Nine million tourists visit Lower Manhattan each year, and a large number of them make a stop at Ground Zero. Many leave with souvenirs. Those who’ve paid the $15 entrance fee for the official visitors’ center can buy commemorative coins, postcards, and other respectful memorabilia in a gift shop. For cheaper and more visceral mementos, the tourists take to the streets. Around the World Trade Center site, there’s a bustling gray market, one that’s dominated by picture books filled with photos of planes exploding and buildings crumbling.
A demand for the books arose soon after 9/11, as visitors began to circle Ground Zero. New York’s immigrant street vendors, those weather vanes of populist commerce, quickly capitalized on tourists’ desire for souvenirs. Today, they sell a half-dozen different books for anywhere from $5 to $15. The books have names like Tragedy and Forever in Our Hearts. Some come with maps and diagrams. Others include plane and building schematics. All of them contain pictures of the carnage, typically about 20 glossy pages worth. Many of the images are memorable (and copyrighted). Shannon Stapleton’s photograph of a fatally injured New York City Fire Department chaplain appears in several books. So does Gulnera Samoilova’s shot of New Yorkers covered in dust. Other pictures are banal or treacly: the New York skyline, a crying policeman, fuzzy rescue dogs.
A few years ago, I saw photo books featuring people jumping from the Twin Towers. Whether a concession to decorum or marketing, the jumpers have disappeared. But the commodification of 9/11 images can still be unsettling. The ambulatory vendors understand the sensitivity of their role. Instead of loudly hawking their wares, they sidle up to tourists and engage them in conversation. A favorite sales strategy is to point to a nearby building, then open a book to reveal 9/11 photographs of the same building, often engulfed in debris.
One such vendor is Manuel. He’s from Peru. He had a job as a waiter near the World Trade Center when the planes hit. Since then, he has sold the picture books. When I approached with questions about his supplier, Manuel pinched me. “Are you a cop?” (In Manuel’s mind, undercover police avoid pinches.) Another vendor named Haji asked, without pinching, if I was in the Mafia.
These reactions speak to the quasi-legal nature of the Ground Zero picture book trade. The vendors know that they don’t need licenses. They know that their books are protected speech under the First Amendment. As long as they have taxpayer identification numbers, the worst that can happen is that the police will shoo them away or ticket them. But they are aware, too, of the unsavory nature of their work. Manuel stashes his books when a patrolman draws near. “When people ask me where the money goes, I tell them it goes in my pocket,” he says.
Survivors of 9/11 don’t like the profiteering, according to Jennifer Adams, the CEO of the visitors’ center. But if the books offend, they are also a testament to the resiliency of free enterprise. If the symbols of global trade could be leveled, grass-roots capitalism could never be denied. It would spring up, literally, amid the rubble. It would then package and sell the rubble.
For the most part, visitors to Ground Zero seem unfazed by the vendors and just as willing to engage in transactions. On a given weekend, you can find dozens of American and foreign tourists haggling. A vendor can sell 10 or 15 books a day, each one at a hefty markup. A middleman for many of the vendors told me the books cost about 70 or 80 cents to print in Chinatown, where shadowy characters pull copyrighted photos off the Internet, add text, and endlessly recycle and reorganize the content, lest the product get stale. New books come out routinely. Some have fake ISBN numbers and bar codes that lend a patina of legitimacy. In the mornings, they are delivered by the box load to Battery Park, where vendors buy them wholesale for $1 or $1.25 each, cram them in messenger bags, and take to the streets.
Manuel and other vendors are cagey about where they get the books, but a few names come up. One is Mun Lee, a Korean who once ran a printing operation out of a Fulton Street store near Ground Zero. Curtis Hackett, the owner of a barbershop that shares space in the building, says Lee ran several businesses there, including a tattoo parlor and a nail salon. But the space where Lee’s photo lab used to be is empty, carpet peeled back, pipes jutting from the walls. Lee was evicted from the building in 2009. He owed his landlord $79,000 in back rent, according to court documents. Control of the book trade has since passed to a Turk named Huseyin Gulgu, whose name the vendors protect zealously. When reached by phone, Gulgu acknowledges that he makes the books, then hangs up.
I got Gulgu’s number from Mark Anthony Niemczyk, the most eccentric huckster at Ground Zero. A mustachioed gargoyle from Tinton Falls, N.J., Niemczyk claims to be both a former Navy SEAL (although other Navy SEALs dispute that) and a firefighter who worked on the WTC rubble pile. He drives a customized red Ford F-150 pickup adorned with the names of the firefighters killed in 9/11. On the back of the truck is an image of the planes hitting the towers and a rotating series of taglines. (Recent entries include “Everything I ever needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11” and the Bin Laden-themed “We didn’t forget. We got him!!!”)
The truck is a honeypot for tourists, whom Niemczyk and his son costume in firefighting gear and photograph smiling in front of Ground Zero. Niemczyk also has a table where he sells T-shirts and other souvenirs, including his own slicker and more expensive 9/11 picture books. He staffs the table with a deaf woman and claims his profits go to a Connecticut charity called High Hopes that offers therapeutic horse riding for disabled people and is favored by the mother of one of the deceased firefighters. But High Hopes reports that Niemczyk has never donated any money.
As much as the immigrant street vendors respect his guile, they loathe Niemczyk personally. The feeling is mutual. “I call them stinkbombs,” Niemczyk says of the immigrant vendors. “They’re not even American. That burns my ass.”
How much could it really burn? When Niemczyk ran out of his books one day, he tracked down Gulgu’s middleman, Ramazah Sahin. Niemczyk bought 20 “stinkbomb” books from Sahin for $1.25 each. He sold all of them in an hour, charging $10 apiece. At the end of the day, Sahin came back. Niemczyk wanted more product. The two men agreed to go into business together and shook hands behind Niemczyk’s truck, in front of the image of planes hitting the Twin Towers. Here was America.