'Sacred Ground' in N.Y.

From world leaders pulling up in stretch limousines to cheerleaders in town from Ohio, ground zero at the former World Trade Center is drawing thousands of people a day who feel a need to view the wreckage firsthand and somehow pay homage.

In a sad twist, the very event that drove tourists away from New York City now appears to be drawing them back. Although attendance at Broadway shows and museums is still down, hotel occupancy numbers are nearly where they were a year ago. Concierges, cab drivers and even somewhat reluctant city officials say the site of the attacks is exerting a powerful pull.

"It's a hot spot," said Keith Yazmir, spokesman for the New York Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "It's certainly not something we're out there marketing as a visitor destination. At the same time, we understand there is something in people that makes them want to serve witness to what happened and to the people who were lost."

Only the site itself remains blocked off by a perimeter of chain link fencing and plywood walls--still an almost incomprehensible scene of destruction stretching five blocks wide and four blocks long.

All nearby streets have reopened and entire adjacent buildings are shrouded in red and black netting to keep debris from falling onto the growing number of pedestrians below. People arrive daily from around the world to peer through gaps in the walls or aim video cameras down side streets at bits of twisted wreckage.

Recognizing the growing crush of visitors, city officials are now discussing where to erect a possible viewing platform that would not interfere with construction and recovery workers still laboring at the site.

"The mayor has said publicly that it is important to respect ground zero, both as a crime scene and as sacred ground . . . and he asks that people behave accordingly," said Matthew Higgins, press secretary to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "But otherwise, it's natural that people are going to want to pay their respects."

While many are talking about eventually building a formal memorial, the site has assumed--on its own--iconic status as a national burial ground and war site.

"I lost my faith in humanity after Sept. 11," said Yves Laurent, 42, of Lausanne, Switzerland. Wrestling with what to do, he thought: "I'm coming to New York; it will give me strength. I saw everything on TV, but I just wanted to see it in person."

Like others, he is haunted by the sheer number of people who died so suddenly in one spot.

"I need to make a prayer to help them understand that there is still humanity," he said, gesturing with his chin toward a skeletal scrap of building facade.

Hotel staff and taxicab drivers across Manhattan agree that the top question on visitors' lips this holiday season is how to find the attack site.

"In past years, they all wanted dinner reservations and tickets to the shows," said Carmen Lopez, 32, concierge at the Hotel Avalon on 32nd Street near Madison Avenue. "Now, it's a must to go downtown. . . . They all want to know: 'How do we get there? What can we see?' "

Occupancy Rates for Hotels Near Normal

She and others said that desire and unseasonably warm weather have combined with sharply discounted room prices to push occupancy rates back above 80% this week. That mirrors numbers provided by the visitor's bureau, which show hotel occupancy for the week ending Nov. 10 at 88.5%, slightly down from the 91.2% of the same week last year. It is a giant step up from the weeks after the attacks, when occupancy rates plummeted to 45.4%.

Meanwhile, combined attendance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Bronx Zoo were down 27% at the end of October. Broadway ticket sales were down 9% for the week of Nov. 11, and though the two hit shows, "The Producers" and "Mamma Mia!" are sold out through next year, other shows are hurting.

Cab driver Amjoud Mahmood said he now ferries as many as five fares a day to street corners near ground zero. "From Virginia, from Texas, even from Europe, they are all coming and they all want to go there to see," he said, adding that sometimes passengers ask him to wait while they take a quick look down a side street at the wreckage.

"They are all so sad when they come back," he said.

Indeed, native New Yorkers have mixed reactions to the visitors, ranging from shared understanding to weary annoyance to flagrant opportunism. "Bin Laden missed us, don't you too!" proclaims a sign for a Park Place restaurant, just north of the site.

Half a block east, Lower Broadway is a hawker's bazaar, complete with performing clowns, street musicians and vendors plying mounds of cheap American flag pins and New York Fire Department T-shirts.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the heart-stopping rumble of the demolition of a smaller building, 5 World Trade Center, provided head-turning accompaniment for a disgruntled flute player performing "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"I'm not making hand-over-hand money like I was last week. . . . All these other guys started to crowd me," says Henry T. Cobb, 48, who normally plays on Boston's upscale Newberry Street. "But I want to stress 100% that I am here because my heart hurts for these people."

All of which makes some area office workers roll their eyes.

"I don't think it's right," said Jennifer Weiss, 22, a researcher at Thompson Financial Services on Broadway near Fulton Street. From her window, she can see the cranes still digging at the rubble.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. "The only ones who could understand how we feel are people from Oklahoma City."

Wood planks still serve as sidewalks in some spots, and spray-painted bedsheets announce the gradual reopening of restaurants and shops. Moran's Pub on Washington Street was back in business by Sept. 25 and now opens on Sundays to accommodate the tourists.

'We Came Here to Pay Our Respects'

At George's Luncheonette just up the street, a standing-room-only lunch crowd gazes at a pair of ghostly photos taken of the street outside the day the planes crashed. Everything is buried in gray dust--street lights, sidewalks, the restaurant canopy are all blanketed. Eleven weeks later, after around-the-clock cleanup efforts, only a fine sprinkle of gray still clings to the canopy.

"We came here to pay our respects," Jenny Katrick, 18, said quietly as she was jostled on a crowded sidewalk nearby. She and fellow members of the United Cheerleaders Assn. of Cleveland were in town to march in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, but she said coming here was a must.

Douglas Lavin, 40, a management consultant who was displaced from his office building by the attacks, says the stream of visitors is perfectly understandable.

"This was a very, very public event," he said. "I visited Dachau and the battlefields of World War II. This is no different. There's a need that people have to understand the look, the feel, the smell; to remember and to understand. It's a very human need."

Police still escort family members of victims to the quieter west side of the site every day, where they are given a small salute by National Guard members before walking up a special ramp to a dais overlooking all of ground zero.

When they are not there, world leaders often are. During the United Nations general assembly three weeks ago, the mayor's office of protocol and Giuliani himself escorted as many as six presidents and prime ministers a day up the ramp.

Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi toted a bone and brass scepter and quoted verse numbers from the Book of Revelations. Most just stood and gazed in silence, then offered a few thoughts before climbing back into their limousines.

"This was not an attack on one city or one religion," said Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda. "The whole world suffered from this."

But while the whole world may be stopping by to pay its respects, many New Yorkers say the memories are too close, too painful. They're staying away.

"I haven't mustered up the nerve," said Garcia, the hotel concierge who has directed dozens of visitors to the site. "I don't know if I ever will."