October 30, 2010

The Guided Tour: A Visit to the World Trade Center Site and the Statue of Liberty

(Note: Following Superstorm Sandy, tours of Liberty Island are limited to views from the harbor. Visits to the monument are scheduled to resume on July 4, 2013.) 

For someone who has spent the better part of the last three years designing self-guided tours around New York City, and indeed content to pursue urban adventures in a solitary way, you may be surprised to learn that I went on an actual guided tour this past Monday. The occasion was an invitation from NYCTrip.com, a vacation company started in 1983, to follow along on one of their tours, specifically a guided trip to the World Trade Center site and then to the Statue of Liberty. I’m not opposed to group tours, and for reasons I will explain, visiting some sites in New York may be better suited for the organized tour than venturing alone.


The Statue of Liberty, as seen from a ferry to Liberty Island, October 25, 2010.


Our guide was a native New Yorker, trained actress, licensed city guide, and a storyteller of the first order. With an authoritative brassy voice and apparent comfort in speaking to large groups of people, she had what it took to corral the fourteen of us, a group that included domestic and overseas visitors as well as children, through the mazes of lower Manhattan and the ferries. More importantly, she mastered guiding us through the complicated and often difficult landscape that the first subject of the tour presented - the attacks on the World Trade Center and its aftermath.


The site of the World Trade Center, under construction, as seen from the World Financial Center

It takes much tact and skill to guide visitors through the events of September 11, describing the paths of the planes, the challenges of response and rescue, the effects on life in Lower Manhattan, the physical matter of smoke and dust. In the course of this visit, she took us to two central points of the rescue operations - St. Paul's, explaining how the church was spared, in part, by its sycamore tree, and to St. Peter's, the oldest Catholic parish in New York that now houses the World Trade Center cross (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Trade_Center_cross). We then visited the World Financial Center, climbing to the top of the stairs in the Winter Garden to look out the windows to the construction scene below. From on high, we could visualize the progress of the rebuilding, including the new skyscraper, One World Trade Center, now well in progress, and the memorial fountains that will take the place of the footprints of the towers.

Millen handled the subject well, acknowledging that she's sometimes uncomfortable with her role, not wanting to feel exploitative as a guide in this sensitive spot. She also demonstrated sensitivity to various opinions and theories about the events of September 11. She is not shy, however, and therefore forthcoming with details of the tragedy and the politics of the response and rebuilding. Negotiating the site is also logistically challenging, so for anyone unsure about visiting the activities at the World Trade Center, joining an organized tour with a capable leader is highly recommended.

Battery Park, from on board the ferry to Liberty Island


The NYCVP's Ground Zero and Statue of Liberty tour certainly paid off in terms of priority access to the ferry to Liberty Island. On a day of lovely weather, it's not unusual to wait for upwards of four hours for the ferry. Much of the wait has to do with the security measures prior to boarding the boat, a security level on par with the airports. When our group arrived to stand in line, we were relieved to see the guards ushering us through to a much shorter line than the one that snaked around the perimeter of Battery Park. While we waited, our guide told us more stories of the Statue, a narrative that she began as soon as we left the World Financial Center and continued all the way down Greenwich Street. Winding through the line, we heard about Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s fascination with the colossus of Rhodes, the politics of the French Third Republic that presented some delays, the sensation of the building of the statue in the sculptor’s Paris workshop, the copper construction, the collaboration with Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, fundraising efforts, the complex shipments of its various pieces, the installation and the statue’s dedication on October 28, 1886. Perhaps some of the tour members drifted out of the range of our guide’s voice for some of these stories, but no one could say that we were lacking in information. 

After finishing with the security lines and putting ourselves back together, our guide led us on the boat and up the stairs to the starboard bow. There, she explained, we would have the best views of the Statue as we approached Liberty Island. It is a thrilling experience to come in close contact with the colossal statue, and in my mind, she’s a startling shade of verdigris, the coating that causes the copper to turn this color, much more vibrant than I thought. As we reached the next round of security leading into the monument – the tour provided monument access passes with our tour - our guide bid us goodbye. We were off on our own now, free to explore the island and to continue on to Ellis Island, if we wished. We had greatly benefitted from her guidance. 


An unusual view of the Statue of Liberty, from the vantage point of one of the outdoor cafes on the island.




I stayed another hour or so exploring various views of the Statue of Liberty and the great views of the New York harbor from the perspective of the statue’s pedestal. What moved me most in my visit was imagining myself as the woman represented by the statue, looking out on the distant seas and casting a friendly beacon of welcome to those who would seek these shores.

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See NYCTrip.com's page on the tours for more information. Their Ground Zero and Statue of Liberty tour typically begins at a spot in a Midtown near the hotels and a station serving the downtown E train. The tour lasts approximately 5 1/2 hours.


Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Monday, October 25, 2010.

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