Downtown owes its renaissance to many
heroes, from firefighters who perished on 9/11 to business moguls and ordinary
residents who never gave up on a district too many had left for dead.
Deserving a special place in the
pantheon is Liz Berger, the Downtown Alliance president since November 2007.
friend Liz died unacceptably young on Monday at age 53. She heroically battled
pancreatic cancer for years. But she was so resolute, so uncomplaining, that I
had no idea when I first met her she'd been ill, much less suffering from a
disease nearly always fatal.
A strong leader and a gracious lady,
she played an indispensable role in making what's now called FiDi the marvelous
place it's become. That tens of thousands of happy new residents cheerfully
co-exist with giant corporations in sky-piercing towers owes much to her
Liz lived with her family on Lower
Broadway for 30 years. Her love for the area counted for at least as much as
her prior experience in law, government and politics.
Maybe more than anyone, she "got"
downtown's uniquely commingled qualities of intimacy and majesty. Narrow
streets amidst mighty skyscrapers can sound intimidating to those who don't
live there, but Liz and the Alliance she led got the truth out. No wonder its
population nearly doubled on her watch.
Liz was frequently in the press, but
was careful not to reveal too much. The head of a business improvement district
is pressured on all sides by landlords, tenants, community boards, city
agencies and advocacy groups of every type. A few careless words can wreck an
effort requiring cooperation all around.
So Liz played it close to the vest in
public: "We are going to be the best game in town in 2010," as I quoted her in
2008, was a typical sound bite. But we who knew her understood her real
strength lay behind the scenes.
She was in the thick of the fight over
troubled projects and initiatives that have all had improbably happy endings:
the imminent completion (against all odds) of the Fulton Transit Center, the
luring of good stores downtown like Tiffany and Urban Outfitters, conversions
of old office buildings into modern apartments.
In the snake pit of World Trade Center
politics, Liz - lacking any statutory authority, but merely advocating for what
she deemed was the site's best interests - was the honest broker everyone
trusted. She lobbied tirelessly for commercial incentives to lure and retain
business downtown; today, its low office vacancy rate is the envy of most every
central business district in the US.
She brought her human touch to matters
great and small. No one did more than Liz to help residents and businesses to
recover from Hurricane Sandy.
She was a New Yorker to the core who
delighted in the city's nooks and crannies. The last time I saw her, at a new
Tribeca restaurant last year, she wanted to talk only about food.
Glowing in the company of her husband
and friends, she evinced the undimmed passion of the newly arrived young. I'll
remember her that way. So, I hope, will all of downtown's residents and workers
who owe so much to her indomitable spirit.