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Tour Guides DIY at WTC

NYC History NYC Story Tour Story

The 9/11 Memorial, “Reflecting Absence”

In less than a week, the 9/11 Memorial will be open. Most New Yorkers, like many Americans across the country, are anticipating having a proper place to remember the worst attack on American Soil. The design, entitled Reflecting Absence, will feature two massive voids – each 1 acre in size – on the footprints of each of the Twin Towers. Known as the North and South Memorial Voids, they will be complemented by the largest manmade waterfalls in the world – 30 ft high – which will flow endlessly into the void. Surrounding the two voids will be bronze parapets with the names of the 2,983 victims. This will mark the beginning of a new era for the WTC and a major new tourist site.

It will also mark the end of the unusual challenge for tour guides in New York. Over the last 8 years, since Matt and I started The Levys’ Unique NY!, we have led thousands of groups and private tours to the site which was formerly known as Ground Zero. Let’s examine that name: Ground Zero was coined to describe the utter destruction caused by the atomic bombings of Japan at the end of WWII. Since those cities were so obliterated, the only way to orient the rescue crews and reconstruction efforts was to determine that the spot directly under each A-bomb was Ground Zero. Certainly in the days and weeks following the terrorist attack, the WTC site looked like Hiroshima, so the same necessity for orientation required the use of the term Ground Zero. However, since it is no longer a site of destruction but rather, a site of construction, call it what it is: The World Trade Center Site.

Mark’s WTC ID card

As I’ve told many of my tour groups, before I became a tour guide I worked for the City of NY as a facilities, property & construction manager and was assigned to work at the site on Sept. 13th, conducting damage assessment on buildings that were adjacent to the site. I didnt see much of the carnage in “The Pit” that my brothers in the FDNY & NYPD saw.

Tour Guide Matt Apter in the Winter Garden, telling the story of 9/11 via iPad.

By 2002, tourists were returning to New York and the City realized they needed a competent effort to deal with the millions who wanted a view of GZ. The quick solution was a wooden platform on Fulton Street. As 2002 turned into 2003, we knew that the WTC site would be a primary tourist focus and that planning routes and viewing locations around a massive construction site was critical for our clients. Our first spot was on Liberty Street, right past the Ten House Fire Station as there was a spot with a clear view into the site. As construction changed our routes and locations, so did our tour. As anyone who has taken our tour knows that we finally settled upon two primary sites: St Paul’s Chapel, the legendary Little Chapel That Stood; and the Winter Garden, which has a huge window facing the site. When the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site was opened in 2009, on Vesey Street, we added this to our route.  We knew that so much of the story is visual, so we assembled photos in a binder for our guides to illustrate our WTC talks. Now we use iPads.

Mark and the Russian Judges. Note the Steel I-Beam Cross in the background.

We’ve all had memorable experiences down at the WTC Site. In 2003, I guided a group of Russian judges and they insisted on buying flowers. Each of them bought two dozen roses and as we walked to the site, I noticed that without fail, every judge had tears streaming down his or her face. I asked the translator about this and he said “You don’t know what its like to have your country attacked and for civilians to die. Its a soldiers duty to die, but not civilians to die. We Russians know this terror.” One of my school groups was an award-winning Hawaiian choir who performed a heartbreaking song their director had written on the night of Sept 11. After they sang at the site they visited FDNY HQ and presented a handmade surfboard with the names of the 343 firefighters lost on 9/11 carved into its surface.

This Sunday, the 10 year anniversary, the Memorial opens to the families of the victims. Then on Monday, Sept 12th, it opens to the general public (and travel professionals – Matt and I got an invitation yesterday from NYC & Co.) Then when the Museum opens in September 2012, it will become like many historic sites around the country and the world. As NY’s First Family of Tour Guides, we plan on having all of our guides visit this fall so we can better understand how the site will work and can better incorporate it into our client’s itineraries and tour routes come spring. That way we can understand how this very powerful and topical memorial will work alongside more traditional tourist “attractions.”

By Mark Levy

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