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9/11 Memorial: Ground Zero as Dark Tourist Site

• September 05, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Visitors are expected to flock to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum when it opens, even as memories of that day fade away.

New York’s ground zero, where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once stood, is a place of what was and what will be. Ten years after terrorists flew planes into the buildings, the memories of what had been are fading into the dust of time and new construction.

Chaos mixes with normality, pilings are driven into the ground, steel clatters as new structures rise. Bicyclists whiz past briefcase-toting commuters, both groups oblivious to curious onlookers straining to see through slits in the construction fences. These are the ground zero pilgrims, numbering daily in the thousands, many never having seen the towers when they existed.

As a New Yorker, I have my own memories of the towers and their destruction — from my sister having the good fortune of running late for work that morning at the World Financial Center across the street, to four days later, photographing and working on a ground zero cleanup crew with my then-brother-in-law, a New Jersey police officer. This was my first time — and last, I hope — digging for dead bodies in rubble, in what was in essence a war zone within my own city.

The experience vastly altered the direction of my travel writing — inspiring me to cover culture and tourism within the war zones the U.S. found itself in soon after — Afghanistan and Iraq — along with other countries in and out of conflict across the globe. Virtually every Sept. 11, I return to ground zero and photograph crowds. Last year, tension over the planned construction of Park51, the nearby Muslim community center, offered engaging photographic opportunities, demonstrating how ground zero remains a volatile touchpoint for many Americans.

Still, while the location and its associations have long pulled me back, I had never given much thought to how tourists visit ground zero and learn the stories of Sept. 11.

September-October 2011 To visit New York’s ground zero is clearly a different experience from Times Square or Central Park. It is what is called “thanatourism,” or “death” or “dark” tourism — the visiting of sites associated with death. It’s a relatively new field of tourism research, but the idea has long been with us. Perhaps the most famous dark tourism site is Poland’s Auschwitz, where the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews and others. In the United States, they include now deceptively tranquil battlefields, such as Gettysburg, or the wave-lapped U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

Dark tourism, says New York University professor Brigitte Sion, is “about going to a place where something terrible happened, usually mass death.”

While the idea of hallowing ground where many people or particularly important people have perished is ancient, formal academic study of dark tourism began with British researchers John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who published the 2000 book Dark Tourism. In April 2010, the Dark Tourism conference was held at NYU, organized by Sion and sponsored by Transitions, A Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Sept. 11 was an important focus at the conference, which drew academics from a variety of fields. Sion explained, “Dark tourism is important for academia because it offers interdisciplinary analysis — not only for scholars of tourism, hospitality or hotel management, but to sociologists, anthropologists, art historians, historians, media analysts, memory experts and many others.”

Conference attendees lectured on sites in Argentina, Chile, Vietnam, the United States, Europe and other locations. As an adjunct professor at NYU, I presented on Halabja in Kurdish Iraq, the site of a memorial museum commemorating the nearly 5,000 people who died in a 1988 chemical bombing ordered by Saddam Hussein. Survivors serve as guides, and the structure reminds young Kurds what the older generation endured before the creation of the no-fly zone after the first Gulf War. The memorial also has a political purpose: It’s an indirect plea to the global community explaining that Kurds, the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland, have suffered vast indignities and deserve independence.

Multiple meanings for monuments associated with death are common. Sion, who is writing her own dark tourism book, says such sites face issues from becoming centers for political celebration, as happened at ground zero with Osama bin Laden’s death, to sanitizing events. “One of the big issues that the 9/11 memorial is facing is the fear that the museum displays might traumatize or re-traumatize visitors,” she says.

Because of this, she explains, “the architecture of absence is now the model” for most dark tourism sites.

Absence is clearly an overriding draw of ground zero, the emptiness representing the physical destruction of two 110-story structures, once the world’s most recognizable skyscrapers.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum, with its two separate but linked features, marks this absence and gives visitors an idea of what has been lost.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Seven stories underground, in what had been the foundation of the Twin Towers, I’m standing with Clifford Chanin, senior program adviser and acting director of education for the 9/11 memorial. Sporting hard hats with the museum’s logos, we’ll see granite-encased steel beams resembling ancient castle ruins, the concrete slurry wall that once held back the Hudson, even the rusted steel squares that anchored the buildings into Manhattan’s ancient bedrock.

Chanin looks at the dust-filled space surrounding us, the din of the equipment above muffled by the endless concrete. “The museum architecture is going to be the unexpected discovery of the visit. I don’t think people will realize until they get here how the volume of the towers is encompassed.”

When the museum opens on Sept. 11, 2012, it will hold 120,000 square feet of exhibition space under the eight acres once occupied by the Twin Towers and their plaza. Some 1,500 visitors an hour are expected once it’s in operation. The memorial — two black squares in the footprints of the towers — is expected to open this Sept. 11.

Those black squares are reverse fountains — water flowing down into the ground, edges marked with the names of the nearly 3,000 killed.

Chanin gestures beyond my shoulder to an enormous square jutting from the ceiling. It’s still unfinished, wiring and other construction bits still hanging from it. These are the continuations of the pools above us.

“The intent is to create this hovering presence of the towers in the museum,” Chanin says, asking me to look around two corners. They seem to go on forever in the dim underground lighting, a rippling sheen from metal framework marking its dimensions. “That is essentially the length of the Twin Towers,” he says, his arms outstretched. It tugs at my memory, but I recall not the building’s exterior but the vast lobby — a modern, brilliantly lit space covered in white stone, metal and glass, a 1970s Space Odyssey cathedral.

Chanin continues, “This will give some sense of what it is, what was lost.” Here, underground, more than in the daylight at the black pools, I feel the buildings. Near where we are standing, Chanin tells me a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid will be posted: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Perhaps nothing brings the Twin Towers and their destruction more to life than a visit with those who once worked in them.

On a warm Saturday before Father’s Day, I join 20 visitors for a ground zero tour with Chris Hardej. A jolly, 51-year-old Brooklyn native with a thick accent, he’s palpably excited. We’ve all met at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, also a mix of memorial and museum, this one started on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 by the families of those who were killed. So far, it’s been seen by more than 2.2 million visitors.

“People went around the site and needed information,” Hardej tells us. “There are people with direct connections to 9/11, whether they be retired firefighters, somebody who lives in the neighborhood, somebody who was a volunteer, or even someone who survived 9/11. And what the Tribute Center does is it brings both of us together, such that it keeps the memory of 9/11 alive.”

Our group is largely from the South; a few are children. “How many people actually saw the Twin Towers prior to Sept. 11?” Hardej asks. Just a few raise their hands.

Hardej brings working at the towers to life, even joking about the sway of toilet water in the bathrooms of Tower 1’s 82nd floor, where he worked for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. He talks about the underground shopping complex and the lobby’s airline ticket counters, prompting my own flood of memories.

He pauses. “You really don’t know what you’re missing until obviously you don’t have that place to work anymore.” Here he begins to tell us about that day — the feel of the planes hitting the towers, the expressions of the firefighters as they move up the emergency stairwells while Hardej and his co-workers move down. He talks about a woman burned, “coming down like a mummy,” and how his boss grabbed her, making her scream in pain.

It’s here that the audience begins to understand. They are mesmerized, ground zero in view behind Hardej through an enormous glass window of the World Financial Center. Hardej’s neck and face redden, his voice stumbling, as he says, “We saw a sight that you really don’t see: one tower,” and then, how it falls. “That’s the last I saw of the towers … I was the last from my office to make it out of the complex,” and then he breaks down. One visitor is in tears.

Hardej hands us to Mia Robello, his co-tour guide, a Manhattan native who slightly resembles the late actress Suzanne Pleshette, both in looks and voice. A schoolteacher, she volunteered with the Salvation Army for eight-and-a-half months. Her recollection of her final day, when the last supporting beam was removed from ground zero, soothes the visitors, giving a sense of closure.

Hardej and I walk back together to the Tribute WTC Center. “I was always willing to share my story,” he tells me. It’s a form of therapy, true, but he also doesn’t want Sept. 11 “pushed into the background, and I am afraid of that. That’s why I do these tours — to keep the memory alive.” He worries the museum will displace the experience tourists have with survivors.

Until the museum opens, the Tribute WTC Center offers the most immediate connection to that day. It is a project of the September 11th Families’ Association, an organization begun in November 2001. Lee Ielpi, who lost a son on 9/11 (and looks like he could be former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani‘s little brother), is president of the association’s board of directors and co-founder of the Tribute WTC Visitor Center.

Ielpi guides me, helping me understand the center.

The explanatory panels are 22 inches wide, like the Twin Tower windows. A wall within the center is a beautiful sky blue, evoking the morning of Sept. 11. As patrons walk along, the wall becomes obscured by hundreds of missing-person posters. Display cases are quite visceral: One features a debris-encrusted stuffed bunny and patches from firemen’s turnouts. Ielpi’s son Jonathan was a firefighter who died in the collapse of the towers, and his recovered jacket has its own case. Lee, a retired FDNY firefighter, helped recover remains at the site for nine months, including the body of his son. Next to Jonathan’s jacket is a piece of twisted steel, a beam isolated within a photographic background of the debris.

I tell Ielpi it gives the impression of standing in the rubble. He grasps the beam for several seconds, silently looking forward. “People like to put their hands here. Notice how smooth it is here,” he finally says. It’s a way for visitors to make real what happened, to physically touch a piece of the Twin Towers.

Soon we reach an inner sanctum at the Tribute WTC Center — what Ielpi calls the Family Room, where photographs and other objects have been donated by family members. It reminds me of a space planned within the Memorial Museum. The concepts are similar: photos and objects; a one-minute bio at the museum; a name briefly held on screen here. Ielpi tells me this area is the most emotional for visitors, pointing to a young woman crying. We talk about the problems of tourists becoming immune to emotion as time passes, but it is not something he fears. He tells me that when he poses with tourists, “they start to smile because that is what we do in photographs, but then they remember where they are.”

Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator and director of collections for the September 11 Memorial Museum, gave an idea of the challenges of formalizing the presentation and impact of that day’s events.

“It’s a really tough line we’re trying to navigate here. We don’t want to intentionally traumatize people. We don’t want to also create a situation where they shut down because they are in compassion overload,” she says. One way to show more difficult aspects of the day is through separated alcoves, where Ramirez explains, “you can make a choice: You can walk in if you like, or you can walk past it.”

One alcove will be used for a more controversial display: photographs of people jumping from windows. Ramirez explains the presentation will be a “quiet, solemn space,” adding, “A lot of the experience in this alcove actually would be reading the quotes, the incredible way that people who were on the streets processed what they were seeing that day.” In this way, she says, “it moves the story from the people that jumped to the people that witnessed it.”

Ramirez says that her own first taste of dark tourism came as a child visiting Deerfield, Mass. She was fascinated by hatchet marks meant to represent the Deerfield Massacre of 1704, when 56 English settlers were killed by French and Indian forces. Even then, she says, she understood it “is these sites of dark tourism that provide this necessary jolt to make us look and think more deeply about our capacity for harm and for hurting one another.”

For this reason, Ramirez does not believe the events of Sept. 11 should be sanitized for visitors. The events are a “complex story that I hope is not being artificially tidied up and wrapped with a nice bow for them. We wanted to provoke and stimulate thought.”

After 10 years, Ramirez believes, “people have forgotten already. Everyone has heard of Sept. 11; they don’t have the sense of it.” Moreover, she says for many visitors coming to ground zero now, Sept. 11 is “just a bumper-sticker word to them, and that’s pretty scary.

“There will be more terrorists in the world; that is one thing we know,” Ramirez adds. A goal of the museum is that, by focusing on the victims, visitors will be reminded “that most people are charitable, decent, courageous, kind, ingenuous, brilliant, all told over time. And it’s borne out in many of the stories of 9/11 and the legacy of 9/11.”

Memory as people, then, not objects or buildings.

Sion tells me these notions are at the heart of why academics study such places. Dark tourism sites stand “at the nexus of history,” she says, and their memorials combine “death, architecture and design, mass media, education, politics, leisure and economy.” Ultimately, once both the September 11 memorial and its adjacent museum have opened, she explains they will speak “to human emotions about war, death, remembrance, spectacle and others.”

The memorial and the museum, along with the Tribute WTC Center, will be ways for us to remember and to honor the events of that day – and in some ways, perhaps, to fold them back into the past as we subconsciously move on with each passing anniversary, the day itself fading as a living memory.

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Michael T. Luongo
New Yorker Michael Luongo is a writer, editor and photographer who also teaches at New York University. He specializes in more complex forms of travel writing, such as the intersection of tourism and culture in violent places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. He recently won the Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for Excellence from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

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