"Ground Zero", New York
The site where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center used to stand in Manhattan, New York
. They were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11
in which nearly 3000 people were killed, the vast majority at the World Trade Center site.
It is thus one of the darkest sites in contemporary America and certainly the most talked about one.
An official national memorial was inaugurated in 2011 and in 2014 it was complemented by a dedicated museum at the site. Together they form what has to be considered one of the world's premier dark-tourism sites. But there are also a few smaller-scale attractions related to 9/11 that are also worth seeing.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: The basic story of 9/11 needs no introduction. It was one of those events in history that everybody will remember, where they were and what they were doing at the time, and how the events and their perception of them changed them – and the world.
The shock of the events of 9/11
was immense, worldwide, but of course in particular in New York
. Faced with the images of the devastation after the collapse of the World Trade Center's (WTC) Twin Towers many people made an analogy to the destruction caused by an atomic bomb (cf. Hiroshima
) and so "ground zero", a term normally used to denote the hypocentre of a nuclear explosion in atomic testing (or the epicentre of an earthquake), was transferred metaphorically to the WTC site. The expressive term stuck and is still used, even though the debris has long since been cleared away.
Today the area is still partly a building site. In place of the Twin Towers a complex of new towers are under construction or in planning. The last building that went down on 9/11, WTC 7, was replaced first – by a taller, shinier skyscraper, which is also currently one of New York's "greenest" building, i.e. designed with ecological sustainability in mind – much in contrast to the old WTC.
Closest to the original WTC's North Tower a single tall tower has recently been completed as the new No. 1 World Trade Center (at some point it was also referred to as "Freedom Tower", but this heavy-handed "patriotic" usage seems to have more or less disappeared). At nearly 1500 feet (550m) it is even taller than the old Twin Towers were – in fact it's currently the tallest skyscraper in the Western hemisphere. A set of further towers will ring the site, but the construction of some of these has been delayed or halted owing to the recent financial crises.
From the onset, the need for a "proper" memorial was obvious too, and its potential design has long been the subject of much discussion and controversy. After years and years of discussion, planning and development, the new official memorial
finally opened in 2011, just in time for the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.
In the end it became the most expensive memorial ever constructed in modern times. One controversial element, the retention of the two "footprints" of the collapsed WTC towers, did make it into the final design – that is: despite the value of the real estate at this downtown location, the space was left exempt from building plans for new skyscrapers and thus available for just a commemorative monument! I must say that for a city as commercially minded as NYC I find this restraint highly commendable!
This rather symbolic monument was finally complemented by a proper memorial museum at the site too. The latter could not be finished in time for the inauguration of the monument, but on 15 May 2014 it finally saw its official opening; with much fanfare and moving speeches by President Obama, former NY mayor Giuliani and various other representatives, survivors and relatives of victims.
The museum incorporates many original objects from the site, and is itself built into the foundation of the former WTC, so, as the museum director put it, it is a museum that is located inside its biggest artefact as it were.
During the long years of discussion and development at the site, various forms of spontaneous and official but "interim" memorial sites came into being to channel the demand for such a touristification. An association of relatives of victims set up a museum and started offering guided tours of the site, and a "preview" museum-cum-souvenir-shop stood in while the official monument was under construction.
"Ground Zero" has from the outset been a very odd kind of dark-tourism attraction, as for a decade there was very little left to see at the exact spot where this massive tragedy occurred – a building site isn't the most contemplation-inspiring sight … But still, people have always come here in a kind of pilgrimage from early on, once the area was accessible again.
This special kind of early 9/11-tourism wasn't without controversy. Initially curious visitors wanting to see the site were regarded by some people as somewhat disrespectful (cf. ethical issues
). But such reservations didn't stop people from wanting to come here – and the need felt by so many to pay tribute at the actual site soon became widely accepted, and even promoted.
I first went to the site in August 2002, 11 months after the event. Even as early as then it had already become quite apparent that "Ground Zero" had turned into a new kind of massive tourist attraction. In a way, it made a wider public aware of such a thing as dark tourism – even if the term itself was not yet used.
The souvenir vendors had certainly seized the opportunity very early on – it was almost shocking to see what a range of the grossest kitsch imaginable was on sale. Anything that you could print something WTC-related on was for sale. The pinnacle of tastelessness, though, were the snow shakers with mini twin towers inside and some fire engines at the bottom, but I have to admit: it was so bad that it was irresistible – I just had to purchase one, if only to prove to friends back home that I hadn't made it up and these things really were sold there.
Today, "Ground Zero" is firmly entrenched in New York
's tourism infrastructure and most tourists, not just diehard dark tourists, will work in a visit to the site. By now it has become fully commodified, not just in the form of the official monument, but also by other offers. Millions of people come here every year. It may well be that this is in fact the most popular dark-tourism site in the whole world!
What there is to see:
A lot! More than can be done in a single day! In theory you could spend a week doing 9/11 sightseeing in New York
and still find more. But the main attractions are the following, which therefore have their own separate chapters:
I've personally been to Ground Zero three times so far.At the time of my first visit to "Ground Zero" in August 2002 – a month before the very first anniversary of 9/11
– the tragedy was still very deeply felt. And it was visible: those 'missing' notes that friends and relatives had been putting up in many places were still there. Rows of boards had been erected for the display of such notes in Grand Central Station.
Particularly moving, though, was the fence around St Paul's Chapel, the church right across from the WTC (at 209 Broadway). It had become the focal point for leaving not just 'missing' messages, but all manner of expressions of the emotions surrounding the tragedy. There were flowers, teddy bears, flags, poems, etc. – and as it all still felt so fresh, it was truly heartbreaking. The chapel had also served as a place of rest and prayer for the workers who were clearing the site for many months.
On my second visit nearly eight years later, the chapel still commemorated all this and had become a 9/11-associated tourist attraction in itself: there were special works of art serving as memorials and an informative exhibition entitled "Unwavering Spirit – Hope and Healing at Ground Zero". But this seems to have gone now. You can still purchase 9/11-related souvenirs in the church's shop, though, which is indeed quite an unusual sight within a working church!
On display inside the church were 'missing' notes and other items that used to be affixed to the churchyard's fence (now cleared and again just a simple fence), as well as gifts sent in solidarity from all over the country and indeed the world – I even spotted a firefighters' emblem from Vienna
, where I live. There was even a box of tissues provided for those who are unable to hold back their tears.
On my most recent visit in 2015, the space dedicated to 9/11 commemoration within the church was reduced, but the main elements of firefighter solidarity and teddy bears were still there, if a bit more crammed together in a corner, as was the souvenir shop. But the former information panels had gone (probably deemed redundant now that there's the official museum). Their own (free) guided tours of the Ground Zero site also appeared to have been discontinued.
You can still go on guided tours that start just outside the chapel, though, albeit at a price. Run under the label “9/11 Ground Zero Tour” these seem to be operated independently from either the official museum or the 9/11 Tribute Center, but some of these incorporate the National 9/11 Memorial (and even admission to the museum), others include a visit to the observation deck at the new One World Trade Center Tower. They are allegedly run by New Yorkers who also have some particular connection with the events of 9/11. But since I haven't personally been on any of these tours, I cannot say what they are like and how they compare to the other guided tours offered especially by the Tribute Museum
When I visited New York
in 2010 there was also a 9/11-Memorial Preview Site
on Vesey Street, just around the corner from St Paul's chapel. This was evidently intended as a temporary commodification – it primarily took the form of a visitor centre offering information on the planning and construction-progress of the official National 9/11-Memorial that was in the making at the time. In addition there was some heavy, but at least officially sanctioned merchandise (with the proceeds going to support the funding of the Memorial). Some of the large-size photo books available there were, however, quite outstanding, especially the one entitled "A Democracy of Photographs" – a massive tome of ca. 1000 photos, some very rare.
When I was last in New York in 2015, I was surprised that the “preview” site was still there, even though the official memorial and museum had long opened. Yet it still provides some information about 9/11, the memorial and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. But its primary function now is just that of a shop.
On a smaller and less commodified scale, there's a memorial to the firefighters killed in the WTC tragedy right next to the WTC's old fire station (itself directly adjacent to the current 9/11 Tribute Center premises on Liberty Street). It consists mainly of a rather graphic relief depicting the Twin Towers engulfed in smoke, and fire engines and all manner of people, as well as a panel with portrait photographs of all the firefighters killed. "May we never forget" says the main line on the relief – little chance of that happening any time soon. The artistic quality of the relief, it has to be said, is unfortunately a little on the cheesy side …
UPDATE: when I was last at the site in 2015, I found the fire station repainted and the memorial covered by a building fence. Whether this is only temporary I do not know. It might become accessible again. Or maybe it has been moved to a different location. If I can find out more, I'll post it here (or can anybody out there enlighten me? If so, please contact me
A special and aesthetically much more imaginative memorial is to be found within the World Financial Center at the American Express HQ, where a monument entitled "Eleven Tears
" commemorates the 11 employees the company lost on 9/11
. It consists mainly of a huge quartz block, roughly shaped like a teardrop, suspended from the ceiling on eleven wires over a black reflecting pool into which drops fall from the wires periodically – so that they too look like falling tears. It looks much more convincing than it sounds.
The walking tour with the 9/11 Tribute Museum
that I went on in 2010, incorporated visiting the World Financial Center's winter garden and a stop at this “Eleven Tears” memorial. Whether the current walking tours still do, or whether this element has fallen by the wayside since the official memorial has opened, I do not know. But you can always go there on your own to have a look.
A bit further away from the actual site, there's also a special kind of memorial at Battery Park, which features an eternal flame and the actual "Sphere" sculpture which originally stood in the Plaza Fountain between the Twin Towers of the old WTC. This got damaged by falling debris, but still largely survived remarkably well … the dented globe with holes in it is of course highly charged with symbolism.
in Lower Manhattan, New York
City, towards the bottom end of Broadway, and just round the corner from Wall Street. St Paul's Chapel is between 209 Broadway and Church Street just east of "Ground Zero". And the Preview Site and shop is at 20 Vesey Street to the north-east, just round the corner, while the Sphere is a short walk down to the tip of Manhattan at Battery Park.
Google maps locators:
Site of the former WTC and now the main memorial & museum:
Access and costs:
relatively easy to get to, partly free, partly rather costly.
Details: Getting to Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero is easiest by subway – several lines (11 in total) have stations nearby. The new PATH station (for regional trains) is also right at the site. And all of these will soon be interconnected when the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub opens (scheduled for March 2016).
At the site itself everything is walkable, and many parts are also suitable for wheelchairs these days (including the main memorial and museum).
Access to St Paul's Chapel, located between Church Street and Broadway to the east of "Ground Zero", is free and it is open throughout the day. (The chapel does not publish official opening times, but normal daytime hours make the most sense in any case.)
The Preview Site and shop currently has the following published opening times: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (possibly slightly longer in summer). Admission free.
The memorials round the corner and the one at Battery Park are theoretically accessible at all times and free of charge.
The “9/11 Ground Zero Tours” walking tours that start outside St Paul's cost between 35 USD (for the basic 90-minute tour) and a whopping 109 USD (for there premium “all access” tour).
Time required: a lot! The official memorial and museum alone can require the best part of a whole day, and seeing the rest of the 9/11-associated sights and doing a guided walking tour can take up another day. Those who really want to dig deep, could spend weeks going through all the extra archived info at the museum or do various different guided tours … Most visitors, though, will probably make do with a day or two.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Other places in New York
that commemorate 9/11
are the various fire stations in Manhattan (and beyond). All of these have some sort of memorial. The most comprehensive memorial is part of the New York City Fire Museum
, the official FDNY museum, at 278 Spring Street in Soho, which has a section on 9/11 (besides all manner of other general fire department history things). It's open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays to 4 p.m.; admission: 5 USD (adults), 2 USD (students/senior citizens).
There are several further 9/11 memorials all over the city and beyond. Two that stand out are actually across the Hudson River on the in New Jersey side overlooking the Lower Manhattan skyline. One is called “Empty Sky” consisting of two parallel steel walls pointing in the direction where the Twin Towers stood (and from the right angle, the front of the twin walls reflects the shape of the towers themselves). In front of the monument, bits of WTC steel have also been incorporated into the memorial.
Another remarkable, and controversial, monument is found further downstream in the harbour, also on the New Jersey side, which is called “To the Struggle against World Terrorism
”. It consists of a tall bronze clad structure with a rupture going through it almost from the top to the bottom, creating a vague allusion to the Twin Towers, and tear-drop-shaped element of polished steel hanging inside the gap. The design is not universally acclaimed, but what makes this monument even more controversial than its design is the fact that the artist who created it is Russian, that it was (at least in part) funded by Russia
, and that Russia's president Vladimir Putin attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the monument (while ex-US president Clinton gave the keynote speech at its unveiling ceremony).
Not in NYC, but thematically most closely related is of course the 9/11-Memorial outside the Pentagon
in Washington D.C.
– and even more so some of the exhibits in the Newseum
, including a mangled section of the WTC's North Tower antenna mast that had landed on top of the pile of debris.
Not thematically related, but geographically near is the touching “Irish Hunger Memorial
” at the western end of Vesey Street just behind the World Financial Center. It commemorates the Great Irish Famine, and the contemporary issues of hunger in the world. It incorporates a recreation of an abandoned Irish croft cottage, and is made from stones from each of Ireland's provinces. (Cf. the Famine Memorial in Dublin
, Republic of Ireland
Battery Park at the southernmost tip of Manhattan is also the departure point for ferries to Ellis Island
, where many immigrants to the USA
(including from Ireland) would first have arrived by boat. However, it would hardly be possible to go to Ellis Island AND do the 9/11 Memorial sites in a single day's sightseeing, unless you start very early and have boundless stamina.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see New York
– the site is right in Downtown Manhattan, so walking around gazing at its skyscrapers is a natural combination, although they mostly cannot compete with those more famous ones such as the Empire State or the Chrysler Building in Midtown Manhattan. One notable exception is the Woolworth Building, north-east of "Ground Zero", once the world's tallest and still one of the most elaborately decorated "classic style", i.e. mock-Gothic specimen of a skyscraper.
The financial district of Wall Street is in this part of town too – including the landmark neoclassical columned front facade of the Stock Exchange.
- Ground Zero 01 - construction work still going on in 2015
- Ground Zero 02 - new WTC 1
- Ground Zero 03 - new WTC 1 reflected
- Ground Zero 04 - April 2010
- Ground Zero 05 - the building site in 2002
- Ground Zero 06 - seen from a helicopter in 2002
- Ground Zero 07 - building site in 2002
- Ground Zero 08 - steel cross
- Ground Zero 09 - in August 2002 at St Pauls fence
- Ground Zero 10 - on the fence of St Pauls Chapel 2002
- Ground Zero 11 - messages and tokens of remembrance in 2002
- Ground Zero 12 - flag 2002
- Ground Zero 13 - damaged adjacent buildings in 2002
- Neighboring building apparently still unoccupied
- Preview Site turned museum store in 2015
- Preview exhibition in 2010
- Preview of the site in the form of a model in 2010
- Previous FDNY firefighters memorial
- Previous design of the FDNY station in 2010
- Redesigned FDNY station in 2015
- St Pauls 1 - chapel
- St Pauls 2 - worldwide symbolic support
- St Pauls 3 - rather touching teddy bears
- St Pauls 4 - thoughtfully provided tissues
- St Pauls 5 - memorial altar
- St Pauls 6 - Japanese-style tribute
- St Pauls 7 - in 2015
- St Pauls 8 - souvenir shop
- The Sphere at Battery Park
- The damaged Sphere from WTC Plaza now at Battery Park
- Tourist trade near Ground Zero in 2002
- Touristy tack sold at Ground Zero in 2002
- World Financial Center 2002
- World Financial Center wintergarden restored
- ground Zero