old & tall things | day 18 | 4051 miles

july 18th, 2015 | 3 hours ahead

I don’t think the liberty bell or independence hall are terribly important. Sure, they’re symbols of American ideals like freedom and justice, but to be honest, these things could have happened anywhere, and in fact they would have. If you read my day 16 post, you may sense some contradiction. I did express an appreciation for history, particularly in the context of understanding ourselves in the light of historical context, but it’s a little different. Allow me to explain.

The signing of the declaration of independence was the climax of a long amount of history that led up to it. For that reason, it’s absurd to idolize the things that just happened to be the end result. What’s far more amazing is what led up to this accomplishment. Being wowed by a cracked bell or a building in which something historic happened without appreciating the story that led up to it is kind of like going to the gay pride parade just to drink and have a good time. It’s like yes okay, but don’t forget the whole point of the event.

Nowadays, people come to see these things because they’re things to see — or at least, things other people think you should see — not because they have any significant meaning in our lives, and I find it sad because it dilutes and degrades the meaning of those things — that at one point — were incredibly important to some people. I refuse to lie and say that this was an amazing experience. For me, it evokes a feeling of insecurity, a feeling that I don’t truly understand America, the country to which I owe this whole trip and the last 19 years of my life.

I didn’t notice this at the time, but this idea was a motif for the day: under-appreciating things because of a historical ignorance. When we arrived in new york later that evening, we decided to go to the top of the freedom tower — the building that was built to replace the World Trade Center. The 102nd floor is an observatory that attracts tourists like flies to sweet tea.

Spoiler alert for the One World Observatory:

Let me know if this sounds familiar:

You arrive at the building, and there are enormous crowds. Luckily, you printed the tickets out prior to your visit because there was a giant 45-minute, multicultural, and sunburned line snaking back in forth in front, just to buy incredibly overpriced tickets. Once you have tickets, you have to get into another line to take the elevators up to 102. You pass under a big modern sign that reads, “One World Observatory,” and are immediately greeted by a 50 foot curved screen emulating the style of a CIA briefing room. You walk on through a corridor lined with fake rock, screens displaying New York, and projection. On the other side what awaits is a dingily lit space controlled by a series of strategically placed ropes, guiding the line that seems to grow larger and larger by the minute.

After waiting in that line for what appears to be an elevator adorned with several artificial textures and colored lights, you enter and immediately find that the elevator walls are made completely of TV screens. The doors close, and what you find is a touching representation of the new york sky line. The doors open and you’re escorted into a standing theatre with a screen in the shape of a new york sky line. An animated usher who loves his job too much gets all of you to fill the room and begins a video presentation. When the video is over, the screen lifts up and you see the real skyline. You’re at the top, and the next part is the view that you’ve paid to see, but there’s more opportunities to spend your money: gift shops with overpriced merchandise and a restaurant overlooking the entirety of the city.

so recap:

  • expensive tickets
  • theatrical setup to please audience
  • more opportunities to spend money once you’re inside
  • Sounds like disneyland right?

Of course, more than that though it’s been reduced to a tourist trap money machine that was built to please customers. I didn’t realize the impact of such a thing until I spoke to some locals — later on this in another post. What they said was that when the planes hit, “they thought the world was ending,” and that it kind of irks them that they re-built the buildings because it seems disrepectful. It’s kind of a sick interpretation, but if you think about it, the builders are essentially capitalizing on 9/11 by catering to customers with no appreciation for what happened 14 years before. They cover the sullen meaning underneath with a nice view and some souvenirs.

There is a memorial built for the 9/11 victims that I actually found to be quite beautiful, but the truth is that the memorial will never atone for the show created on floor 102, especially since the memorial itself — a place to take a second to honor a catstrophic event in American History — is plagued with selfie-taking tourists.

At what point do events in history lose their meaning? Going to these places isn’t enough. One really needs is to understand, to empathize with those for whom these events and symbols are significant, and that’s really difficult to do when it’s shrouded with lights, special effects, and beauty. Instead of taking selfies, indicating that we’ve been to a place, we ought to leave a post-it or a blog post explaining what that place means to us. Maybe then, we’ll actually appreciate these symbols for what they are, rather than taking them for what they appear to be: a carefully constructed crowd-pleaser.


Originally published on from sea to shining sea by Aaron Yih on Medium.com. For more travel blog posts, go to travel section of my blog. Find more up to date info on my Instagram and video-based content on my Youtube.

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