Virtual schizophrenia

Why ground zero is for tourists: My Toronto Star essay

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine from Toronto visited me and noticing something that, to him, was weird: Many New Yorkers have never visited the Ground Zero site — and they don’t want to. He asked me to write a piece explaining why, and it was published yesterday. It’s online here, but it goes off the free archive in a week, so here’s a permanent copy:

Ground Zero is for tourists

by Clive Thompson

NEW YORK — A FEW WEEKS AGO, some family members visited me in New York, where I’ve lived for the last six years. They took in the usual attractions and then decided they wanted to check out Ground Zero, the site where the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on 9/11. “I’ve always wanted to see it,” one relative said. “I’ve wondered what it’s like.”

Most tourists feel the same way. Each day, hundreds of visitors flock to Ground Zero, to look at that enormous hole in the ground and the long list of names of the dead. They come to pay their respects, and to try and grasp the enormity of the attack. If you walked down there today, you’d find people from all over the world.

But one thing you won’t find: New Yorkers.

Though most out-of-towners don’t realize it, New Yorkers don’t visit Ground Zero very often. On the contrary, many have avoided going near the site — and they have dim opinions of the crowds that congregate there. I didn’t notice this until a Toronto friend asked me when I’d last visited Ground Zero, and I realized that I’d never once purposely gone to look at it. It wasn’t until this summer that I ran into the site, accidentally, while shopping nearby.

So what’s going on? The world is filing by to mourn. We’re shrugging and turning away. And therein lies an interesting tale about what it means to live next to the most potent symbol of America’s new wars.

SOME OF IT IT SIMPLE: We avoid Ground Zero because we don’t want to reignite our trauma. I’m a good example of that. When the planes hit the towers, I was living in Brooklyn, just across the river from Wall Street. I saw the first tower fall with my own eyes, and the image still haunts me: It seemed to melt out of existence like a candle burning too quickly, vanishing from the top downward.

For the first few weeks, I avoided the site primarily because I didn’t think the police and firefighters workers needed any more gawkers getting in their way. I hardly needed reminding that an attack had taken place. With fires burning at the site until November, the stench of death was everywhere and my chest ached from the acrid air. When you walked down the street, the walls were filled with heart-wrenching pictures of the dead, posted by loved ones hoping vainly to find them alive.

Michele Tepper, a designer friend of mine who is a fourth-generation New Yorker, has never visited the site. “There’s a certain sense in which the entire city is Ground Zero,” she told me. “There’s always this odd feeling that there’s something terribly missing. “I don’t need to make a pilgrimage to a hole in the ground.”

Everyone down here has something that triggers a flashback. Crisp fall days? They’re lovely, but they now sometimes seem ominous, because that’s precisely what 9/11 was like. “I used to really love September, but not so much any more,” remarked another friend.

By the time the government opened up a skywalk to let people visit the site, I’d had enough. I wanted to move on — and so did the rest of this crazily resilient city. Indeed, on the surface, New York life snapped back to “normal” with amazing speed, partly because the city is accustomed to ignoring huge spectacles. The city is so full of neck-turning sights — billionaires, heads of state, street performers, celebrities — that it’s a paradoxical point of pride to pretend everything is business as usual. The president on Madison Ave.? Paris Hilton staggering out of a limo? Massive terrorist strike on Wall Street? Yeah, yeah, we heard.

“That’s part of the whole thing,” one friend observed. “We’re like, it was awful, it was horrible — now move on, get over it.” Another thing I’ve noticed about New Yorkers is that they’re the only ones who will actually tell jokes about 9/11. “If I don’t get my beef dip au jus in 20 minutes, the terrorists have won,” someone cracked at a restaurant I visited barely two weeks after the attack.

Crude? Maybe. But our seeming indifference is a contradictory pose, of course. The sneering and joking cover up a deeper fragility — a bleak certainty that New York eventually will suffer an even-worse attack, like a dirty bomb, and maybe this time we’ll be the ones near it.

But in the meantime, the pose might be holding us together. Psychologists expected to see a huge uptick in rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among average New Yorkers. But while the rate spiked to 7.5 per cent in the six months following the attack, it then dropped to a current 3 per cent, according to Sandro Galea, associate director of the Center for Urban Epidemiological Studies at the New York Academy of Medicine.

He says steering clear of Ground Zero can be a good way to cope. “It’s not a bad move, if you know there’s something that’s going to trigger it, to avoid it.”

WITH THE LOCALS SO DIVIDED in their feeling about the site, one issue has become a flashpoint: the tourists. “Ghoulish,” one person shuddered when I mentioned the “terror tourists,” as some locals call them. “It’s like people who get excited about going to a funeral,” growled another.

My friend Maura Johnston told me about a day last summer when she took the subway past the World Trade Center site and watched a loud, shouting family on their way for a visit. “They were all so boisterous about going to this mass grave,” she said. “I think it’s possible to remember the day, and respect what happened, without being there. It’s not Graceland.”

Oddly, it’s not the foreigners who tend to annoy us. It’s the other Americans. That’s because they tend to come from states that usually hate New York, much like the rest of Canada likes to bash Toronto. Ground Zero thus highlights the cultural differences in the country. New Yorkers think of themselves as mostly urban progressives who worship smarts and diversity. In contrast, they view heartlanders as people who revere conformity and are suspicious of intellectuals, and line up cheering behind George W. Bush.
So, when Republicans showed up for their New York convention and talked about how “everyone became a New Yorker on 9/11,” it seemed like crocodile tears.

Even worse, it felt like political exploitation. Walk into any local bar, and you’ll find New Yorkers seething over how Bush abused the post-9/11 unity of the populace to shove through ruinous tax cuts, then to mount an invasion of Iraq that few here believe has made the world safer. They also don’t much care for how Bush promised New York billions for reconstruction and delivered little of it.

Still, when you step back from politics, everyone I spoke to has contradictory feelings about the visitors. We might grumble, but we also appreciate the honest reasons they come — and, ultimately, we feel rather warm toward them.

After all, many of the tourists are our family members. Of the New Yorkers who told me they’d made a special visit to Ground Zero, most of them went only when relatives were visiting from afar. And while 9/11 happened in our backyard, it was also an attack on the entire country, perhaps even the continent.

Indeed, we know there’s a very positive reason for out-of-towners to visit: It helps them break through the media haze. If you’re from New Mexico or New Brunswick, you saw 9/11 solely through your TV — where all the spinning icons and hysterical instant-experts made everything seem oddly phony. After talking to out-of-towners, I realized that many are visiting because they want to appreciate the reality of the attack. They want to get past the talking-head rhetoric, the sheer surreality of the day.

“I feel both ways,” said Gavin Edwards, a writer who lives only a block away from Ground Zero. He tried unsuccessfully to sell his apartment and move out of the neighbourhood, and he’s watched hordes of visitors descend. “It bothers me that they come here,” he said. “But at the same time, I understand it.”

That’s a good way to sum up how the city feels: an emotion that’s messy, contradictory and complex: Perfect for a place like New York.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson