09/11/2013 08:36 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

12 Years Later

Among the jumble of thoughts, images and demons swirling around my brain on that terrible day 12 years ago was the notion that the Manhattan skyline, as familiar to me as the back of my hand, was forever changed. Somehow, Manhattan without the Twin Towers wasn't Manhattan at all. Now there was a giant hole in the map, and, like all of us, I struggled to adjust.

Fast forward: Today is September 11, 2013, and the contours of Manhattan have changed again. The Freedom Tower soars skyward. The streets are thronged with shoppers, workers, vendors, tourists. From river to river, from the Battery north to 14th Street, lower Manhattan vibrates with movement, commerce and life.

For me, and for the thousands of men and women who spend much of their waking hours on the Chambers Street campus of BMCC, the renewal of lower Manhattan has deeply personal implications. That's because the attack that felled the Twin Towers also destroyed our much-used classroom building, Fiterman Hall. It was eight years almost to the day following the gift of that building by Miles and Shirley Fiterman and only six weeks from completion of a major renovation. With that catastrophic act, BMCC lost 70 classrooms and computer labs, an art gallery and a third of its total instructional space.

It was the second week of September; the academic year was just getting under way. The months and years that followed were difficult for us, as they were for so many. We closed the school for three weeks; later, we carved up the college and taught classes in trailers. But once BMCC reopened, it stayed open -- and our enrollment soared from 16,700 students in 2001 to 24,000 today. Meanwhile, we continued to rebuild.

Last year at this time, a new Fiterman Hall opened its doors at 245 Greenwich Street -- the original site of Kings College, later to become Columbia University. Just as the original Fiterman Hall enlarged and transformed BMCC's physical plant, its namesake has taken us even further -- a striking, state-of-the-art masterwork that houses an art gallery, 65 classrooms, 35 computer labs, 130 offices for faculty, library spaces, atriums, open stairways, and several large assembly and performance rooms. The building's multi-story glass atriums and circular stairways are visible through the glass façade from the street -- signaling that Fiterman Hall, like the college of which it is part, is open to the community.

It's a beautiful building, an inspiring building -- 400,000 square feet of space housed in a structure just 16 stories high. Amidst the concrete and steel canyons of Lower Manhattan, those are just dimensions. But for me, Fiterman Hall is the skyline of Lower Manhattan -- a towering symbol of generosity, resilience and hope that stands tall among the surrounding giants.

Antonio Pérez, President
Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY