“We didn’t know where our people were...”
The 9/11 attacks haunted Century 21. The strike on the World Trade Center gutted the department store chain’s flagship location across from Ground Zero. Over the next couple of months, that site became a center for helpers who swarmed the nearby ruins, digging out the dead and trucking wreckage away.
Later, the Gindi family, which owns the chain, helped traumatized young people by backing summer programs for the Tuesday’s Children foundation, which helped survivors from conflict zones across the world travel to Bryn Mawr College for healing and educational programs.
That was before Century 21 opened a store here, in the heart of the old Strawbridge & Clothier store, anchoring the east end of what is now Fashion District Philadelphia at Eighth and Market. It is just down a few flights of stairs from the Inquirer newsroom (my desk is in the old linens department).
On Thursday the Gindis announced bankruptcy and a shutdown, driven by the coronavirus closings. “The decision follows nonpayment by the company’s insurance providers of approximately $175 million due under policies put in place to protect against losses stemming from business interruption such as that experienced as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” co-CEOs Raymond and I.G. Gindi said in a statement.
“While insurance money helped us to rebuild after suffering the devastating impact of 9/11, we now have no viable alternative but to begin the closure of our beloved family business because our insurers, to whom we have paid significant premiums every year for protection against unforeseen circumstances like we are experiencing today, have turned their backs on us at this most critical time.”
Insurers have warned that these kinds of decisions were coming, and no surprise: The lethal terrorist attack was an isolated event in a few limited areas; not so the virus shutdowns.
The way insurance works is, when everyone crashes at the same time, the underwriters can blame God and not pay. If they paid all the claims happening at once, they’d be broke. “Business interruption policies are not designed to cover pandemics,” and lawsuits trying to force insurers to pay have failed, points out Loretta Whorter of the Insurance Information Institute.
It’s the government’s job to fix national problems, and the latest coronavirus rescue has stalled in the Senate. Meanwhile, in the real world, bills pile up, and there comes a time when even powerful clans that built a common vision across generations say No More.
Back in the summer of 2014, I spoke with Eddie Gindi, a son of cofounder Sonny Gindi.
“It’s the only job I ever had,” said Gindi, then co-owner of the eight New York-area Century 21 department stores. They later expanded to 13, adding New Jersey and Florida sites, as well as Market Street East in the fall of 2014. The family made a big bet on bucking the department-store consolidation trend in the face of online shopping.
Gindi started working for his father and uncle, who founded Century 21, as a student in 1977. “Back then it was just two stores: Brooklyn Bay Ridge and Manhattan,” across from the World Trade Center, he said.
That store had been there since 1961, even before the towers. At first it was the size of a Philly rowhouse. They were "selling very cheap. But the vision they had was incredible,” Gindi said.
The World Trade Center rose across the street in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a shining symbol of the financial district. As PATH and Metro trains pumped in workday waves of traders, bankers and clerks, Century 21 spread into a neighboring Woolworth’s, a bank, and seven buildings, occupying 200,000 square feet.
“I had to break down a few walls. It was kind of a maze,” Gindi said.
Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, “I went up to the roof of our place in Brooklyn,” Gindi said. “I saw the second tower hit. The collapse.
“We didn’t know where our people were, where my brothers were,” he recalled. Store security got everyone out safely. But the chain’s flagship store “was completely destroyed.” Windows were blown out, fixtures shot, merchandise wrecked.
The company sent its downtown workers to outlying stores. “We were fully staffed,” Gindi said. “But we didn’t want to fire anybody.”
In the background, the claims adjusters came to help. Six months after, the Lower Manhattan store reopened, improved. No more maze.
Ten years later, the Gindis joined neighbors at the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Eddie Gindi saw the site’s ornamental pear tree, splintered in the attacks, now richly flowering. And he wrote a song about it, “The Survivor Tree,” for his band, the Men in My Head. We can use this to help someone, he thought.
Gindi approached Tuesday’s Children, the 9/11 survivors' nonprofit, whose Project Common Bond brings together survivors of terrorist attacks around the world, in hope of healing.
"I called their director, Terry Grace Sears, and said, ‘I want to help you raise some money, when can you meet?’ She said, ‘In about five minutes.’ "
He told his 9/11 stories and played his song, and cried.
Gindi put his CD on sale at Century 21. He said he raised $275,000 in six months “through a lot of hard work and real teamwork from both ends.”
He helped bring Common Bond to New York in 2013. “We greeted them and gave them some gifts and let them shop,” Gindi said. “They met guys in the band.”
The next year, Common Bond brought young people from Latin America, Africa, Israel, and the Palestinian territories to Bryn Mawr and held events for them, such as the Peace Olympics.
“I was so glad it was in Philadelphia, because we are coming to Philadelphia,” Gindi said at the time. “It must be some kind of good omen. We want to be part of the community there. Philadelphia is the right spot for us.”
It was for six years. Now the Strawbridge’s showrooms, like so many familiar properties, wait for their next bold entrepreneur, trying to guess what people want downtown, where so many paths cross, where so many visions have lingered, for a time.