Volume 17, Number 49 | April 29 — May 05, 2005

W.T.C. souvenir sales down: Vendors mad, residents still wary


Banse, a souvenir vendor, looks at the bustle of tourists around the World Trade Center site on a warm, early April morning the way a child might look at a forbidden chocolate cake.

“In 2002, 2003, people bought these,” he says desolately, pointing to hats with “Ground Zero 9-11-01 NYC” written on them. “Now, nobody – because we’re so far away [from the site].”

Banse, who declined to give his last name, has been selling “I love NY” t-shirts, N.Y.P.D. hats and little glass Statues of Liberty around the W.T.C. site for the past three years, ever since he emigrated from Africa. Last year in March, however, the state Legislature passed a new law limiting the number of legal street vendors on sidewalks in an effort to maintain ground zero as a sacred site. The law prevents vendors from setting up within five feet of street corners, and the W.T.C. site is demarcated as a “no vending” area.

Banse and other vendors try in vain to sell their goods from the corner of Broadway and Cedar St., a block away from the site. They complain that their new stall locations prevent them from capitalizing on ground zero’s flourishing tourism.

“It’s almost noon, and I haven’t made a penny yet,” Banse says, adding that the restriction is so severe that he plans to move soon to Midtown Manhattan, where he can find a better spot to make enough money to survive.

Vendors around the W.T.C. site particularly resent the new law because they can palpably measure how much business they are losing. Every day they see thousands of visitors, with a morbid fascination for ground zero, milling around the site.

Residents in turn often resent the vendors. Tourism is the new reality of the W.T.C. site. Flames, rubble, black smoke and strewn body parts are a foggy memory, more than three years old and fading quickly. Last year, about 8.2 million tourists visited Lower Manhattan, according to figures from the Downtown Alliance.

Tourism at this scale inevitably leads to commercialization. And legal souvenir vendors are not the only ones hankering for a piece of the tourist cake – illegal vendors want and extract their share, as well.

A sign, placed by the Port Authority, hangs on the fence around the site: “Please help us maintain this site as a very special place. Please do not purchase any items or services here, or donate money to people soliciting here, so that this place can be fully appreciated by all visitors.”

Nevertheless, a scruffy looking man with pamphlets, picture albums and postcards weaves his way around tourists, surreptitiously showing his goods for sale. He has pictures of the Twin Towers – before, during and after the attacks. He solicits in a low voice, afraid someone might catch him. Some tourists are curious, some are indifferent, but no one seems to notice the illegality of it.

“They don’t want us to sell these things around here,” the man says with a shrug. He asks to remain anonymous. “But people want to buy.”

He has been soliciting illegally around ground zero for the past two years, he says. Someone asks him for the booklet titled “Tragedy.” He sells it to them for $10 and rushes off to solicit a busload of newly arrived visitors.

“Is this illegal?” asks Dee Gorter, a visitor from South Dakota. She flips through the booklet “Tragedy,” which she has just purchased from an illegal vendor. “I just bought it to try to help me understand what happened here.”

“Tragedy” outlines the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on glossy color pages. It shows vivid pictures of the attacks, the rescue efforts and the devastation of the city. President George W. Bush, in solemn and contemplative poses, peeps out of several pages. “Printed in India,” it says on the last page.

“Of course, this should remain a sacred site,” Gorter says. “I’m here to appreciate its history.”

Unsurprisingly, illegal vendors often dupe tourists into buying merchandise that is more expensive than what legal vendors sell.

“They sell these 9/11 booklets for $10,” says Jimmy Robinson, a souvenir vendor who has a table on the corner of Liberty and Church Sts., in front of a Burger King. He is close to the W.T.C. but just outside the no-vending area. “I sell them for $5, but no one comes here.”

“This new law’s no good,” he says, adding that his yearly profits have gone down 70 percent since the law came into effect.

“Two years ago it used to be better,” he continues. “Before, you could sit right in front [of the site]. The sales were better there.”

He wouldn’t venture into the no-vending zone, he says, because the police are always checking, and he doesn’t want to lose his license. But illegal vendors make more money by deceiving gullible tourists and breaking the law, he complains.

There are tourists, however, who say they wouldn’t buy ground zero merchandise even if vendors stood in front of the site.

“It’s not very tasteful to sell postcards and hats of this event,” says Daniel Zunnun, a 25-year-old German tourist. “I wouldn’t consider buying something like that.

“Before 9/11, people came here for entertainment,” he continues, trying to find the best angle to take pictures, “but now, they come for historic reasons – like going to a museum.”

Another tourist, Patrick Simpson, 39, from Detroit, Mich., agrees.

“I had to see ground zero – it’s just something I had to do,” he says. “But merchandise is a bad idea. How can you profit from something like this?”

Tourists with a conscience are not the only ones asking this question. Residents of buildings around the W.T.C. site look on with resignation as hundreds of tourists swarm their neighborhood every day, particularly on warm, sunny days. They know they can do nothing to stop this influx of visitors, but what really infuriates them are the vendors and their tacky souvenirs.

For them, the new law is a step in the right direction.

“Have you seen those booklets called ‘Tragedy’?” asks Steven Abramson, a resident of 114 Liberty St., across from the W.T.C. site. “I can’t stand that stuff. Those vendors selling phony watches and CDs … that bothers me.”

The tourists themselves don’t pose much of a problem, he says, although the neighborhood does become littered with garbage on weekends, when many more people visit the site.

“People tend to be respectful,” says Abramson, who had to evacuate his apartment after Sept. 11, 2001 and has been back on Liberty St. since last August. “It’s not that they’re treating the place like Disney World, but they’re eating, drinking, licking ice-cream cones – the place gets dirty.”

With the construction of the 9/11 memorial and the new W.T.C. complex, tourist and vendor traffic is expected to increase exponentially over the years. Residents try to cope with the new reality the best way they can – they ignore it as much as possible.

“We walk around with blinders on,” says Karen Greenspan, also a resident of 114 Liberty St.

Residents and some tourists may dislike street vendors – both legal and illegal – but there are classier vendors in the neighborhood with whom no one has a problem. Local restaurants and coffee shops are more than happy to welcome tired, hungry visitors, who wish to relax after hours of sightseeing. And tourists, likewise, are more than happy to taste the relatively expensive delights offered by businesses around the W.T.C. site.

Many businesses that had shut down after Sept. 11, 2001, have returned to the area, and many new ones have mushroomed, as well.

“It’s getting better and better,” says Peter Poulakakos, the owner of two Financier Patisserie coffee shops, one on Stone St. and another across from the site in the World Financial Center. “Tourism is definitely a positive thing for business.”

Poulakakos does not have exact figures, but he says business from tourism has increased within the last year and will shoot up in the summer months.

“You can see a surge [in business] in the Financier Patisserie that’s closer to ground zero,” he adds, referring to his coffee shop in the World Financial Center.

Coast, another restaurant in the ground-zero vicinity, is even closer to the site, located at the corner of Liberty and Church Sts. This one is swankier and pricier – while an entrée at Financier Patisserie costs anywhere between $5 and $12, a meal at coast costs between $13 and $28.

“At this point, only a small percentage of business comes from tourists,” says Kevin Taylor, a manager at the restaurant, which opened last October. But he hasn’t written them off just yet, he says.

“We have good expectations of tourism in the next few months,” he says. “Ground zero has a stability now with the fence. There’s the history, the signage – it’s very recent. All this has helped dramatically.”

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