The shiny new One World Observatory at the WTC complex opened to the public on Friday. The sun was beaming down on hundreds of tourists anxious to get corralled along the building, and eventually to its top. Although ticket holders had scheduled times, the building was running way behind. It was around 3:30PM, an hour after we arrived, that our 2:45PM group was called to the front of the line. We entered. Then had to get on another line.
Similar to an airport, TSA-like workers processed people through metal detectors and two full body scanners. “Remove your belt sir,” barked one of the guards. I told her I don’t have a belt. She told me to “move along.” Once you make it through there, you’re then shepherded into a darkened propaganda room surrounded by imitation bedrock, where square-shaped monitors play testimonials on loop, pontificating about the greatness of 1WTC. With each step through this air conditioned, crypt-like corridor, I felt like I was desecrating a grave for the sake of a great view.
On 9/11, I was two blocks south of the the Twin Towers when they fell and ever since, I’ve had high expectations for the site. But that quickly dissipated with years of legal wrangling and lawsuits, so upon my return, I have been bracing for the worst.
With its long lines, screaming kids, and selfie-sticks, the new WTC complex is the ultimate destination…for tourists. What was once hallowed ground has morphed into an attraction, where an elevator ride costs $32 (or even more if you buy an express pass) and entrance to the restaurant will set you back just as much (yet people are complaining about $30 hot dogs outside?).
Allegedly standing 1,776 feet tall — a jingoistic nod to a date that has nothing to do with 9/11 — it was only granted tallest-building-in-North-America-status due to its spire. The design of faux-1WTC suffered greatly due to NYPD meddling early on in the rebuilding process, leaving NYC with the meh skyscraper that stands there today. Renowned street artist Banksy put it best in 2013 when he proclaimed, “One World Trade Center is a non-event. It’s vanilla. It looks like something they would build in Canada.”
After about 15 minutes of waiting inside the building, we reached the elevator ride. When the doors close, the animation begins. As it ascends, just like in all the published reports, the development of Manhattan through the centuries unfolds, including a brief glimpse of a ghost North Tower aka the real 1WTC. It’s just the type of imagery someone would want to see just before arriving onto the 102nd floor.
From there, they try to usher you to another line to enter the See Forever Theater™ to watch more indoctrination footage. We asked if we could skip it and an usher brought us through another set of doors. As we made our way along that level, another set of staffers invited us to take a digital photo in front of green screen with 1WTC in the background for the low price of $29.99. After all, the building offers breathtaking views of everything but itself.
On the 101st floor, visitors will find the restaurants and the food court. Unlike the legendary Windows of the World restaurant that was destroyed in the September 11th attacks, anyone looking to dine at any of the eateries will have to first pay the pricey elevator ride up, a cost that other rooftop eateries such as the Rainbow Room don’t charge.
Next to the food court there’s a display case populated with all sorts of vintage skywatching instruments and charts and and other stuff that look like they belong in a middle school. As out of place as those items are, adjacent to them were bottles of “One” branded wine, available in both red and white!
The observation levels occupy three floors, but unlike its predecessor at Two World Trade Center or the Empire State Building, there are no open air decks. The main area offering 360-degree views of the city is located two levels down. It’s here that people crowd the window areas in pursuit of the perfect selfie. Unfortunately, these often take several attempts.
As you walk along the observation level, there’s a round glass stage of sorts that gives the feeling that you’re standing high above the street and only separated by a thick sheet of glass. It’s called the “Sky Portal,” but it too, like other features of the building, is not real. It’s simply a camera feed displayed on monitors beneath the floor.
Amongst the high-priced, utterly pointless technology scattered around the space are two rings of monitors which One World Observatory refers to as “City Pulse,” an “interactive skyline concierge” that “allows Guests to deeply connect with the landmarks and neighborhoods they observe from above.” Except it doesn’t. It’s like a shit Epcot Center exhibit that’s more distracting than anything else and is manned by “global ambassadors,” who espouse its bullshitty capabilities.
“As far as arts and culture, this is a live Instagram feed,” explains Ryan, a WTC “brand ambassador” who appears on a TV screen as he points to a montage of photos flashing quickly by. “These are things that people are talking about, sharing with their friends right at this moment.” The final segment then begins and dramatic music starts playing. “You visiting New York are now honorary New Yorkers, because you’re a part of our story, you’re part of the city’s history.” It was borderline parody, but not surprising. The company tasked with running the observatory is Legends Hospitality, the same firm that handles the concessions at Yankee Stadium.
The gift shop, dubbed the Gallery at One World, is just as depressing. It’s haphazardly packed with the type of crap you’d find on any custom branding company’s website: meaningless shot glasses, cufflinks, coffee mugs, magnets, spoons, commemorative coins and overpriced apparel. For some reason, there was a row of Titleist golf balls that didn’t even say 1 WTC on them. Ironically, most of the products were made everywhere but the United States — Canada, China, Korea — which seemed odd for the rah-rah Freedom Tower.
The only exit through the 360 degree viewing station, 100 stories up, is a winding ramp to a bank of elevators. This gave me a sense of uneasiness as I wondered how they would possibly evacuate all these people should an emergency occur. Taking the stairs is not an option, and the ride down — which includes the sensation of flying into a building — comes with a clearly posted warning:
The elevator ride you are about to experience utilizes large format media displays to create the illusion of dynamic motion and viewing beyond the elevator cab walls. Individuals who are sensitive to simulation experiences, or suffer from a fear of heights or motion sickness are advised to either close their eyes or face the elevator doors during the 60 second duration of the ride to avoid discomfort.
As impressive as the view was at the top, it’s hard to justify. This is what we waited 14 years for? After 9/11, New York City had an opportunity to wow the world, to build something great, something inspiring. Or to not build anything at all, and create a tasteful, lasting and affordable memorial. But then it suddenly hit me: The Twin Towers were for New Yorkers. The new WTC site is for tourists.
(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)