Fighting ‘Ground Zero’ as a phrase and tourist stop

By Dara Lehon

Am I the only one who shivers anymore when someone says “Ground Zero?”

It was brilliant at the time – Ground Zero: a home base to which the media and military could refer – symbolic, functional and effective. But nearly two years later, it seems the numbness is finally setting in.

Traveling on the subway the other morning, (at an odd time – 10:30, returning from a doctor’s appointment), a chubby family sprawled throughout the car – complete with fanny packs, sneakers and maps — discussed, loudly, their agenda for the day. Armed with fun passes, traveler’s checks and cameras, they itched for some Styrofoam crowns, mini snow globes and at least one I “heart” NY tee-shirt. The apparent “leader” of the posse, a large woman with an embroidered button down shirt and cargo shorts, rattled off the plan with confidence and poise:

“First, we’ll go to the Staten Island ferry – we’ll see the Statue of Liberty — for free! Then we’ll come back and head to Ground Zero. Then go to Chinatown for lunch and Little Italy for desert.”

And here I was thinking that Ground Zero was a national disaster site. A tomb. A tragic indicator of intolerance and greed. Of innocent lives lost. Of a government’s intelligence failure. Of a surreal, real-life special effect. Of realizations. Of a loss of safety. I thought Ground Zero was still fresh.

But for people visiting my city these days – for its nightlife, culture, people, or even as a stop over to Atlantic City, Ground Zero seems to be just another stop on the N.Y.C. tour, squeezed in before heading to Canal St. for some bargains and Little Italy for gelato. And as with most things American, the “Ground Zero” and “September 11th” brands have been so successfully marketed even for natives, they’ll sometimes roll off our tongues with as much feeling as the Yankees losing a game or Charlotte’s converting to Judaism on “Sex and the City.”

It’s been two years since I watched the World Trade Center burn and collapse. It’s taken about a year since I’ve begun to feel all right about being back in my Tribeca office. It’s been about six months since I’ve been able to look at the empty space where the towers once stood without crying. Visitors have finally stopped asking what it was like to be here on that day.

Indeed, a healing process takes time, and it’s important to move on. But, as the “anniversary” came and went with an odd air of normalcy, the events of Sept. 11th, 2001 remain vivid. I still remember the brutality of the attacks, the images of people plunging 100 stories to their deaths, the smoldering wreckage of the towers, which burned for weeks, the thick, noxious smoke which kept me coughing for months on end. Seeing the smoke, smelling the fires, hearing the jackhammers working endlessly, and witnessing the sheer sadness and cries of loved ones left behind are still crisp in my mind.

To hear “outsiders” look forward to seeing Ground Zero like a tourist attraction is, to say the least, disappointing. On a certain level, I’m thrilled that tourists are back in the city, if not to make my walks more annoying, then to help our faltering economy. Times Square was hopping this summer, ablaze with activity. Other bustling areas of the city – despite our fare, toll, and parking hikes – are challenging to stroll through. This isn’t entirely bad.

But for a native New Yorker who watched “September 11th,” as it’s become known, or “9/11,” happen real-time from her office window and then the streets, warding off vendors selling disaster photos on Canal St. the day after the event sufficed; the tee-shirts saying “I survived the WTC collapse” were just about all I needed to see of what I figured would be the inevitable.

Hearing the excited subway tourists, it seemed 9/11 has already been enveloped into our strange collection of gravely serious to often vacuous events – from the recent blackout, to ridiculous reality TV, to Terminators running for office. The now-stale, busy, fortified area – a 360 degree shift from the deserted, depressed, and rancid area of the past 1.5 years – has already become a sightseeing staple – devoid of the surreal experience that characterized our New York lives and drawing on the thrill factor.

In a sick way, I feel privileged for having lived in New York City, and having run away from the collapsing buildings. It’s an experience that I will always remember; which helps me appreciate the significance of the events. But at this rate, or the way it seemed on the subway this morning, and as it has in the news since day two, tourists won’t have to come here to see “Ground Zero.” At this rate, it’s another fun park ride; only here, it’s followed with a trip to Century 21.

Something seems very wrong with that. And I’m not sure the Novocain of time and the media will ever fully prevent me from shivering at the idea.

Dara Lehon is a freelance writer whose office is in Tribeca.

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