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

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    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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

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    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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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! :(

  7. 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!

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    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!

  9. 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….

  10. Post

    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!

  11. 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.


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    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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