Interview with Kimberly Grieger (Tribute WTC Visitor Center) and with Gary Marlon Suson (Ground Zero Workshop)
1) Interview with Kimberly Grieger, Visitor Guide at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center (September 11, 2010):
Interview with Kimberly Grieger from the Tribute Center
J: So you usually people giving the tours are volunteers, but you are employed here. Can you describe what you do? Do you also give visitor tours?
G: Most of our visitor tours are handled by volunteers but I am the one employed here – the requirement for our volunteer tour guides is that they are either a family member or a survivor of the attacks, a rescue or recovery worker of some kind or a local resident, for example, one of our best tour guides lives upstairs. She has an incredible story about what is was like being right here. And because we give four tours a day at minimum, sometimes six tours a day here at the Tribute Center, sometimes somebody gets stuck in traffic or gets sick at the last minute and can’t do a tour, so they kept me as an employee and I volunteered my two tours a month like all volunteers were asked to, but I also fill in for all the last minute walking tours. I am also the family liaison, that’s why I am here today talking to all the families. And I deal with problems families have, things like identification to get into the site – you saw how tough security was this morning – then families need also special identification to prove that they are family members, I help them get that, insurance issues, I help them with their memorial charities of their loved ones – there are thousands of those, they’re beautiful. I just help them to make life a little bit easier.
J: So it is not just a Tribute Center here, but also kind of a meeting center where families and family member who lost their loved ones can meet?
G: Yeah. We started as the September 11th Families’ Association and Tribute is just one of our projects which just turned into our biggest project by far. But we do other things as well. For example , in our office yesterday we just had a big care package stuffing for the U.S.S. New York which is the ship with the steel from the World Trade Center site and we wanted to give the crew a present, so we had local sports teams and local companies donate silly things, but a lot of silly things. They are nice and they are funny and we had people from companies affected by 9/11, companies where a lot of people died, come in and pack packages and write personal notes – we have the first name of every crew member so everyone gets a personally packed bag signed by somebody personally affected by 9/11. So we do things like that as well.
J: So it is more than just remembering what happened but reaching out – connecting the families.
G: Exactly. We also reach out to people affected by other disasters. We are close to the Oklahoma City Bombing people, the London Bombing, the Madrid Bombing, in as much as our language barriers allow us. They are not good at English and I am not good at Spanish so we do have some Spanish speakers at our office but they are busy, too and we really have to work that out. And we also do general anti-terrorism work, you know, of all kinds.
J: So what kind of people usually come to visit the Tribute Center? Do you get more tourists, or more people that have been affected, more New Yorkers or more people from all over the world? Or is this too generalized?
G: No, we can do some generalizing. We were opened in September 2006 and since that time we had almost 1.8 million people come through the doors. And if you noticed, the place is small so we have been very, very busy. It has been really exciting. I’d say 60% of them are from out of the country, probably 35% are not from the tri-state area, which is New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, the area right around here, and maybe 5% come from this area and those 5% don’t come very often, they usually come when they have an out-of-town friend visiting – it is the way that you don’t go to your tourist attraction in your own town…. So I think it is a little bit of that and a little bit of.. ., well, they lived through 9/11 and that was traumatic enough, they are not eager to relive that. But we find that we have visitors from all over the world. There are some countries which we get very seldom, but we have no idea why so and what comes to my mind are just the countries which we have very often. But at least we get them but certainly not every day – people would remark on that. And when we sign people up for our tours we ask them, because our guides like to know, their first name and where they are from…
J: So people basically come to grasp an event they only saw on TV? Would you say that that is the motivation of most people?
G: Very much. After a tour everybody tells you where they were at 9/11, how they heard. It is probably the number one thing… I should also say you might connect to the reason why they let me be your tour guide. I worked in Tower Two before the attacks, briefly, only off and on, I didn’t work there everyday – and then I came down here with a request for Salvation Army for 8 ½ month…. I was just lucky. I met the best people in the universe and it was really good and fortunate to be part of that…
J: So you have been working here ever since? You transformed your volunteer work into being employed here?
G: Pretty much. I worked at the site until June 2002. And then I have met one of the founders of the Tribute Center at the recovery. It was a fireman who lost his son [Mr. Lee Ielpi] … but I met him and they needed some help doing odd jobs and at first I would just go in once every three weeks or something and do a few odd jobs and it turned into more work and more work and they kept asking “could you come back?” and when they got a little bit of extra money they paid me. And that is my job now so I have been here ever since. I have been really, really lucky.
J: Now the temporary exhibit is about why teach 9/11 and what can 9/11 teach us. What other temporary exhibits did you have in the basement before?
G: We had one that were children’s responses to 9/11…. We did one about the businesses – and how they came back- especially what it is like to be dislocated without your records and without your supplies and everything and then put it back together again. You know 100,000 jobs were lost at 9/11 just at once. We did one on the U.S.S. New York, we did one on interfaith relations and it was on Christian relations. It was more than interfaith it was more about different cultures responding, so it wasn’t particularly religious but it worked out to be. And we did one more in depth about the recovery and some of the workers we did not talk about, you know, the iron workers and the transportation workers and the people who did the jobs you couldn’t think of in the recovery.
J: Thank you very much for your time.
2) Interview with Gary Marlon Suson from the Ground Zero Workshop (September 13, 2010)
J: I wrote down a few questions, so I start with what I have. In the CNN interview you said that if you can’t connect you can’t heal. We just realized from talking to other people that now the generation grows up that has not witnessed 9/11 or is now not old enough to understand it… Do you have any experience with children coming here or people that have not lived through it?
S: Yeah, we get children as young as 4, 5 or 5, 6 years old and they were fascinated by the stories and it is hard to believe that it is now world history because I lived it. But for a 5,6 or 7 year old boy or girl it is like they don’t know anything about it. So it is nice to know that I can contribute to the education process, to make them understand what that period of world history was like. And so it is fascinating to observe kids holding audio guides that are bigger than their heads […].
J: We saw that at the Tribute Center they have now a collection, or exhibition on how to teach 9/11 and if it should be taught because apparently it is not in history books yet. And then the question is ‘How do you teach it?’ They said that they try to show stories of heroes, not of sadness.
S: Yeah, a lot of people focus on the tragedy, you know, it was a tragedy but it was also the largest rescue operation in American history with 35,000 people on the rescue that morning. And it is also an example of camaraderie, people coming together; the world came together to support this tragedy. So there are a lot of healthy things you can teach children, that during times of pain and tragedy it brings up the very best of who we are as humankind. And 9/11 is a perfect example of that. I think that the schools are afraid to put it into the history books because they are afraid that perhaps it will scare the young children from getting on airplanes. That’s what I think.
J: So do you think the way to remember it is to… well, it is hard to say what good can come out of it, because it was the biggest tragedy in the last decade.
S: Well, if you have a tragedy you have no choice but to look forward. […] you are down in the dumps, you know, 3,000 people are dead, their remains are scattered all over the World Trade Center Site. […] Of course it brought out the best of us because we have no choice than to have a positive attitude, try to do right by the families, who were grieving, so there was nothing, nothing really [laughs] Lessons aside, I wish that the tragedy had never happened.
J: So what would your stand be on what way to remember it, because there are so many things going on like the Tribute Center and slowly other museums and memorials are being built…
S: There are really only two in the city: the Tribute Center and this one.
J: And the Fire museum has a tiny 9/11 room.
S: Yeah, the Fire museum was there before 9/11.
S: Really it is the Tribute Center and the Ground Zero Museum Workshop. There is no right or wrong when it comes to memorializing. Everyone memorializes the victims in their own way. The Tribute Center has a lot of wonderful qualities about it. It is a helpful, healing, educating place for people to come and it serves its purpose. And the GZMW is a wonderful healing place that educates people. We all are a little piece of the puzzle, the puzzle being remembering those who died.
J: I noticed that it is called the Ground Zero Museum Workshop. What exactly is the workshop part in it?
S: Well, the workshop refers to the interaction. This is an interactive museum. Most museums you walk in and there is no one there really to greet you, there is no one that is going to talk to you, to take you on a private tour, to be there for you, to ask questions. You are not going to be allowed to take up whole, rare artifacts at the Guggenheim, they are behind glass. So I chose the word “workshop” because it is a very neat museum and it is interactive. So that’s how I came up with the name. I wanted the name to note that people would be actively doing something at the museum as opposed to standing around looking at a photo.
J: And is it more tourists that come here or also family members?
S: Everybody – survivors, family members, visitors from all over Europe, everywhere…
J: I wrote my BA thesis on 9/11 as a cultural trauma. Do you have the feeling that it changed New York or even the nation at some place fundamentally?
S: It is hard to say, you know, it is like, right after 9/11 New York City came together and we have the big city become a little community. And as the years go on people started to heal, you know, that tragedy, I would say, brought out the very best. In the city, all those personalities that are used to stand introverted to themselves. NYC is a wonderful city. Sometimes people perceive it as cold or people are rude and so I felt that right after 9/11 people let their guard down and we got to see who people really were. I think as time has gone by, that guard is going back up. So, as far as for a change, I would say it is a scar in the city. I think that every New Yorker, walking around, has a little scar from 9/11 and you are not going to see it as they are walking down that street but they carry it and when they walk up here you see it come out.
J: But a scar is different than a wound. So the healing is not complete but…?
S: Well, I don’t know. A scar, a wound, now you are getting into surgery. [laughs]
J: Then I have a last question what we were interested in because I read on your homepage that you wrote a play.
J: I don’t know when you wrote it. Was it performed yet?
S: I wrote it and was still writing it in 2003-2004.
J: And is it completed?
S: It is called American Brother.
J: Yeah, I have that written down.
S: It is completed. We just did a reading of it on CNN actually two days ago. You can see clips from it. So if you go to CNN.com and type in “Ground Zero Museum Workshop” you see that the story was aired only two days ago. And it shows clips from our reading. So in August, we did a reading of the play with some really well-respected Broadway actors and the play is completed. And right now we are kind of making some finishing touches to it. We are trying to raise the money to [perform] the play for off Broadway by the spring of 2011.
J: So what is the play about?
S: The play is about a firefighter, Leo Camp. Leo lost his older brother, who is a police officer and the entire play takes place on Christmas Eve at Ground Zero in 2001. And Leo is very angry at the world, he doesn’t believe in God, he’s lost his faith in religion, he won’t go home to his family and refuses to leave Ground Zero until he finds the remains of his brother. He is completely obsessed with finding his brother. And the play is about this relationship. First of all the play is about guilt and redemption, he feels guilty for his brother’s death for which you have to see the play to understand why. But it is really about the relationship between Leo and a Ground Zero female chaperone who tries to help him come to terms with the feelings that he’s having. She tries to teach him that one day he will feel emotions again, so it is a struggle because he wants to be left alone and she is desperately trying to reach him on a spiritual level and the play summarizes a lot of the anger that I saw at Ground Zero during that period regarding the family members and the firemen who have lost their firehouses, lost their family members, it is a very volatile period. I think that this play will help visitors to understand what it is like to be inside Ground Zero during the recovery period. And I hope the play will be a source of healing for many. Like I said its CNN education goes healing.
J: So like identifying oneself with the people in the play…
S: You can see it that way. You can relive the period through the characters, what it was like to be down at the Ground Zero because the public does not know what it was like to be inside. A very small handful of people got to work during the recovery and whoever did work during that period, their lives were very, very touched and their lives will probably never be the same.
J: Thank you very much for your time.