Ten years on from 9/11: reinventing Lower Manhattan

Ten years on from 9/11, the devastated zone of New York City has adopted a unique approach to regeneration, marketing and comms.

Lower Manhattan skyline
Lower Manhattan skyline

New York is arguably the world’s greatest city. It is also a tourism phenomenon. Each year, tens of millions of visitors flock to the Big Apple’s heady mix of breathtaking skyscrapers, cultural icons and world-class shops.

But exactly ten years ago it suffered the sort of trauma that no city should face. The events of 11 September 2001 took thousands of lives and, for many others, changed their relationship with New York City.

In the immediate aftermath, tourist numbers fell during consecutive years, threatening local businesses and jobs. International visitor numbers took nearly five years to recover. Meanwhile the area of Lower Manhattan, where the twin towers once proudly stood, was devastated.

Since then tourists – who understandably wanted to see the site – were met with a massive construction zone and little else to view, other than some hastily assembled memorial messages. These visitors gathered in buildings overlooking the site, up to half a mile away, gawping over what was once described as ‘Ground Zero’. Much more importantly, the families of the fallen had no official memorialfor their loved ones. But from this weekendall this will finally change.

On 11 September this year there will be a dedication ceremony for the victims’ families. The following day the National September 11 Memorial will open to the public, with free, timed tickets. The memorial itself is a tree-lined plaza and two pools constructed in the footprints of the collapsed towers.

The pools, with 30-foot waterfalls cascading down four sides, are topped with panels etched with the names of nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks in Manhattan, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, plus those killed in a 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Between four and five million visitors are expected during the first year of the memorial’s opening.

An uncompleted museum on the site, to house 9/11 artefacts such as fire trucks, is due in September 2012. The following year the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower – currently half-built – is set to be completed.

Over the next few years visitors will see the accelerated renaissance of Lower Manhattan, including new hotel and restaurant openings; a massive exercise in urban regeneration, commemoration and, of course, marketing and PR.

It is an enterprise led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in conjunction with a plethora of agencies.On the marketing and PR side, a central pillar is NYC & Company, the city’s unique marketing, tourism and partnerships arm (see Power Players)

Bloomberg, a marketer at heart, has recognized that New York City is indeed a brand. In 2006 he brought together the former tourism bureaux and City Hall to work as a unified marketing body. He also put an ad man in charge of NYC & Co – CEO George Fertitta – creating a body that feels like an ad agency and does so much more than market the city internationally.

Tourism remains a big part of its remit, however, and NYC & Co forecasts a record 50 million tourists by 2012. But, crucially, the organization is also responsible for helping Bloomberg achieve urban regeneration that is both sensitive and sustainable.

Fertitta is ably supported in this quest by chief comms officer Kimberly Spell, a former journalist and political comms expert who presently is heavily involved in the campaign behind the memorial.

‘This is very much a comms-driven programme,’explains Spell, from the Midtown base of NYC & Co.

‘There’s obviously huge interest in the memorial and we want people to see the tremendous rebuilding of the WTC site, and to go and paytheir respects. We also hope that visitors will stay to see the revitalisation of Lower Manhattan. We have to balance a travel and tourism story with the obvious sensitivities of such an important memorial, and the local requirements of residents and businesses in the downtown area.’

NYC & Co is currently running the Get More NYC: Lower Manhattan campaign, to encourage visitors to check out, and stay in, the city’s increasingly lively southern tip.

In the UK, NYC & Co is using the London- based PR/marketing agency Hills Balfour to run a huge campaign to raise awareness of the tenth anniversary over here. The UK’s key media have been invited to visit Lower Manhattan to learn about the memorial and Downtown as it is now.

At the memorial itself, PRWeek was recently invited to walk around the nearcompleted site. Standing right in the middle is a pear tree, still charred from the terrorist attacks but now rejuvenated, thanks to several years of being nursed in a park in the Bronx. It is a classic ‘tree of hope’ symbolising survival and rebirth.

Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, sits in his office overlooking this construction site. He says: ‘For so long we have been dedicated to five million people having a safe and memorable experience. The pressure has been overwhelming because we have so many important stakeholders. Every single day myself, and my team, have been laser focused on 11 September 2011. It will be a day when I’m glad to finally have a break.’

But while the world’s media will focus on this narrow zone for the next few days, NYC & Co’s job is to maintain global interest in the city’s regenerating areas during the months to come.

Bloomberg and London Mayor Boris Johnson, who have formed a strong relationship, are said to be close to announcing another partnership. The deal is likely to see New York helping promote next year’s London Olympics, while London will help further in Bloomberg’s regeneration and tourism efforts.

For now, Lower Manhattan is the equivalent of London’s Olympics zone, but, of course, with a much more poignant resonance.

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