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

betty ming liu Travel, Writing how-to's 27 Comments

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.

Comments 27

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!


  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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??

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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