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What the 9/11 Memorial Says About Us: A Walking Tour of the Site

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The National 9/11 Memorial Pools, world trade center, names carved in bronze. The National 9/11 Memorial Pools. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Since it opened on September 11 of last year, more than 4.5 million visitors have entered the National 9/11 Memorial to observe the reflecting pools in the footprint of the World Trade Center.

But what does the memorial say about us?

To find out, WNYC took a tour with Marita Sturken, a professor of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU and an author who has written about tourism and 9/11 in her book Tourists of History: Memory, Consumerism, and Kitsch in American Culture.

Entering the site is like a trip to the airport. After zig zagging through rope dividers at Albany and Greenwich Streets in Lower Manhattan and passing through a half-a-dozen ticket checks and one metal detector, visitors emerge at the south-western end of the World Trade Center site.

A sign reads, “Please be reminded that the 9/11 Memorial is a place of remembrance and quiet reflection.”

The walkway is made of thin slices of granite, broken up by stretches of grass and oak trees planted in mulch.

Ahead is the South pool, a square, one-acre pool in the foot prints of the South Tower that pumps 52,000 gallons of water. It’s the creation of architect Michael Arad, called Reflecting Absence. Water flows over the edges and twists in a mesmerizing waterfall, and then there's another smaller waterfall at the center of the pool.

The stillness there is broken by a backhoe digging up rocks where the spiny Calatrava transit hub hopes to service 250,000 commuters a day.

“I feel that the memorial struggles for intimacy, which should be one of its primary aims, because of this kind of scale,” Sturken said, noting that about six of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., could fit within one of Arad’s pools.

The pools are ringed by a bronze parapet inscribed with the nearly 3,000 names of those who died on September 11, 2001. Visitors trace their fingers along the carved names. Some place flowers inside the hollowed out letters.

Sturken admits there is an intimacy here in the attention to the names arranged in what designers call “meaningful adjacencies.” Friends. Coworkers. Hometowns. Fire companies. Airplanes.

“In a certain sense, the specificity and intimacy of these names is in contrast to the immensity of the space we’re standing next to,” she said.

The experience of a memorial in the heart of an active construction site is “revealing,” Sturken says, because it does not allow time for quiet reflection or rumination.

“We’re clearly not there yet,” she said.

Earlier this week, hundreds of visitors peered into the one-acre South pool, waving cell phone cameras and leaning against the bronze parapets for posed shots. Nearby a man sits on a granite block, holding his head.

“It’s somewhat reminiscent of the old World Trade Center Plaza in its flatness, but there’s lots of green here,” Sturken said, “but right now it mostly feels like a tourist site, precisely because of the way in which we enter into it and like a security site.”

Heading north One World Trade Center suddenly comes into view and looms over the North pool at 104 stories.

So too does the stalled museum. It’s been nearly a year since the Port Authority, which owns the land, has been locked in negotiations over funding with the museum. The two reached an agreement Monday, on the eve of the attack anniversary.

The struggle over ownership and defining the site says as much about society as it does the event it memorializes, Sturken said.

“It brings out the tensions in a society,” she said. “Who are we? What are we as a nation? What is it we’re memorializing? Whose lives do we value? Who can be memorialized, etc.?”

Exiting the site, and passing a box for donations, visitors are funneled into a gift shop where a 9/11 documentary is projected on the wall, and a white and chrome motorcycle, inspired by the architecture, is on display.

And 9/11 T-shirts, mugs, magnets and rescue dog stuffed animals are for sale. 

Sturken calls it the “kitchificscation of experience.”

“They signal a kind of prescribed idea of how we’re supposed to respond,” she said. “We’re supposed to respond with a certain kind of sentimentality, and sadness. We’re not supposed to question too much, we’re certainly not supposed to be angry when we go home with our FDNY teddy bear.”  

But many people leave flowers at the site and are happy to go home with their own 9/11 remembrance.

This sign greets visitors at the entrance to the 9/11 Memorial. World Trade Center
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

This sign greets visitors at the entrance to the 9/11 Memorial.

9/11 Memorial Pools designed by Michael Arad, called
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

9/11 Memorial Pools designed by Michael Arad, called "Reflecting Absence."

Search and rescue dogs at the 9/11 Memorial gift shop.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Search and rescue dogs at the 9/11 Memorial gift shop.

9/11 Memorial Donation box. World Trade Center
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

9/11 Memorial Donation box.

Families crowd around the South Pool at the World Trade Center Memorial plaza.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC
Families crowd around the South Pool at the World Trade Center Memorial plaza with the still incomplete 9/11 Museum in the background.

Families crowd around the South Pool at the World Trade Center Memorial plaza.

Unofficial souvenir books on 9/11 for sale in Lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Unofficial souvenir books on 9/11 for sale in Lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site.

The Memorial plaza and museum are still under construction on the 12th anniversary of the World Trade attacks.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

The Memorial plaza and museum are still under construction on the 12th anniversary of the World Trade attacks.

9/11 commemorative bracelets for sale at the 9/11 Memorial store.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

9/11 commemorative bracelets for sale at the 9/11 Memorial store.

Flowers at the 9/11 Memorial pools. World Trade Center site.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Flowers at the 9/11 Memorial pools.

Leaves designed after the ones found at the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza for sale at the 9/11 Memorial gift shop.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Leaves designed after the ones found at the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza for sale at the 9/11 Memorial gift shop.

Motorcycle at the 9/11 Memorial Gift shop in Lower Manhattan.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Motorcycle at the 9/11 Memorial Gift shop in Lower Manhattan.

Over 4.5 million visitors went to the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in it's first year. World Trade Center site.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Over 4.5 million visitors went to the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in its first year.

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Comments [12]

curly from as far from your amorality as possible

-al-jebr-....The patriot hasn't sussed it yet/But embsques'smirk on your tv sets/Is the missing piece of the jigsaw jets.

May. 16 2014 09:28 AM
kelly

dsfsafsdaf

Apr. 13 2013 04:33 PM
Tatyana Conte from Greenacres, Florida

I worked on 92nd floor of One Trade Center, but decided to retire in March of 2011. Moved to Florida, but come to New York every Summer for some time. I often think of my coworkers and have some fond memories of time spent at World Trade Center. It's still hard for me to believe that all those people are not with us any more. It's good to see a memorial to all those who perished in such a tragic way.

Tatyana Conte

Apr. 05 2013 07:35 PM
Michael Burke

This is not the place for "personal recollection." It is the place for confronting the truth and history of 9/11. As is a visit to the USS Arizona, Gettysburg, Auschwitz, Hiroshima a time to confront those histories and our duty in response. who would recommend disposing of the iconic authentic artifacts at each of those places because they are needed for "personal recollection?" What of future generations with no "recollection?"

How does humility come from replacing the authentic artifacts left by history with our creation dedicated exclusivley to our "feelings?"

Oct. 03 2012 03:49 PM

Ah well...
When you come upon the South footprint/pool at last...one only has one's OWN feelings, a gasp, then: ineffable sadness. The rush of water soothes without necessarily giving comfort: the surrounding carnival and construction noise recedes before the gaping enormity (How big an acre is after all!), the void kindling the memory of the calamity.
One is humbled...appropriately. Personal recollection needs no physical artifact and none are here. Someday this site will be yet another NYC attraction. The rush to weep will not be so popularly impelled...Then the place comes into its own.

Oct. 01 2012 09:34 AM
Robcow from Manhattan

Ah well...
When you come upon the South footprint/pool one only has one's OWN feelings...ineffably sad.
The rush of water soothes but does not necessarily comfort. The surrounding crowds and construction noise recedes before the gaping enormity of the space (How big an acre is after all!),rekindling the calamity. One is humbled...appropriately.
Some day the site will become yet another NYC attraction, the crowds will thin, the rush to weep will not be so popularly forced; then the place will come fully into its own.

Oct. 01 2012 08:32 AM

Michael, I completely agree. I think the memorial is sterile of what actually happened at Ground Zero because it did not include the artifacts. I think the tridents should nothave been enclosed, the steel beam cross and the Sphere should be on the plaza. Without these, "reflecting absence" is a park. When i was first there, I "reflected on the absence" of these pieces of history. Without them, visitors have no connection with the memorial. They have no clue that the names were arranged on the parapets in some significance because that is not told to them. I think more needs to be done here so visitors make the connection and show respect and honor; and people like us, that worked at the site, or have some personal connection to the site feel this is actually a place to memorialize 9/11. A lot more work is needed here, and I hope one day, the artifacts are brought back to the Plaza. In my opinion,it shows not just the evidence of the attack on NY on 9/11, but the perseverance of NY-ers, in that many died, but we walked through the fire and have resilience and strength.

Sep. 16 2012 12:26 PM
Capt Scott from WTC

Mr Burke, succint and to the point....better said than most and especially me......thank you for understanding what is lost in the translation.

Be safe

Sep. 14 2012 02:38 PM
Michael Burke

Wow; surprised by the insight of Prof. Sturkin. Her comments are accurate and reflect a very common complaint about this design. It remakes a terrible and powerful memory and history, full of conflicting passions that directly involved all of us, no matter where we were, into something neat, clean, spare, pretty, antiseptic and remote. It's "minimalism" effectively denies our memories and experience and history.

The trouble is the jury that selected this design were completely derelict of their duty here: this is not the place for aesthetics; for an artistic expression or someone's interpretation of 9/11 or our feelings regarding "loss." It is the place for 9/11.

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial and the Vietnam War memorial only work because neither replaced history of each.

Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial, a memorial in Washington, DC re: our feelings about a war fought on the other side of the world is not a viable model for what we do at Ground Zero. No battles were fought on the National Mall; none of the names on that wall died there. It did not replace some authentic artifacts or history of the war. This is the historic site of the event. No one here is coming here for the ambiguous, esoteric exoperience that minimalist art provides. They're here for 9/11. They are here for the stark tower remnants; for the damaged Koenig Sphere; for the crushed fire trucks. And the younger generation are not here for some experession of "absence" which they cannot feel.

Essentially, this memorial denies our memories and the history of 9/11 to replace them with a monument to the values of minimalism; narcissism, ambiguity and stocism. Of which 9/11 was none.

Sep. 14 2012 10:20 AM
Capt Scott from WTC

Thoughts on the 9/11 Memorial
For all of us that worked on the response at the WTC the leaning facades plunging like fingers from the sky spoke both of the horror of that day, and of the heroes who walked into that hell expecting certain death. I actually said to Bear out loud “It’s is a good day to die” and proceeded to walk to that Dante’s Inferno with what I loved most in the world. Unlike Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor the memorial was designed without any remnants of the destruction, so visitors never really see the horror of what happened when two planes collided into the twin towers on the site.
There is no signage telling visitors what occurred on the site or the significance of the names around the waterfalls. There is not even an American flag flown, which might indicate that something of national importance happened there. As for High School students last week using the place as a garbage dump, please remember that human remains of the victims were taken to an actual garbage dump, Fresh Kills, and left there.
The monument built is not a monument for the ages. It is neither pyramid nor gracious tomb. It is a fountain built on unstable ground in a northern climate and will fracture and brake with the passage of time and not be self sustaining. It has become a monument to human greed.
It is ten years later and they are just deciding they should pay for cancer coverage for those of us who served. It will not be the cancer the Parks inspector to my left, my dog, or the woman Parks enforcement sergeant to my right died of (pancreatic). Billions have been spent in all the wrong places and things.
Every time I see the head of the Museum (which is already a failure and a boondoggle) speak in his two thousand dollar suits and his $300 dollar ties I get disgusted. At least a billion dollars lost into this project.
Oklahoma was left as is....it was not considered "too valuable real estate" to be left what it was, a graveyard and Memorial.

Those who served and the service they provided are not much better off. Many of us are sick. We have more PTSD cases from the aftermath and what our leaders have done than from the actual incident. We know how to react to terrorists or foreign enemies of the state. We do not know how to react to those who betrayed us all to profit from those who serve ‘so that others may live’.

I leave you with these few if ethereal thoughts and the words I have come to live by:
Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?
- William J. Bennett - in a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997-

Sep. 14 2012 09:18 AM
Michael De Stefano from Brooklyn

Could Professor Sturken possibly any more elite and effete? Every comment of hers is straight from the NY Times way of "sniffing" at something.

Sep. 12 2012 09:29 AM
Rajath Rao from Staten Island

Love the remembrance and respect being paid, but the NY media should probably take it down a notch with all of the specials and interviews..Regardless of the media, every NYer from that day will always remember the chaos and subsequent pain of losing a part of the city that we all identified ourselves with. There hasn't been a single time in the past 11 years that I have looked at the downtown skyline and not thought of the downtown I grew up with. "Never Forget" is inevitable- for us, the prevailing theme of that day is that we will Always Remember.

Sep. 11 2012 09:55 AM

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