In Memoriam: Preview Site Displays Plans for 9/11 Memorial


Published: March 2, 2011

The 9/11 Memorial Preview Site is easy to miss. Though, as its entrance sits less than a block from Ground Zero, it’s hard to imagine that an elaborate façade would attract much more attention. Even the local Dunkin’ Donuts, in all its neon glory, loses its drawing power in the shadow of the scaffolding and cranes which signify so much more than simply “Construction Zone Ahead.” The plans on display at the Preview Site serve to reassure that the September 11 Memorial and Museum will breathe new life into a part of the city that feels as though it has been on life support these past nine years. As an exhibition, however, the preview site leaves much to be desired.

The Financial District is bustling, but as Vesey Street approaches the World Trade Center, the mood becomes somber, the pacing slower. Inside the preview site, a photographic timeline borders the ceiling, recounting the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Below, freestanding signs detail the plans for what will eventually commemorate these events. Television screens display computer-generated images of the memorial, while a scale model of the proposed World Trade Center area is displayed in the center of the showroom. Designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial will honor the lives of those lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Thirty-foot walls of cascading water—the largest man-made waterfalls in the U.S.—will enclose two pools marking the footprints of the Twin Towers. The pools, each a square-acre in size, will be surrounded by bronze parapets bearing victims’ names. These will be grouped, not alphabetically or geographically, but so as to allow fallen family members, friends and co-workers to be listed together. Swamp White Oaks are the trees of choice for the Memorial Plaza. They will change with the seasons and, according to the memorial’s website, “by reminding the visitor of the natural cycle of life…will convey a spirit of hope and renewal.”

The back wall of the showroom displays a film-loop entitled “Lens on Ground Zero and the Future.” Time-lapse footage of the reconstruction, taken with 14 35-mm cameras, is intercut with interviews of those affected by the terrorist attacks. Rescue workers recount how they felt inside the burning towers. A woman covered in burns tells the camera, “It could be worse.” It is stirring, to be sure, though the bare, white wall onto which the film is projected feels less minimalist than it does makeshift. The end of the reel directs viewers to a website. Jim Whitaker’s short film, it turns out, is simply a teaser for his feature-length documentary, “Project Rebirth.” The documentary will surely be affecting, but the realization that the exhibit’s featured film is little more than a series of extended trailers is disappointing.

The relatively small space is divided in half. The half not so easily seen from the street is the museum shop. Commemorative key chains, calendars, and mugs fill the shelves. $19.99 will get you a DVD which “includes images of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center.” Though all proceeds go to supporting the memorial and museum, the site nevertheless begins to assume the unpleasant atmosphere of a tourist trap.

The memorial itself is in exceptional taste. It is respectful of the great suffering and loss that it represents. When finished, it will be a profound place to reflect upon the evils that exist in this world, and on the beauty that persists in spite of it. The same cannot be said of the Preview Site. It is little more than a glorified proposal. There is the occasional artifact on display—a crude sampling of the museum to come.

Behind the merchandise and towards the back of the site, there is a wall that could all too easily be passed over. At first glance, it looks like yet another board displaying plans for the memorial. Rather, it is the “9/11 Oral History Project.” There are two subdivisions: “Story Corps” and “Voices of Witness and Remembrance.” Headsets hang next to them; phones without mouthpieces. Upon pressing a button, the listener hears a voice on the other end—a rescue worker, or someone who lived or worked in lower Manhattan at the time. These are not brief sound bites, but substantial interviews. Though about eight years and a voice recording device separate the listener from the speaker, an overwhelming human connection develops. The voice cracks; then it cracks a joke. Not everyone’s experience was as horrific as those most directly affected by the attacks, but everyone was impacted, and this wall affirms that everyone’s story counts.

Ultimately, the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site may not be worth the subway ride downtown. What is worth the trip is Ground Zero itself. Here, on display, are the years’ worth of human resilience and hard work necessary to get to the point where a memorial is feasible. The memories of those lost live on, not behind plate glass, but in the reality of this place, and in the enduring human spirit.