadow of Sept. 11 is not far away. In her off hours, Barsanti is busy writing a play about a homeless teen and a prostitute living on the streets of New York City after the planes hit the towers.

Her entire life has played out against the backdrop of those attacks. Barsanti remembers teachers crying in school that day and her father's Egyptian friend getting spat upon in the airport a few weeks later. She has thought long and hard about Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

"Every vastly different emotion that everyone felt that day intensified parts of themselves," she says. "Whether it was guilt, government distrust, blind patriotism or racism."

After all the emotion wore off, she says, "we were left more alone than ever ... looking at people who saw things differently as if from the opposite side of a gulf, legitimizing ourselves above the other because we were grieving for a messed-up world."

She also remembers the kindness of her aunt in New Jersey, who invited firefighters right into the house to wash away the sweat and grime after the attacks. "We have managed to rise out of the ashes of the twin towers with a newfound appreciation for the brief moments of togetherness and understanding that do occur," she says.

All that from a woman who was 10 when the terrorists struck.

Global displacement

Omar Al-Badri is twice her age.

He can be found three flights up in a once-regal apartment with an Arabic soap opera blaring from the television. In the kitchen, he brews mud-thick Iraqi coffee.

His sons -- Kahattab, 14, and Al-Farooq, 12 -- attend nearby Daniel Boone Elementary School. What do they know about Boone? They shrug, giggle and say, "He's dead."

Their Chicago digs are a far cry from the family's spacious, fenced compound in Baghdad, where the Al-Badris had lived for generations. There were three nice cars in the garage there. But he fled after insurgents planted a bomb in the driveway in 2006. The cars were destroyed, but no one was hurt. Al-Badri thinks his work as a linguist, assisting the Red Cross and U.S. forces, put his family in jeopardy.

"It was not my goal to come to the United States," says Al-Badri, decked out in a bright orange dress shirt. He sips coffee from a tiny, porcelain cup and goes out on the fire escape landing to smoke a cigarette. "But this is my home now and I'm trying to build a good life for my kids."

He found a job as a case worker at a center for new immigrants. His parents also were uprooted from Iraq and live in Jordan. His wife is visiting relatives in Syria.

Al-Badri is a reminder that the 9/11 attacks -- and the wars that followed -- have displaced more than just Americans.

Around the corner, Devon Avenue has long been one of the first places immigrants get a taste of American commerce. In a sudden downpour, people duck in the doorway of a Georgian bakery that also has deep tandoori ovens for its non-Russian customers. Once crowded with Jewish delis, the influx along Devon is now from India, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and, increasingly, Iraq. More than 10,000 Iraqis have resettled in Chicago.

"My father said back in 1991 that America will come for Saddam [Hussein] and 9/11 was just an excuse, a lie really," Al-Badri says. "Because of George Bush, I am here. Now, all I can do is work hard and pay my taxes."

He keeps a foot in both worlds. His sons are learning English, but he insists they speak Arabic at home so they will grow up bilingual. From his apartment, he runs a Facebook page called "Iraq We Love You."

It has more than 50,000 "Likes."

Ingenuity and attitude

Chicago's dust-yourself-off moxie is embodied in Don Godshaw.

In 2008, he was paralyzed from the waist down in a ski accident in Aspen, Colo. A few years later, despite needing a wheelchair to get around, he was back atop the same mountain, skiing down with a specially adapted mono-ski.

He retooled his business life in much the same spirit after Sept. 11. While other business owners reeled from shock, Godshaw seized an opportunity.

His company near O'Hare, Travelon, specialized in high-end luggage and briefcases. When the travel industry was knocked to its knees after the four hijacked planes turned into missiles, he wasted no time.

"We retooled fast and scrapped our entire high-end line," said a cocksure Godshaw.

In the days just after Sept. 11, travelers were required to show identification multiple times before boarding planes. Godshaw's company patented neck wallets to display IDs and stash boarding passes so they didn't have to be fished from purses and pockets at every security checkpoint.

As federal safety officials layered on more security, Godshaw responded with one-quart bags with re-usable bottles to comply with liquid restrictions. His firm now sells tiny strips akin to breath fresheners that turn into tooth paste, shampoo, laundry soap or shaving cream in your palm when you add a little water. Travelon was among the first companies to offer hand-held baggage scales in response to luggage weight limits

"The terrorists' main objective was to disrupt the U.S. economy," says Godshaw, 59. "If we don't go forward with caution, they win. If we stay static and don't innovate, we're through."

Godshaw's research and development designers are tinkering with new, smaller accessories. His company has grown from 22 employees to 40 after Sept. 11, even as several larger travel companies went belly up.

"When you love what you do," Godshaw says, "you stick with it and kind of dig in." He was referring to finding a way to ski again after his paralyzing injury.

But he might as well have been talking about Chicago, from its tallest tower to its newest émigré, shaking itself off, regaining its bearings, plunging ahead.


Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

where America stands a decade later

where America stands a decade later

As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches, reporter Curt Brown and photographer Jerry Holt travel from Minnesota to ground zero, exploring the ways that day altered America.

Sunday: In the Twin Cities, living in a post- 9/11 world.

Today: Reconciling pride and grief in Iowa.

Today: Fading fears in Chicago, atop the nation's tallest skyscraper.

Wednesday: Into America's most intensely Muslim city, Dearborn, Mich.

Thursday: Near Shanksville, Pa., a return to rural tranquility is elusive.

Friday: At ground zero, as a memorial rises, what endures?

Read previous installments and view more photos and video at or on our new iPad app.

© 2018 Star Tribune