Post image for Reporting tip: if you’re new to covering NYC, check out Tribute WTC Visitor Center

Reporting tip: if you’re new to covering NYC, check out Tribute WTC Visitor Center

October 13, 2010 · 27 comments

in Journalism how-to's, Traveling

One of the problems I face in training young reporters is that every year, they get younger. That means 9/11 ends up feeling more and more remote to them. But then, I take these newbies on a field trip that transforms everything.

If people think I do a decent job of preparing journalism students for real world reporting, the credit has to be shared with many sources — including the Tribute WTC Visitor Center.

This happens to be a very clumsy name for a tiny jewel of a museum located just south of Ground Zero. From its five compact, well-designed galleries at 120 Liberty St., the center uses videos, architectural models and artifacts to tell the 9/11 story.

Christina Bainton, the Center's group visit associate, shows us a model of the original Twin Towers. In their place, two water fountains will be built. A single Freedom Tower is going up to the north of them (behind her on the model)

One wall is covered in missing persons fliers. The display is very intense to look at because it recreates the Lower Manhattan scene right after the terrorist attack. There are also more horrifying reminders to examine — a piece of twisted steel from the World Trade buildings, a chunk of airplane wreckage, a forgotten shoe, a recovered wallet.

But viewing all that stuff isn’t enough. My cub reporters really get the point after they take the audio walking tour, which costs $10 per person. For the next hour, the audio has us wandering through the nearby World Financial Center, where glass windows offer striking views of Ground Zero construction.

The audio features 15 interviews with survivors and rescue workers as well as radio news reports from that terrible morning. Their voices make history personal.

The World Financial Center's big windows give my students a clear view of Ground Zero construction while they listen to the audio tour on headsets

Every semester, I bring my NYU “Reporting Downtown” class to the Center for a 2½-hour field trip that includes the galleries, the walk and then, meeting with one of the Tribute Center volunteers. At some point during our visit, nearly all my students become teary. By the time we’re done, we’re emotionally drained.

John Henderson, an NYU administrator, volunteers at the center. He is often asked to meet with my NYU classes

That’s how things went last Thursday with my latest crop of NYU journalism students. Most of them are juniors who were barely 12 during 9/11.

At the end of our visit, I asked them to rate the experience on a scale of one (a waste of time) to 10 (really worthwhile). The consensus: four students gave our morning together a “nine;” the rest, a “10.”

If you know how critical college students can be, then you understand that these ratings are off the charts. Even I still get something out of coming here, which is pretty amazing considering that I’ve done this field trip at least half a dozen times. Yes, I always cry too. But that’s okay. It’s important to remember.

P.S. — One final tip…the Center opens at 10 a.m. Go early because this place is always packed with tourists and school groups.

Update 10/15: Based on some initial reaction to this post, I feel a need to explain something…As we all know, everyone has very strong opinions on 9/11 and its aftermath. One reason the Center works for me as a teacher is that this organization manages to make its case without focusing on the larger discussion of American and world politics. The mission here is to present what the World Trade Center once was as a community and, how people pulled together as an ad hoc community in the initial recovery effort. Period. That leaves us free to walk out and discuss what’s going on today with a baseline reference point.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 steliosphili October 14, 2010 at 11:02 am

Agreed! It was a great trip. One thing, though, that I found to be slightly off was when John pointed out that the audio tour never once mentioned the hijackers. “It was as though the planes simply flew themselves into the towers.” Why do you think they left that out?

2 Chris Wytenus October 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

I was one of the four who gave the tour a 9, but it was really a 10. I just don’t like giving things perfect grades!

The audio walking tour really is a must. For me, it’s what made the trip worthwhile. Nothing can replicate hearing survivors’ stories just footsteps from where the towers once stood.

3 S. Fisher October 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

I actually thought this field trip was somewhere between a 6 or a 7, but I felt uncomfortable voicing this within the walls of the Tribute Center. The disaster was absolutely devastating in terms of the loss of life – loss of life is always devastating. But the WTC stood for a lot of what I’m fighting against: the tyranny of capitalism; people profiting off of the suffering of others. Nothing in the trip was mentioned about the context of the attacks, the attackers, or the war that followed. So I guess the Tribute Center is true to its word in praising the building itself and the people within it. This idea is just a little trite for my cynical mind.

4 David October 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

You should mention that with the audio tour comes with a ridiculously awful musical score that will be sadly stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

5 Sydney Brownstone October 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

I didn’t think I’d be one of those teary-eyed kids. I didn’t know what the WTC was when the planes hit, and after it was nothing to me but a hole in the ground and a popular chain mail subject. But here’s what got me: on one of the walls filled with photos of the people who died, I saw a man with his two toddler boys, smiling–three faces smushed together. I lost it. Thanks Betty, for making me cry at 10 am.

6 Heather B October 14, 2010 at 11:04 am

I agree, this field trip was a powerful experience. Afterward I felt removed from 9/11 as an event. Before it had felt like something that happened exclusively within my own life, now it feels like it belongs to history.

But let’s talk kitsch factor. The James Cameron movie soundtrack playing throughout the galleries at the Tribute Center, the strategically placed boxes of tissues, the precocious elementary school art. These things were so clearly meant to deliberately stir up emotions that they had the opposite effect on me. I became, incredibly, more cynical.

The most moving part was, curiously enough, nothing that had to do with the tour. It was seeing the still-gaping hole in the ground that used to be an iconic center of commerce and life. It was the construction that seems to never end. People going about their work day in the surrounding buildings. This was meaningful enough, sans the melodrama.

7 Jennifer October 14, 2010 at 11:05 am

I’m very emotional. I cry at sappy movies. I get upset at the mere mention of tragedies such as September 11th. I was only in 7th grade, but living so close to New York City at the time and living here currently, I still get upset. I resent the implication that journalists are meant to be detattached and unmoved – the news should move us, otherwise why are we writing about it? The best writing comes from people who are invested in their subject – you did a good job of remembering that here.

8 Krista Golia October 14, 2010 at 11:05 am

I’m from New York and I remember 9/11 very well. The Tribute Center took me back to that day, worrying about my dad and whether or not he had gone into the city. The volunteers presented everything tastefully, representing what was and what the future brings for Downtown Manhattan.

Side note: The tour doesn’t mention the Cafe next door to the Tribute Center. It served as a medical station on 9/11. I know that because I went in there before our field trip. They have all different kinds of stuff from that day on their walls. The construction workers that were in there told me that it’s where they go to breakfast every morning.

9 Danielle Cocanougher October 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

Great job reporting, of course, Betty. But there is one unique aspect about this Center that you left out. Our trip was my third visit to the Center. And one thing that always strikes me is how it is still evolving. The first time I visited, they had just begun posting all the flyers and pictures of the victims of that day. The second time, they had just begun construction on the new buildings. Now, the Freedom Tower is well under way — but still far from being completed.
For someone who is not from New York and does not necessarily have a direct connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, I can’t help but imagine how I will one day bring my children to the city. We’ll definitely talk about how this whole area used to be dominated by a huge construction site. And just think, I was able to watch the story being formed. This is why tourists should absolutely come visit the Center NOW — because they can watch history being made!

Danielle

10 Alex G. October 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

It was absolutely crazy hearing about the cross county treks people took after 9/11 to help with the aftermath. Driving thousands of miles to clean floors for a month, word up America.

11 Deirdre Hering October 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

The audio tour was great, but that video we watched in the first gallery needs some updating. The motto “peace and stability through trade” rings a little hollow during a recession, at least for me anyway.

12 Hana Song October 14, 2010 at 11:07 am

I arrived at the Center feeling detached in regards to 9/11. I left feeling tired and sad. But I don’t regret it. I’m actually very grateful. It was an insightful and special experience that I will never forget.

13 Sarah Kim October 14, 2010 at 11:07 am

It was kind of strange to see the number 12 when you talked about our age. It seems so young! It’s funny how in my memory of 9/11, I wasn’t young at all. It might as well have been a couple years ago. It is a clear, vivid and sad memory. Now that I’m 20, I still feel just as sad. So being at the Center made me feel emotionally congested all over again.

So what’s going to happen when your students (if you plan on teaching for that long) don’t remember ANYTHING about 9/11??

14 Lana L. October 14, 2010 at 11:07 am

I remember the moment I found out about 9/11 – I was in middle school. My peers were being pulled out left and right; everyone was confused or scared. It was long ago. I was young. I didn’t think I would be so deeply affected by the trip, but it was the poster-plastered walls that got to me. I remember turning to someone next to me and asking, “Do you think any of these people were found?” But there was a sort of sinking sensation in my stomach – I felt like we both knew the answer.

The only negative thing I have to say about the field trip is this…as someone who consumes music constantly, some of the tracks for the walking tour felt like the soundtrack for a soap opera. Overly-sentimental. There was a kind of disconnect, but the radio clips and the survivor interviews definitely compensated.

15 Danielle D. October 14, 2010 at 11:09 am

I was really impacted by the pieces of one of the planes and by the other artifacts saved from the attack. This was one of the best field trips I have ever taken.

16 betty October 14, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Just in case you’re wondering…all the comments that you’ve just read are from the students who went on the field trip. They posted their comments during this morning’s class discussion. As you can see, they had a range reactions to our excellent learning experience. Thanks again to the folks at the Center hosting us — and I’ll be back again in the spring semester.

17 Christina October 15, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Thank you for the blog. I really love all the responses. I think it’s so important for us, The Tribute Center, to hear all things, good and bad, so we can improve. I think some reactions are extremely interesting because they have a very different perspective. It helps to have a different perspective especially when critiquing events/experiences because it evokes emotional reaction in others and opens up topics for discussion. The ability to question and debate is the chance to learn and make a difference in the world. Thank you again for your great feedback. I hope the rest of your semester is wonderful!

18 Shirley Bubbles October 17, 2010 at 2:27 am

Yes, Betty, I remember you always take your students to the “ground zero” during your Journalism teaching class. Although I have never been there (I think I tried to avoid going to the place to make me sad & cry), I will consider going to the Visitor Center one day when I am ready for it.

Glad to hear ALL those positive feedbacks from your students.

By then, ironically I learned about the planes crashed into WTC by the International phone call. My best friend Shirley woke me up and wanted to make sure I was doing OK. This heartbreaking terrorism attack did cause international attention and most people watched it on live on the other side of the globe. The “burning smoke & disgusting + toxic smell” spread to the Lower East Side & did not fade away until almost one year later. I will never forget during my visit to my family in Manhattan.

19 betty October 17, 2010 at 7:20 am

hey shirley, i didn’t know that your best friend is also named shirley! also don’t know if she lives in nyc, but having to show a visitor around the city is the perfect motivation for going to the tribute center. otherwise, like you said, it’s hard to go somewhere that will make you so sad all over again.

because being there will indeed make you remember. just reading what you felt about the smell downtown suddenly had me recalling what is was like to be iin chinatown on 9/12 & 9/13. the neighborhood was in lockdown but I had to get in to bring insulin to my mom. and yeah, like you said,the neighbored reeked.

20 Shirley Bubbles October 17, 2010 at 1:22 pm

My best friend Shirley is living in HK but I met her via our mutual friend during her visit in NY more than 15 years ago. Since then we have become BEST friends even both of us are living in different “continents” of the globe.
That day, she called me from HK and got me on the phone while I was still sleeping. (You know I worked late shift in the past). I even asked her (from my sleeping mind) which WTC did she mean? She said that was our NYC’s WTC and then I turned on the TV news right away. I could not believe what I saw in TV and totally awake.

Yep! The whole Lower East Side of nabe was locked down for a long period of time and non-residents could not access the point. Thank GOD I had my driver license with the OLD address so I was allowed to access that nabe to visit my parents and family. Without this ID with “valid address proof,” I don’t think I could visit them until months later + their home phone line was down for almost a month. That’s why I opened up my FIRST cellphone account due to 9/11 terrorism so I could keep in touch with them. Later this cellphone account become my current cellphone#.
I learned smart from the above ‘locked down” experience and I never change my driver’s license address. In case something happens in the future, I can still access to see my family.

21 Shirley Bubbles October 17, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Hi! Betty, I forgot to mention that I did not lose any friend/family during 9/11 terrorism attack. I know someone who has survived TWICE during those two WTC terrorism attacks including the one in 1993 (?).
BUT I used to be able to see WTC standing from my family’s nabe. From inside my parent’s apt in Lower East Side, I could smell those “toxic burning metals ashes” during my visit for almost one year. Think about how people who are living in Lower Manhattan to deal with this aftermath and the related health hazards in the long run! :(

22 Chris October 18, 2010 at 6:31 pm

wow these are some great photos! I still remember our trip there; it was such an emotional experience and i still really appreciate the fact that you took our class there!

23 betty October 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm

interesting memories, shirley. and chris, glad you found the field trip memorable too, even after all this time.

you never know where a story will take you…this is kind of random, but going on this field trip just helped a former student land his dream job — patrick doyle is the new assistant editor at rolling stone!

here’s what happened: after visiting tribute center, patrick was having trouble with an assignment. so I suggested he interview the docent who spoke to us during our visit there. when she asked about his journalistic goals and he said that he wanted to write about music, she put him in touch with someone she knew at the magazine.

before we knew it, patrick was a rolling stone intern. then, a cub reporter. now, he’ll be writing for the magazine’s rock and roll section, writing reviews and more. i’m so proud.

congratulations, patrick!

24 paul March 28, 2011 at 8:23 am

interesting post betty….and interesting comments. i thought the most telling comment was by the student who noted that the hijackers are not mentioned. unbelievable if that’s true. sometimes in this country, we’re so afraid of pinning blame on anyone lest we offend, even though it’s crystal clear in this case, we know who the hijackers were, and why they attacked. it’s kind of like going to see pearl harbor and not mentioning that, y’know, it was the japanese who attacked us….

25 betty March 28, 2011 at 10:24 am

yeah, paul. the student got it right. the tribute center has only one mission: to focus on what it felt like to actually be at the world trade center on sept. 11, 2001. there’s no mention of the word “hijacker;” i don’t think there’s even a reference to “president bush.”

instead, the exhibit, audio tour and docents concentrate on bringing that day alive through the eyes of everyday new yorkers and rescue workers. period.

even if this is raising your eyebrows right now, trust me, the tribute center does an excellent job in accomplishing its mission. by the time my students walk out of there, 9/11//2001 isn’t just a historic event — it feels much more real.

while not all my students end up loving the tribute center field trip, most of them are very moved. there’s usually one or two who don’t like it. but everyone agrees that it’s educational. and to do that at a price of $10 per student ($5 for admission + $5 for the audio tour) is good value. :)

so paul, i could definitely see the merits of an exhibit on pearl harbor — that doesn’t mention the japanese. to me, this approach is the opposite of extreme political correctness. i think it’s an effort to deconstruct a historic event into its critical moments. from there, folks can go on with a common baseline for discussion!

26 paul March 28, 2011 at 10:42 am

hi betty,

thanks for your response. for once, we disagree but that’s okay. to me, it is the height of political correctness not to mention the hijackers or, for that matter, george bush. i mean, he was the president when this went down. and i would not be against hearing some of the reasons why the hijackers did what they did from their perspective, i.e. that they perceive the usa to be the enemy and why. if we’re going to be inclusive in our history, then let’s go all the way. of course that will never happen! we’re too politically correct. haha.

:)
paul

27 betty March 28, 2011 at 10:47 am

and thank YOU for caring enough to comment again! of course, you have a valid point about the overall historic significance of the event. and my students go into this field trip understanding the big picture stuff. after all, they learned about it in middle school and high school history classes.

but think about that actual day. sept. 11, 2001 — what did we know about anything in that actual moment??? it was about the madness of a this-can’t-be-happening attack, people trying to get home, rescue workers trying to figure out how to save people. that is all this exhibit addresses. and this is the stuff that i want my students to understand. that’s why i take them there — to learn empathy.

and a big smiley back to you, paul. :)

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