The Memorial Economy: Never Forget? It’ll Cost Ya

At Ground Zero, the Trade in 9/11 Tchotchkes is Going Strong

Bao, as his co-workers call him, is Cuban, looks to be in his mid 50s, and for the past month he’s been selling 9/11 souvenirs on the streets of Lower Manhattan. It’s tough work. Constantly hassled by police and shoved aside by irritable office types hurrying to work, he has to hope he can cadge the odd tourist out of the wandering droves that have come to gawk at Ground Zero and at the construction underway on the new World Trade Center.

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Bao’s hustle is the same deployed by all his colleagues in the area, the local variant on the old hard sell: push one of his armful of limited-edition tribute booklets under the nose of a passerby, and then point to the rising spire of 1 World Trade just across Church Street. His patter is fairly impenetrable, but it’s the gesture that does the work, suggesting the action of a helpful tour guide. It stops the visitor just long enough for Bao to get into his pitch.

Area regulars have heard it only too often. “One of those guys came up to a friend of mine once,” said Joe Daniels, “told her it was 10 bucks for the flipbook, and said five gets donated to the 9/11 memorial. And that’s just not true.” Mr. Daniels would know. He’s the president of the National September 9/11 Memorial & Museum Foundation, the group behind the commemorative complex of reflecting pools and leafy oak groves that’s set to be dedicated in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. In 2009, Mr. Daniels’s organization opened a preview gallery on Vesey Street, to give the public an advance look at the memorial. They knew right away that it would entail a retail component, a place offering tasteful Sept. 11 memorabilia as “a legitimate alternative” to the street trade.

Not to leave it entirely in the hands of the consumer, the Memorial & Museum Foundation and the unaffiliated 9/11 Tribute WTC Visitor Center nearby—which also runs a gift shop out of its Liberty Street location—have taken steps to discourage the tchotchke trade in the surrounding neighborhood. “We work closely with the Police Department, and like many others we want those [sellers] to go away,” says Mr. Daniels. The pressure seems to be working. In recent years, vendors claim the First Precinct has come down hard on unpermitted merchants, and made life sufficiently unpleasant even for documented ones that most have moved on. Gone are the tables laden with flags and patriotic paperweights that sprang up after Sept. 11, 2001.

They’ve been replaced by mobile booklet hawkers like Bao, toward whom the NYPD is obliged to take a somewhat more liberal attitude. “There are certain rules having to do with free speech,” Mr. Daniels points out, and the sale of books can’t be so easily prosecuted as the sale of statuettes. Most of the time, Bao and the rest just flash an inquiring officer a laminated badge with their tax I.D. number, and after a brief harangue about obstructing pedestrian traffic, they’re left alone. Almost anyone can sell a book, just as almost anyone can write one. No one owns a trademark on 9/11.

The memorabilia business has been around as long as there have been ruins to memorialize. In the 18th century, French and English aristocrats making the Grand Tour of Europe would stop in at Paestum, Rome, and at the newly discovered Pompey, returning home with a bit of a column, a bag of potsherds, fragments from a fresco. These they would mount in their salon d’honeur, to show them off to guests as evidence of their worldly wisdom: the grandeur of antiquity accruing to the household by association. The sidewalk sellers at Ground Zero aren’t too unlike the cicerone guides of old, conducting starry-eyed out-of-towners through the rubble to the point of sale. But these days, the real souvenir action is not on site at all. For that, as for so much else in the 21st century, you have to go to eBay.

There, on any given day, you can find such treasures as the six-inch “REMEMBER SEPT. 11 TWIN TOWERS HONOR REPLICA,” featuring all the original outbuildings of the old World Trade, though oddly detailed with a sinister conical spike protruding from top of the southern tower. Bids start at $15.

Those preferring something a little more discreet may want to consider the as-new Twin Towers snow globe that plays Frank Sinatra when you turn it upside down. (“Beautiful memento of tragic day in history.”) But the ultimate for the musically inclined would have to be the “Dave Mathews Band” (sic) concert T, bearing the uncanny legend “Sept. 11, 1999” over an image of the pre-attack skyline. Combining the absolutely eerie with the vaguely confusing, this one, the seller notes, “should be in the ownership of a true Dave Mathews Fan.”

The thing about these items, as about the whole business of memorabilia connected with 9/11, is that it’s only too easy to hang one’s head and groan at it all. Unlike our 19th century forebears, we can’t actually grab a hold of pieces of the wreckage, and so we have to make up for that lack with synthetic substitutes, with merchandise. And the scale and intensity of American consumer culture affords a perfect opportunity for a mass profusion of the sincere, the mawkish and the crass to take hold. As George Carlin once said, in this country, “If you nail two things together that have never been nailed together before, some schmuck will buy it from you.”

The Memorial Economy: Never Forget? It’ll Cost Ya