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RESPONSE TO TERROR | COLUMN ONE

'Sacred Ground' in N.Y.

The wrenching mess that was once the World Trade Center is now the city's hottest attraction. Far-flung visitors feel a 'human need,' as one put it, to absorb the tragedy.

November 29, 2001|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — From world leaders pulling up in stretch limousines to cheerleaders in town from Ohio, ground zero at the former World Trade Center is drawing thousands of people a day who feel a need to view the wreckage firsthand and somehow pay homage.

In a sad twist, the very event that drove tourists away from New York City now appears to be drawing them back. Although attendance at Broadway shows and museums is still down, hotel occupancy numbers are nearly where they were a year ago. Concierges, cab drivers and even somewhat reluctant city officials say the site of the attacks is exerting a powerful pull.

"It's a hot spot," said Keith Yazmir, spokesman for the New York Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "It's certainly not something we're out there marketing as a visitor destination. At the same time, we understand there is something in people that makes them want to serve witness to what happened and to the people who were lost."

Only the site itself remains blocked off by a perimeter of chain link fencing and plywood walls--still an almost incomprehensible scene of destruction stretching five blocks wide and four blocks long.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 12, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Boston street--A story in Section A on Nov. 29 about the World Trade Center disaster site misspelled the name of a street in Boston. It is Newbury Street.

All nearby streets have reopened and entire adjacent buildings are shrouded in red and black netting to keep debris from falling onto the growing number of pedestrians below. People arrive daily from around the world to peer through gaps in the walls or aim video cameras down side streets at bits of twisted wreckage.

Recognizing the growing crush of visitors, city officials are now discussing where to erect a possible viewing platform that would not interfere with construction and recovery workers still laboring at the site.

"The mayor has said publicly that it is important to respect ground zero, both as a crime scene and as sacred ground . . . and he asks that people behave accordingly," said Matthew Higgins, press secretary to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "But otherwise, it's natural that people are going to want to pay their respects."

While many are talking about eventually building a formal memorial, the site has assumed--on its own--iconic status as a national burial ground and war site.

"I lost my faith in humanity after Sept. 11," said Yves Laurent, 42, of Lausanne, Switzerland. Wrestling with what to do, he thought: "I'm coming to New York; it will give me strength. I saw everything on TV, but I just wanted to see it in person."

Like others, he is haunted by the sheer number of people who died so suddenly in one spot.

"I need to make a prayer to help them understand that there is still humanity," he said, gesturing with his chin toward a skeletal scrap of building facade.

Hotel staff and taxicab drivers across Manhattan agree that the top question on visitors' lips this holiday season is how to find the attack site.

"In past years, they all wanted dinner reservations and tickets to the shows," said Carmen Lopez, 32, concierge at the Hotel Avalon on 32nd Street near Madison Avenue. "Now, it's a must to go downtown. . . . They all want to know: 'How do we get there? What can we see?' "

Occupancy Rates for Hotels Near Normal

She and others said that desire and unseasonably warm weather have combined with sharply discounted room prices to push occupancy rates back above 80% this week. That mirrors numbers provided by the visitor's bureau, which show hotel occupancy for the week ending Nov. 10 at 88.5%, slightly down from the 91.2% of the same week last year. It is a giant step up from the weeks after the attacks, when occupancy rates plummeted to 45.4%.

Meanwhile, combined attendance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Bronx Zoo were down 27% at the end of October. Broadway ticket sales were down 9% for the week of Nov. 11, and though the two hit shows, "The Producers" and "Mamma Mia!" are sold out through next year, other shows are hurting.

Cab driver Amjoud Mahmood said he now ferries as many as five fares a day to street corners near ground zero. "From Virginia, from Texas, even from Europe, they are all coming and they all want to go there to see," he said, adding that sometimes passengers ask him to wait while they take a quick look down a side street at the wreckage.

"They are all so sad when they come back," he said.

Indeed, native New Yorkers have mixed reactions to the visitors, ranging from shared understanding to weary annoyance to flagrant opportunism. "Bin Laden missed us, don't you too!" proclaims a sign for a Park Place restaurant, just north of the site.

Half a block east, Lower Broadway is a hawker's bazaar, complete with performing clowns, street musicians and vendors plying mounds of cheap American flag pins and New York Fire Department T-shirts.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the heart-stopping rumble of the demolition of a smaller building, 5 World Trade Center, provided head-turning accompaniment for a disgruntled flute player performing "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

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