Volume 19 • Issue 16 | September 1 - 7, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Lynn Tierney, president of the Tribute Center, with a model of part of the center, which is finishing construction.

Center gives ‘full experience’ of both W.T.C. past and 9/11

By Ronda Kaysen

A Tribute Center commemorating 9/11 will open across the street from the World Trade Center site in time for the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

The September 11 Families Association built the $6 million center on the ground floor of 120 Liberty St., a residential building opposite the Trade Center site. It was funded with $3 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and $3 million from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The 5,000 square feet of gallery space with a gift shop will serve as an interim memorial and visitors’ center while the Memorial Foundation builds the Trade Center memorial, Reflecting Absence, slated to open in September 2009. It’s unclear what role the Tribute Center might play after the permanent memorial opens.

“To think that we’ve accomplished this is moving. It’s something that was sorely needed down here,” said Lee Ielpi, vice president of the families association, a victims’ family group. Ielpi’s son Jonathan died in the attacks. “It took time and a lot of effort and a lot of help, but we did it…. The big thing is it came from the heart, the people gave up their soul, they gave up their heart, they gave time and effort.”

The families association is finishing the final touches on the center this week before the Sept. 6 ribbon-cutting ceremony. Family members will be able to retreat to it on Sept. 10 and 11 before it opens to the general public around Sept. 16.

Around 2,000 people visit the World Trade Center site every day, the families association estimates, and until now they’ve had no central place to congregate or ask questions. Images of the Trade Center and its history line the Church St. gate, but aside from that, visitors are left to their own devices to make sense of the 16-acre site. The families association has been running daily tours — twice on weekdays and four times on weekends — since last September. Volunteer docents — about 125 in total — lead the tours, sharing their own 9/11 stories and giving tourists a more nuanced perspective of the event.

“The ability for tourists to have one-on-one history is unique and irreplaceable,” said Richard Zimbler, a tour guide and Tribeca resident who was at 22 Cortlandt St. opposite the Trade Center on 9/11. “You can’t compare that to looking at a map and walking around the site.”

After taking one of Zimbler’s tours, a family from Ireland went home and said Mass for him, sending him the Mass card later.

“That was one of the most moving experiences that happened to me,” he said.

With the center open, the families association will be able to lead more daily tours and offer tourists a better sense of context. Ielpi hopes to double the number of docents to 300.

Visitors will enter the Tribute Center through the World Trade Center Community Remembered gallery, which has a grid on the floor pointing out geographically where one is in Lower Manhattan and a model of the Trade Center. The gallery also has a graphic of the view from the towers and a film depicting life in and around the W.T.C. The film is narrated with sounds from the buildings of the elevators, the PATH station, the ringing of bells. Cedar St. and Battery Park City residents narrate the film, along with local shopkeepers and even Philippe Petit, the acrobat who traversed the Trade Center towers on tightrope.

“You get the full experience. You get a taste of what it was like there. This is a trip back to the vibrancy of what it was like,” said Lynn Tierney, president of the Tribute Center. Tierney was deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Dept. on 9/11 and lost many colleagues in the Fire Dept. on that day.

Another gallery gives a timeline of 9/11, including the Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Penn., and the attack on the Pentagon. One gallery tells the story of the rescue effort, displaying tools used by rescue workers. The gallery called Tribute honors those who died, displaying memorabilia provided by family members. The family of one firefighter who died sent a shadow box with a cigar, a heart cut out of his firefighter coat, a picture of him with his brother and sister, a photograph of a family reunion from the summer of 2001 and money, “because he was tight with money,” said Tierney.

“The most important moment of this whole thing was when we sat here in the deep of winter and the families sent us submissions,” said Tierney. “That did it for all of us. Anytime there was a doubt about why we were doing this, we’d open an envelope from a mother.”

The redevelopment of the World Trade Center has been marred by setbacks and delays. Five years later, only one building — 7 World Trade Center — has been rebuilt. Work on the memorial has only just begun and timelines for many projects have been repeatedly setback. The Tribute Center, created by a single organization that didn’t have to answer to opposing points of view from rival factions, avoided the complications that hampered the larger projects.

The families association signed a lease for the property in December 2004 and began construction at the beginning of this year. Nine months later, the center is preparing to open.

“We said, ‘Let’s not let another five years go by,’ ” said Tierney. “The fact that people were able to push through — there’s no politics in this effort — has been a really healthy thing…. It takes a tremendous amount of will.”


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