Volume 22, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 28 - September 3, 2009

Vendors beware. Official W.T.C. souvenirs for sale at new museum

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Souvenirs on sale at the new 9/11 Memorial Preview Site on Vesey St.

By Julie Shapiro

The vendors who circle the World Trade Center site hawking disaster-themed souvenirs are getting some competition.

Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, frequently walked past the vendors on his way to work and noticed that tourists who stopped to gape at the photo flipbooks also asked the vendors about the future of the site, and they didn’t always get accurate answers.

“I wanted us to provide a more authentic experience,” Daniels said Wednesday morning, standing inside the newly opened 9/11 Memorial Preview Site on Vesey St.

The 3,000-square-foot preview site, in a former camera shop near Church St., is equal parts museum, visitors’ center and souvenir shop. A photo timeline around the perimeter traces events from the 1993 bombing to the projected opening of the 9/11 memorial on Sept. 11, 2011. Interactive kiosks allow visitors to see live footage from the construction site — they can print a time-stamped version and take it home in a commemorative folio for $4.95 — and to learn about the victims and the artifacts the future museum will hold. They can also share their memories of the day and learn about community service initiatives.

About half the space at the preview site is devoted to memorabilia, including $18 Twin Towers T-shirts, $3 F.D.N.Y. key chains and $8.95 photo brochures that are less sensational than those the vendors sell on the street for about the same price.

All the proceeds from the preview site merchandise will help build the future 9/11 memorial and museum, but selling souvenirs commemorating an event in which nearly 3,000 people were killed can still be a touchy subject.

Downtown Express photos by Lorenzo Ciniglio

A motorcycle owned by an electrician killed on 9/11 has become a memorial and is now on display at the new Memorial Preview location.

A 39-year-old woman who handled human remains after 9/11 said she was surprised to see so much space at the preview site devoted to souvenirs.

“There’s a demand for it,” the woman said with resignation.

The woman, who did not want her name printed, fought back tears as she described her memories from the aftermath of 9/11, brought to the surface by the photos and videos at the preview site. “People need to remember,” she said.

Of the souvenirs for sale, the woman added, “This doesn’t bother me as much as people at the site selling photos.”

Lower Manhattan residents have long lambasted the street vendors who sell 9/11 material. Vending is prohibited on the blocks around the World Trade Center site, but many of those who carry their wares are protected under the First Amendment.

“I think it’s a disgrace,” said Paul Sipos, a Community Board 1 member, of the lurid booklets the vendors sell. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t go down there.”

Sipos had not seen the merchandise the preview site is selling, so he couldn’t say if it was more appropriate.

Miguel, 32, who sells 9/11 photo booklets on Church St., defended his trade Wednesday afternoon, shortly after the preview site’s opening ceremony. He carried his booklets in a black messenger bag and moved quickly along the street, because he said people from the museum had been stopping him and scaring away his customers for the past week.

“We were here first,” said Miguel, who did not give his last name. “We’re just trying to make a living…. The big fish always eat the little fish.”

Miguel said the police know him and the other 10 or so vendors who work the area around the site. The police sometimes tell him to keep moving, but they don’t disrupt his business, he said. Miguel said he and the other vendors keep an eye on the area, calling 911 if they see suspicious behavior or people who need medical attention.

Michelle Breslauer, spokesperson for the 9/11 memorial foundation, said there was no organized effort to displace the street vendors.

The souvenirs at the preview site range in price from 50-cent postcards to a $75 coffee-table book. T-shirts and bags designed for the memorial foundation bear slogans “In Darkness We Shine Brightest” and “United in Hope.” The F.D.N.Y. and N.Y.P.D. memorabilia was most popular on the first day, a cashier said.

John Cartier, 41, whose brother James was killed on 9/11 while doing electrical work in the South Tower, said the souvenirs are fine because their sale will help build the memorial and museum.

“But if we could do this all without money…,” he trailed off.

Cartier donated his brother’s Harley Davidson motorcycle to the memorial foundation, and it sits in the window drawing visitors inside.

Many of the tourists who visited the preview site Wednesday, the first day it was officially open, were glad to have found a place to get information, not just souvenirs.

Przemek Lukasik, 19, who was visiting from Poland, said the preview center was helpful because after walking around the fenced-off construction, “I just wanted to see what is inside.”

The preview site, funded with a $1 million grant from the Starr International Foundation, is free to enter. It is separate from the Tribute WTC Visitor Center on Liberty St., which opened in 2006 and charges adults $10 admission. Tribute co-founders Jennifer Adams and Lee Ielpi attended the preview site’s opening Wednesday and said afterward that they did not view it as competition.

While the Tribute Center focuses on the past, the preview site focuses on the future, so the two complement each other, Ielpi said, echoing similar comments by the foundation’s Daniels. Tribute also runs tours led by local residents and relatives of victims.

Adams said that while Tribute served more than 500,000 people last year, there are still many more tourists looking for information and a place to share their thoughts. The preview center will be especially good for those who are just passing through and do not have an hour or two to spend at the Tribute Center, Adams said.

It is unclear what will happen to the Tribute Center once the 9/11 memorial and museum open at the Trade Center site. Daniels, president of the memorial foundation, said only that Tribute’s programs “are incredibly important.”

Adams said Tribute is talking to the foundation about how to share programming and content.

One thing the preview site has that Tribute does not is a recording booth where visitors can tape three-minute versions of their 9/11 stories, some of which will be incorporated into the future museum. StoryCorps will also work with the memorial foundation to use the booth for longer interviews.

The preview space quickly filled with tourists after an opening ceremony on Wednesday. The dozens of people who milled around kept their voices hushed and often left wiping their eyes. Many stood at the back watching a four-minute video clip from Project Rebirth, which combines footage of World Trade Center construction progress with stories from survivors, victims’ relatives and recovery workers.

Monica Iken, a memorial foundation board member whose husband was killed on 9/11, said the opening of the preview center made her feel that the construction of the memorial was real.

“You realize that it’s going to happen,” she said.


The preview site (212-267-2047, national911memorial.org) is at 20 Vesey St. between Broadway and Church Sts. and is open Monday through Wednesday and Friday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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