And the rest of us, who do not live in New York? We would like to be invited to make a pilgrimage. We would take our children and our disposable cameras. Acquire the tickets. Then wait in line for as long as it takes to enter and view. It would please us greatly if Mr. Giuliani, America’s mayor, would announce on CNN that we are all welcome to visit Groundzeroland.
(Lentricchia and McAuliffe 350)
Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe’s essay on Ground Zero transforms a site of tragedy into an amusement park. Although their imagined Groundzeroland is highly tongue-in-cheek, their description highlights how tourism is a controversial issue when it comes to the present and future of the World Trade Center site. Even though the Twin Towers attracted visitors to Lower Manhattan in the years following its construction and leading up to its destruction, the idea that tourists would flock to a site of tragedy poses some troublesome questions. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (dis)articulated his own resistance to tourism at the site, even after he worked to install a viewing platform: “Though concerned that some [tourists] would come for ‘the wrong reasons,’ whatever they might be, he was sure most would go for ‘the right reasons,’ whatever those are” (Lentricchia and McAuliffe 358). Such distinctions between right and wrong reasons reveal the essential difficulty in visiting sites that have borne witness to tragic events. We want to go, to pay our respects, to grieve for people we never knew, to show support for a nation that might not be our home, and yet, “however high-minded our approaches, the insidious elements of voyeurism and sensationalism will creep in” (Lippard 119).
However, if we cannot fully comprehend what it is to be a tourist with the “right reasons” for visiting Ground Zero, perhaps we can try to understand how tourists do approach and engage with the site. To be sure, many travel independently, but others come with their families, with their church groups, and some with guided tours. In New York City, guided tours are a popular way to navigate the city by bus or on foot and the tours themselves often offer unique perspectives on how the city can be viewed and even experienced. On any given day, it might be possible to take a Sex and the City Bus Tour or a food-oriented “NoshWalk” in East Harlem.1 These tours are attractive to visitors to the city as they offer ways of exploring New York that are exciting and adventurous even as they are structured and controlled.
There has been a great deal of resistance to the idea of guided tours of Ground Zero from New York residents and others who feel that there is a clear distinction between tourist attraction and tragic event. Tours are often perceived as a commercial venture, and indeed the tours themselves are often designed to be both profitable and sustainable. A Pennsylvania company planned to offer a two-thousand dollar weekend package that would include extensive tours of the sites (Meskell 560), but most tour operators have shied away from offering trips to Ground Zero without including it within the larger area of Lower Manhattan or the Financial District (Saulny). In the past two years, more organizations have included Ground Zero in their walking tours. Indeed, a quick Internet search revealed at least six different options.
For the purposes of this paper, I made three guided visits to Ground Zero, two with guides from the Lower Manhattan Historical Walking Tour, and one with the company New York Talks and Walks. Both companies use Ground Zero as either a destination or a framework for their tours of Lower Manhattan and the Financial District, but provide very different ways to encounter the site. Despite the resistance to discussions surrounding tourists and the site, I hope to show how the tourist encounter with Ground Zero cannot be easily dismissed or condemned, but rather how walking tours shape tourist experiences when working with sites of tragedy or trauma.
The Role of the Tour Guide
Guided walking tours are popular tourist attractions as they provide structure and a logic to walking in the city. The urban landscape is transformed in the eyes of the visitor from streets lined with anonymous buildings to a series of landmarks and tourist attractions. A knowledgeable tour guide uncovers the history behind every skyscraper, and can even reveal entire neighborhoods that would otherwise escape the tourist’s view. The tour guide gives the tourist insider knowledge of the city and particularly of the city’s past: “what can be seen designated what is no longer there: you see, here there used to be…’ but it can no longer be seen. Demonstratives indicated the invisible identities of the visible” (De Certeau 108). The tour guide rebuilds buildings only to destroy them again within the narrative of each tour that he or she gives.
Erik Cohen, in his essay on the role tour guide, tackles up the notion of guidance as an essential function of the archetypal tour guide, who “leads or shows the way” and “directs a person in his ways and conduct” (6-7). This double meaning of guidance and the role of the pathfinder and the mentor become particularly useful when examining sites of conflict or trauma. On these tours, the guide bears some responsibility for framing the site in a way that is both informative and respectful. This paper will try to elaborate further the relationship between the guided tour and respectful tourism in relation to Ground Zero.
Tours are expected to be informative and accurate with regards to the sights contained within it. Not only must the tour guide’s developed narrative provide the basic facts, names and dates, but he or she should also be able to provide more general information about the historical and social context of the area traveled. Of course, the guide maintains a certain authority merely by being the guide, and thus the information he gives is often presumed to be accurate and up-to-date. However, some tourists are aware of the potential for fabrication within the narrative. As one woman was overheard to say on one of the tours, “I’ve been warned to always kind of take it with a grain of salt anything you learn on a walking tour.” Thus the authority of the tour guide is not always taken for granted by the tourist, who maintains the right to question and contradict what might be said on the tour.
Historic Lower Manhattan Walking Tour
New York City Vacation Packages,, a travel organization based in Pennsylvania, operates “The Historic Lower Manhattan Walking Tour”, a guided walking tour that focuses on the area of Manhattan stretching from the tip of the island at Battery Park to City Hall. The tour itself focuses particularly on buildings and monuments in the area, although the guides are well versed in other possible points of interest, and are often able to identify movies or television shows that have used these landmarks as locations. In addition to offering the tour free of charge to visitors who use their services, New York City Vacation Packages has a fairly extensive web site that allows people planning their trips to book and pay for their tickets online. The website states Ground Zero as one of their featured destinations, and many of the tourists I spoke with chose the tour precisely because it did stop at the site.
According to one of the tour guides, Tony Di Sante, tours that included Ground Zero first began running in January of 2002, with guides leading one tour a month, and gradually increasing in number as people continued to attend. On the day I joined the tour, there were almost twenty people in the group, and Di Sante informed me that groups of thirty or more people are common. The tour company had initially offered a perimeter tour that only focused on the site of the World Trade Center, but as Di Sante informed me, it was not nearly as popular. His opinion was that “no one wants to admit that they only want to see Ground Zero” and yet for most of the visitors on the tour, it is their main reason for choosing the Historic Lower Manhattan Walking Tour. Di Sante was the guide who “built” or developed the tour and one of the other guides informed me that when he was preparing to lead the Lower Manhattan tour, he followed Di Sante to gain a sense of the basic format and narrative of the tour. Thus even when Di Sante is not leading the tour himself, it is still in many respects, his tour. Ironically, Di Sante said that initially he had not wanted to do the tour and that he had not thought that the tour would be popular enough to be sustainable. And yet, the tour has still managed to attract large groups of people to the point where it runs all year long, through the winter and in the holiday season.
The Historic Lower Manhattan tour is approximately three hours long with Ground Zero being one of the final stops. On the two tours I attended, the guides spoke for approximately ten to fifteen minutes on the history of the site and referencing the current issues surrounding the area. At the end of the talk, the guides then give the group twenty minutes to walk around the site on their own. However, one of the tour guides mentioned that those on the tour could spend the time as they wished, not necessarily at Ground Zero, and pointed out Century 21, the discount department store across the street from the World Trade Center site. Judging from my own observations, however, most people spent the majority of their time at the site, making a distinction between sightseeing time and shopping time within the framework of the tour.
This concept of twenty minutes is striking as it brings into question time and memorial. How long is appropriate to pay respects? Most of the other landmarks on the tour were relegated between two and seven minutes for viewing and narration. Thus to be given twenty minutes at one location highlights the site as particularly important, if not the focal point of the entire tour. However, there is also a concern that the group spend too long at the site, not only in the interests of maintaining the flow of the tour, but also in terms of being respectful towards the space. One woman felt that to spend longer than twenty minutes was “ghoulish”, reinforcing the notion that time and memorial are inextricably linked.
However, the twenty minute time limit allows for certain tourist behaviors and experiences but not others. It does permit a certain mobility: there is time enough to walk along the edge of the site, and such a perspective is indeed encouraged by Di Sante who calls the south wall the “official viewing area” even though there is no longer a separate designated viewing area at the site. However, the twenty minute time limit also prevents participants in the guided tour from traveling the perimeter of the site within this framework. None of the visitors I spoke to walked to the World Financial Center, despite the viewing area that had been constructed and the opportunity it offers to view the winning Daneiel Libeskind model for the planned reconstruction of the site. Twenty minutes allows for certain ways of encountering the site but excludes other perspectives and navigation patterns that do not fit into the allotted time.
The Historic Lower Manhattan tour also creates a very specific role for the tour guide. As explained earlier, the tour guides do not accompany the visitors to the site, but rather discuss the site across the street before departing. I caught up with Tony Di Sante at the MacDonald’s nearby where he explained that he did not feel he had anything to “add” to the site and that standing in front of the fence and talking about the World Trade Center or about the attacks of September 11th was not a necessary element of touring Ground Zero. This statement would indicate that there are certain limits to what a tour guide may feel he an be an expert on, as well as the way in which Ground Zero can, in a way, “speak” for itself. Earlier in the tour, Di Sante had also made the following statement:
What was I doing September 11, 2001? I’m sorry - I respectfully decline to answer that question. Over two years of healing does not permit me to relive the experience every time I do this tour. However I will tell you that I was close enough to see the second tower collapse from a safe distance. Firsthand, not on TV, I saw it firsthand.
By only obliquely revealing his own personal connection with the site, Di Sante both establishes his authority in speaking about Ground Zero and his own ambivalence about being a tour guide. Unlike the many people who share their 9/11 stories on a regular basis, 2 Di Sante asserts that his personal story is not for public consumption.
The Historic Lower Manhattan tour has the reputation as being the only walking tour that travels to Ground Zero, and although this is no longer the case, it still appears to be one of the most popular of the tours available for that area of Manhattan. Its success speaks to the desire of visitors to the city to visit Ground Zero and to the marketability of such a controversial tourist attraction.
Ground Zero: New York in War and Peace
New York Talks and Walks is a New York-based company that began giving tours of the five boroughs in 1995, and now offers more than one hundred “themed” walking tours throughout the year. Dr. Philip Schoenberg leads a tour entitled “Ground Zero: New York in War and Peace” which uses a historical narrative of conflict to frame the architecture and urban landscape of Lower Manhattan. Unlike the Historic Lower Manhattan tour, this Ground Zero tour runs according to the calendar set by the company, which requires a certain amount of planning and luck on the part of those who wish to take it. New York Talks and Walks also maintains a website that offers a list of upcoming tours as well as testimonials from past tour participants. However, many people in the group had read about the tour in events listings in The New York Times and in the popular New York entertainment magazine Time Out. Perhaps for this reason, there were only six people attending this tour, contrasting with the twenty people on the Historic Lower Manhattan tour, as it requires a certain amount of knowledge about where to look for information on events and attractions in the city.
The tour itself is approximately two hours long, and within that time Dr. Schoenberg creates a narrative of Lower Manhattan that is focused on conflict. The tour is described on the web site as a chance to “learn how New York City has been a terrorist target since colonial days from Henry Hudson's arrival to 9/11”. In this way, Ground Zero becomes a way of looking at history, rather than merely being a part of it. In contextualizing Ground Zero with the other sites on the tour, the narrative plays on issues of temporality and progress, foreshadowing the day when Ground Zero will be just another stop on a walking tour, when another guide will have to uncover its history.
One of the most striking characteristics of the “Ground Zero” tour was that the group was never actually taken to Ground Zero. Instead, Dr Schoenberg stopped at Broadway and Fulton Streets, a block away from the site in order to briefly discuss the politics of rebuilding the site. In this tour, the World Trade Center was only part of the environment and history of Lower Manhattan, and the tour guide even seemed to resist the expectation that it would be a focal point of his tour. In Saint Paul’s Chapel, where a display has been set up on the recovery effort and how the chapel functioned as a space for workers involved in the recovery effort, Dr. Schoenberg gave the group time to peruse the items on display, but limited his own discussion to the roped off pew where George Washington had prayed. Indeed, the attacks of September 11th are barely mentioned in Schoenberg’s narration, and he instead focuses on the politics of rebuilding the site, asserting that “I very frankly do not think in my lifetime I’m gonna see a [new] World Trade Center.”
What the New York Walks and Talks tour accomplished was the construction of a very specific narrative for Lower Manhattan, one that made the attacks of 9/11 only a small part in the larger theme of history and conflict in New York. By not walking to or even really addressing the fall of the World Trade Center, this tour denies its dominance in the New York story. Of course, such a tactic is not entirely effective when the tour’s audience holds the expectation of at least “seeing” the site. Overheard:
Question: “Didn’t you think you’d get closer?”
The Bricolage Tour
The need to see and experience the site thus becomes an event that must take place outside the framework of the official tour, as I experienced when the Talks and Walks tour came to an end without ever visiting Ground Zero. A father and son on the tour audibly stated that they would be visiting the site on their own and that the father was “going to narrate”. The father’s willingness to take over the role of the tour guide in response to what was seen as a failure on the part of the “official” tour guide indicates a certain power in the structure of the tour. Thus, the visit to Ground Zero would still take the form of a tour, but the authority will have changed hands. Even as the unofficial tour initially operates as a rebellion against the authority of the official tour, by having someone “narrate” the site, it still maintains a structured narrative.
However, the structure of this post-tour tour took a very particular form. I ended up accompanying the men on their “unofficial” tour of Ground Zero, and what ensued was a sort of “bricolage” of information regarding the site. Bricolage is a French term which essentially means “do it yourself”. Within this collectively constructed (did it ourselves) tour, each of us shared what we knew about the site in addition to our own experiences and stories regarding the World Trade Center. It was the son’s first visit to New York since the towers fell, although his father lived and worked in the city, and as he phrased it, “the last time I was here, they were fine… I actually got a [photograph].” His reference to photographing the Towers brings them back in a single frame, and even though I never saw the World Trade Center in person, the image of them flashed across my mind. Thus even images became an important element in our self-directed, self-guided tour. There was a sense of collaboration in creating this tour that had not existed in any of the other walking tours I had taken, but what was particularly striking about this experience was that we all felt a certain authority in being able to maintain an informed discussion on the site, despite our non-official tour guide status.
Thus tours, both official and unofficial, provide very specific ways of viewing and accessing Ground Zero. The question remains, however, as to why people decide to take a guided tour rather than approach the site on one’s own. Talking with one woman about her reasons for going on the tour, she expressed an awareness of the precarious position of the “tragic tourist”: “I guess one of the things was [sic] we did want to see Ground Zero but we didn’t kind of want to be in any way disrespectful - kind of wandering around going like “Where is Ground Zero?” and with doing it on a tour sort of gave a structure to it.” Almost all the people I spoke with on both tours chose the tour specifically because it included Ground Zero, even in the case of the New York Talks and Walks tour which did not even encounter the physical site within the tour itself. However, what is striking about this woman’s comment is that even as she expresses her desire to see Ground Zero, she is also aware that she is being to a certain extent judged as a tourist. Despite, or perhaps even because of the controversy over Ground Zero’s status as a tourist attraction, some visitors may seek out ways to access the site that seem more responsible. She thus values the tour not only for the information it provides and for the route it takes, but also for the chance to be a specific kind of tourist.
Of course, there are probably many who would question her characterization of the walking tour as ‘more respectful’ than other means of approaching and viewing the site. And yet there continue to be people who take the tour as a means of “paying their respects.” When asked about Ground Zero’s status as a tourist attraction, Pamela Galloway, a visitor from California, emphatically restates her reasons for coming to the site: “Like I said, I came to pay my respects.” To “pay respects” in this way becomes different from being a tourist in the rest of New York City.
Walking and Talking Memory
Michel de Certeau writes that “history begins at ground level, with footsteps” (129). In taking a walking tour of Lower Manhattan, the tourist is able to see that history revealed through the direction and narration of the tour guide. Major buildings may be explained in reference to names, dates, and events, but the walker is also given the freedom to use his or her imagination to level buildings and regenerate forests, to recreate battles and replay television images. History not only begins at ground level; on the walking tour it is revived and relived there. However, there are also limits to the power of imagination, and the desire to visit Ground Zero is often a response to the desire to imagine in situ. Melanie Von Perfall, a visitor to New York from Munich, Germany, explained that some foreign travelers find it hard to imagine what Ground Zero might look like: “I think people who are not from America are very curious to see that place, because they just can’t imagine that [the attacks of September 11th] really happened. This is one of the reasons why I would like to go [to Ground Zero]; because you’re standing there and trying to imagine that this really happened.” Thus, visiting Ground Zero provides an opportunity to imagine while still being rooted in the spectacle of absence.
The World Monuments Watch placed Lower Manhattan on its list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites, stating that “following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Lower Manhattan became America’s most hallowed ground” (World Monument Fund online). The inclusion of the area surrounding and including Ground Zero on this list amounts to what Lynn Meskell calls “negative heritage” (558); sites that contain collective memory of past tragedies or disasters. According to Meskell, heritage could potentially be found or made anywhere in the material world, and yet the decisions made by individuals or organizations often designate certain sites as better repositories for collective memory than others. In many ways, the Ground Zero walking tours reinforce the importance of Ground Zero over other sites, as with the Historic Lower Manhattan tour, which only stops briefly at a temporary memorial erected at Battery Park, and chooses instead to spend a great deal of time at Ground Zero. The Talks and Walks tour guide briefly mentions the memorial, known as the Sphere, within his narrative, but does not include the actual site in his route through Lower Manhattan. Of course, the dominance of Ground Zero over other related memorials in other areas of the city is not completely determined by the tour guides; politicians, residents, the media, tourists and other groups have already deemed Ground Zero the place to commemorate the terrorist attacks. However, the tour guides and the tours support the sacralization of Ground Zero through their use of the site as a necessary part of discussing and framing Lower Manhattan.
Sociologist Dean MacCannell identifies five stages in the transformation of sights into tourist attractions, a process he terms “sight sacralization”: naming framing and elevation, enshrinement, mechanical reproduction and social reproduction (43-45). Although these stages have proven useful in analyzing tour guide performances (See Fine and Speer 1985), the Lower Manhattan walking tours do not necessarily follow the same logic when it comes to Ground Zero. The World Trade Center site has already undergone many processes of site sacralization, including its function as a recognizable landmark in New York’s skyline, and now its current importance as a site of national trauma. The news media immediately began developing a terminology for the tragedy, developing numerous euphemisms for the disaster: “9/11”, “Ground Zero,” and “WTC Attacks” - to name only a few. Images of the towers’ destruction appeared everywhere, and since that moment the structures themselves have taken on new meanings. In addition to performing as symbols of capitalism and financial strength, the World Trade Center, as it appears on postcards, stickers, Christmas tree ornaments, and paperweights, is an emblem of resilience and patriotism. Thus it becomes the role of the tour guide to support or contradict the already thorough sacralization of the site in popular culture and media.
It might be argued that by placing Ground Zero in context with the rest of Lower Manhattan, these tours somewhat destabilize the site’s dominance in the discourse of New York City as a whole. However, even within the tours, Ground Zero is always set apart from other sites and landmarks as being a particularly important place. Even when the space itself is not encountered within the tour, as with the Talks and Walks tour, its very absence in the geographical narrative of the tour performs the ways Ground Zero functions as the frame with which to view and experience Lower Manhattan.
Ground level at Ground Zero is simultaneously empty and full. Through the barrier fence erected at the site, it is possible to gaze both up at the empty sky where two towers used to stand and to look below into a hole in the ground that now seems to be waiting to be filled. And yet even while the space is ostensibly empty, it also seems to be bursting with the excesses of meaning and memory. The container overflows. In this way, Ground Zero performs its losses and its absences as spectacle. Of course, the attacks on the towers were in and of themselves spectacular, which made them infinitely reproducible in a variety of media. Many scholars have written about how the destruction of 9/11 was reminiscent of many recent Hollywood action movies (Meskell 559). Vivian Patraka, in her discussion of the Holocaust and spectacle uses the neologism “goneness” to describe the enormous losses that were sustained as a result of the Jewish genocide enacted by the Nazis. She proposes that “goneness is inconceivable but its effects are palpable, particularly the inevitable desire to articulate, negotiate, mark, and define” (4). The response to this desire may be found in the walking tour.
Ground level, in the weeks after September 11th , 2001, became a place of commemoration. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in her essay “Kodak Moments, Flashbulb Memories”, describes the many missing person posters and memorials scattered throughout the city streets (11 – 12). To walk through such an urban landscape is to continually wade through the debris of history. Now these makeshift shrines and posters have been collected and re-positioned in gallery or museum spaces. However, the history still remains on the street. “Memory is the anti-museum: it cannot be localized. Its remains can still be found in legend” (De Certeau 143). It is perhaps the legend that brings the tourist to visit such sites; to see what used to be visible and is now gone. For the tourist, urban history exists in the present. The visitor does not have the luxury of bearing witness to the everyday changes that take place in the city. This is why moments of temporal distortion, as when the tour guide refers to buildings that are no longer part of the New York landscape, speak to the touristic experience. As tourists, we visit New York for a variety of reasons: to see what is new, to purchase what is cutting-edge in technology or fashion, or to see what is historical, old buildings and churches, and museums that preserve a disappearing past. However, on the street all of these sights/sites become conflated, past and present merge into the now of the tourist. It is for this reason that walking tours perform as important tourist events, as they reveal what is present (the now) and is gone (the past, the lost) in a single mobile narrative.
Paul Connerton argues that commemorative ceremonies enact social memory through ritual performance. A ritual’s “master narrative is more than a story told and reflected on; it is a cult enacted. An image of the past, even in the form of a master narrative, is conveyed and sustained by ritual performances” (104). Thus the argument might be made that guided walking tours are in this way also commemorative ceremonies, as it is the combination of spoken narrative and bodily presence that makes these tours effective. The master narrative of the construction and destruction of the World Trade Center is made all the more powerful when you can stand beside where it once stood, feeling the sidewalk under your feet, as you gaze at the empty space. The ritual of the walking tour is indeed a repeatable event, and each tour exists as a geographical repetition where the same streets are traveled again and again. Ruptures in this repetition do occur, as with the attacks of September 11th, when for weeks and even months afterwards, streets were closed and certain areas made off limits to urban travelers. However, with the passage of time, even these ruptures are incorporated into the rituals of walking and of touring. Once these fissures in time and space are integrated, they become part of an apparently legible narrative, a narrative that is walked and spoken within the walking tour.
Conclusion James Young writes of the essential quandary facing monuments and memory in his book The Texture of Memory:
Under the illusion of that our memorial edifices will always be there to remind us, we take leave of them and return only at our convenience. To the extent that we encourage monuments to do our memory-work for us, we become that much more forgetful. In effect, the initial impulse to memorialize events… may actually spring from an opposite and equal desire to forget them. (5)
For the moment, Ground Zero functions as an anti-monument. It has not yet been replaced by state-commissioned memorials and museums and the very absence it performs effectively denies the possibility of forgetting of what happened on September 11th, 2001. However, once the reconstruction is done, regardless of the form it takes, the problem of remembering and commemorating the losses of 9/11 will be problematized by the replacement of absence with presence, the loss of Ground Zero and the gain of the Ground Zero Memorial. It is with this problem in mind that the Ground Zero walking tours may be able to perform a archaeological function at the site, using historical and geographical narratives to uncover the World Trade Center site though a network of bodily practices, spoken utterances, and even silences. I find Sarah Tarlow’s concept of an “archaeology of bereavement” particularly useful here, as she argues for a consideration of emotion and feeling in even the most systematic analyses of artifacts and practices (20 – 49). Thus in many ways the future of commemoration at Ground Zero relies on approaches that both reveal and contextualize the space within a larger set of practices and behaviors. It is of course impossible to say whether the walking tours examined above will continue to play a role in the memory-work that is currently being done at Ground Zero, but it would seem that the ability of the walking tours to archaeologically deconstruct and reconstruct the site may prove to be a valuable method of negotiation between tourists and the tragic tourist attraction.
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1 The Sex and the City Bus Tour is offered by On Location tours (http://www.sceneontv.com/tour.php/satc/) and takes participants on a three-hour long bus tour, stopping at sites that have been used as locations for the popular television show. NoshWalks (www.noshwalks.com) is a New York-based company run by Myra Alperson, who takes interested visitors and residents on a variety of food-themed walking tours in different neighborhoods in the city. In my role as both a student and a tourist in New York, I have seen the city through the lenses of both types of tours, in addition to my investigation of the Ground Zero tours.
2 Judging from the amount of work being done in the collection of testimonials and memory, the 9/11 personal narrative may end up being one of the most documented events in recent history.