The World Trade Center towers on fire on September 11th, 2001
The World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Life

A Night at the 9/11-Themed Bar and How America Turns Tragedy Into Sales

Bar9Eleven went viral for its 'tasteless' name. But U.S. companies—in films, soda displays, and flags—have been commodifying the attacks for 20 years.
September 9, 2021, 2:02pm

I sat down at Bar9Eleven, located in a strip-mall Tex-Mex restaurant called Rio Mambo in Fort Worth, Texas, and ordered an O’Douls. It was 5 p.m. on a sunny, August Thursday and everybody was looking to unwind. The sounds of laughter and lively conversation lit up the bar. 

Several months prior, the establishment had gone viral when a businessman staying in a nearby hotel tweeted a picture of it, whipping Twitter into a frenzy of disbelief and outrage at its apparent bad taste. On one concrete wall behind me was a single image of three firefighters hoisting up a flag at Ground Zero. It was strange that a place named for 9/11 could feel so cheerful. As I sipped my drink, all I could think about was that day 20 years ago when 2,977 people died and plumes of smoke from the smoldering World Trade Centers covered Manhattan.

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Almost everyone who was in New York City on 9/11 has a 9/11 story. My memory of it is patchy—it was one week after I started the third grade in the East Village. After my class was informed that a plane hit the towers, we sat, legs crossed, in a circle on a rug speculating about what could have happened. “Maybe the pilot was drunk,” somebody said. School was suddenly cancelled, and since my mom had to get my sister from middle school first, I was the last kid in my class to get picked up. I was more annoyed by waiting in the cafeteria for what felt like forever than scared of the horror approximately three miles away.

It wasn’t until the next day that I started feeling afraid. My mom had laid out the September 12th edition of the New York Times with an image of the towers starting to fall on the dining table. I flipped the newspaper over and saw a picture of a woman sitting on a curb, looking distressed, drenched in blood. I recoiled in fear and flipped the newspaper over. I was haunted by that picture for years. 

It seems natural that Americans would express their sorrow and remembrance through consumption, and that brands would use the day for advertising purposes.

The days after 9/11 fade in and out of focus. People bought up all the duct tape and distilled water from the supermarket. My family made a lot of phone calls. My dad, who lived in Washington D.C. and worked for the federal government, was fine, and my uncle, who lived in western Pennsylvania, was far enough away from the crash site of United Flight 93. Another family friend had been right by the towers as they fell, and he had run as fast as he could, and was uninjured. As a child, I don’t think I understood that I was close to death, though not at risk of dying. Later, as an adult, I still don’t know what to make of my relationship with 9/11—I feel a visceral surge of grief every time I talk about that day.

So I found it a little dissonant that Bar9Eleven was totally popping. The round-faced man sitting next to me, wearing a baseball cap, cheeks flecked with red stubble, ordered a round of tequila for his friend’s birthday. “Bro, that was a fuckin’ shot, dude!” he exclaimed with a big smile after downing a huge gulp of tequila. 

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“Certainly doesn’t have 9/11 vibes,” I wrote in my journal before debating about ordering a quesadilla. “What even are 9/11 vibes?” The round-face man struck up a conversation with me, saying that he had been to the bar three times, and hadn’t thought much about its name. “It’s weird,” he remarked upon reflection. I told him I was in New York on 9/11, as if to prove my chops. “We lost a lot of good people that day,” he said. Then he summoned his friend, the birthday boy, over, enthusiastically telling him, hey, this girl was in New York on 9/11

The day after visiting Bar9Eleven, I met owner Brent Johnson at his home. He lounged behind a cluttered desk in his office, sporting a baby blue T-shirt and white goatee, and gifted me a sticker from the traveling 9/11 memorial. Then he started talking almost without a pause for almost 45 minutes. 

“All my restaurants I name after people or things that are close to me,” he explained of his six establishments in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He renovated the bar inside of Rio Mambo in 2013, and decided to rename it for 9/11 (it was originally named Charlie Bar after an employee of 20 years). He wanted to memorialize that it happened to open on September 11, 2001, and he had also heard on the radio that “as many as 80 percent of people” didn’t know of the anniversary of 9/11 and wanted to raise awareness. (I could not verify this data, but it seems unlikely.) “They were talking about how Americans tend to reset themselves pretty quick, you know, leave the past behind,” he said, and he wanted to make sure that they never forgot. 

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Johnson wasn’t totally unaware that his 9/11 bar might court controversy. After he announced the new name, there was some local chatter. “A real regular customer came up and said, ‘Man I respect how you built this business and all that you do. You know, we love you guys, but I’m really concerned.’ We talked about it a little bit. I thought about it for a while. I prayed about it, talked to my wife about it,” Johnson said. “And then I told the staff, listen, until we get this in the signs and the dedication and the pictures and all that stuff, people are gonna have questions. You just got to let them know that we opened on 9/11, we're committed to the memory of 9/11 and anything and everything that goes with that.”

Johnson’s loyal customers remained loyal. When I returned to the bar the following day, I spoke to a blonde lady, typing on a laptop, who told me that she goes to Bar9Eleven every day after work. She didn’t see anything wrong with the name, since the restaurant was opened on the same day as the 9/11 attacks. Besides, she said, “You can’t get better service anywhere else.” Mostly, things at Rio Mambo stayed the same. 

“Look though, here we are in May and what are we talking about? Mission accomplished.”

That was until Jesse Tyler, a Missouri-based marketing consultant, happened to stay in a hotel in the same strip mall as the bar. He told me over a phone call that he found the name of the bar “distasteful,” but he wasn’t really offended by it. Nevertheless, he tweeted a picture of the exterior of the bar, along with the owner’s retelling of September 11, 2001, with the caption, “Drove by this bar and though[t] ‘huh I wonder what that’s about’. Turns out it’s about exactly what you think.”

“I don’t have a ton of followers,” said Tyler. “I didn’t think anything would happen.” But his post exploded. Bar9Eleven was written up by dozens of publications, causing a mini firestorm. It was bombarded with negative reviews on its Google page from people who had likely never been there. (“They had better service at the literal 9/11 memorial,” one person wrote. “This place smells like a bathroom,” said another.) The main criticism appeared to be that naming a bar after 9/11 was in poor taste.

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Yet, Tyler said that “70 or 80 percent” of replies to his tweet were just 9/11 jokes about the bar that were arguably also in poor taste. “It’s always 9/11 somewhere,” one person tweeted. “Wanna get drunk? Try a round of car bombs,” another wrote. “The weird thing is that we all sort of agree that it’s distasteful to name a business after 9/11. But then people also feel like it’s OK to make 9/11 jokes,” Tyler observed. “There’s some dissonance there.”

The backlash hasn’t bothered Johnson much. “I respect how people react,” he said. “I’ve been chewed out a couple times and called a bunch of names on the internet. One person literally said, ‘I hope you die.’ It’s an emotion. They’re responding to an emotion.”

But “Look though, here we are in May and what are we talking about? Mission accomplished,” Johnson said. “Whatever you think about it and the politics that followed it and all the wars and crazy stuff, I just want to make sure people who eat at my restaurant don’t forget. So if it inspires a conversation at dinner or at happy hour, good or bad, we’re still talking about it.”

Compared to many other 9/11 remembrances, Bar9Eleven is not particularly offensive. For its 12th anniversary, a Marriott hotel offered guests “complimentary coffee and mini muffins from 8:45-9:15am” to remember “those we lost on 9/11.” AT&T tweeted a photo of a hand holding up a smartphone that displayed an image of two light beams shooting up from where the towers once stood. In 2016, a Florida Walmart recreated the towers with cases of Coke Zero, hanging a banner above that said “We Will Never Forget.” 

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It seems natural that Americans would express their sorrow and remembrance through consumption, and that brands would use the day for advertising purposes. There are “Never Forget” decals, commemorative coins, and flags sold on Amazon. And dozens of films have used the September 11th attacks as a plot device, like the 2017 film 9/11, which incorporated actual footage of the World Trade Center collapsing in its trailer as if it’s the centerpiece of a gritty action movie.

There is also New York City’s more somber 9/11 Memorial Museum, which has been criticized in a different tone than the almost pseudo-outrage directed at Bar9Eleven. It has an exorbitant $26 entrance fee and a gift shop, and the money it earns goes to the museum, not the families of victims or the firefighters whose bodies have been permanently damaged by 9/11. “The worst day of my life is now New York’s hottest tourist attraction,” Steve Kandell, who lost his sister in the 9/11 attacks, wrote for BuzzFeed after the museum first opened. “This…is nothing more than the logical endpoint for our most reliably commodifiable national tragedy.”

When I went there several years ago, I walked by remnants of the World Trade Center and information about the victims of the attack before heading to an exhibition about the hunt for Bin Laden, funded by Palantir and Lockheed Martin. I ogled a desktop PC recovered from his compound, watched interviews with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about preparations for the raid, and then bought a “Hunt for Bin Laden” magnet on my way out.

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Reflecting on those exhibitions now, there was something deeply unsettling about the whole thing. What’s left of the World Trade Center, a destroyed fire truck, the life and death of Osama bin Laden, among other things, coalesce to form an 9/11 experience, like something you’d find at Disney World. I did not feel this sort of disgust when I visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, which has free entrance, tells a historically honest account of how the genocide of my ancestors came about, and has an air of inescapable sorrow. I also didn’t feel this way when I went to the free 9/11 memorial outside the museum.

Perhaps we find ourselves commodifying tragedies as a way to process our grief because we lack public institutions to help us cope.

Twenty years after the attacks, we still haven’t decided what are and aren’t acceptable ways to memorialize them. The people who dunked on Bar9Eleven were almost certainly riled up because they thought it tasteless. And it is kind of crass. Our definition of what “tasteful,” however, is totally beholden to class. At first glance, the 9/11 Memorial Museum, with its walls adorned with solemn quotes (like “No day shall erase you from the memory of time - Virgil”) and dim lighting, appears to be high-class, but it has angered the people who matter most: families of the victims. “My son’s friends are going to have to pay $24 to go down and pay their respects,” Jim Riches, whose firefighter son died in 9/11, told ABC when the museum opened in 2014 (its price has gone up by $2 since). “I think that’s a disgrace. It’s the only cemetery in the world where you have to pay a fee to get in.”

In the United States, we know how to express ourselves best through consumption—it’s not just 9/11 that is constantly being exploited. (If you go to Las Vegas, after gambling and clubbing all night, you can check out the Titanic experience—“the world’s most famous ocean-liner”—no mention of all the death that came along with it.) Perhaps we find ourselves commodifying tragedies as a way to process our grief because we lack public institutions to help us cope. Church-going is on the decline (and there’s a popular genre of megachurches that function like for-profit institutions), and nowadays, it’s hard to find a public indoor space that doesn’t revolve around shopping (like the glossy Oculus retail complex sprawling underneath the World Trade Center, with Apple and John Varvatos stores advertised alongside the 9/11 Memorial). Hell, despite all its calls for patriotism, the government has yet to fund its own museum commemorating the event.

As time crawls forward, the ways in which we honor 9/11 have become increasingly detached from the actual event. We’ve seen plenty of solemn national holidays cannibalized by the retail industry: Memorial Day is but a long weekend ushering in the beginning of summer and a time when you get a mattress for cheap. And we sure as shit aren’t celebrating labor on Labor Day, instead, it means more sales and barbecues. I wouldn’t be surprised if 40 years in the future, we’ll start a distinctly American tradition of 9/11 blowout sales and long weekends for white-collar folks.

Commodification isn’t the only force corrupting 9/11 memorials. There are so many victims beyond those in the towers whom we overlook every year, like the 7,057 United States service men and women who died in the ensuing wars, plus the 30,177 others who committed suicide once they got home. And we don’t even know how many civilians died in Iraq (estimates are in the hundreds of thousands), while more than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians have been killed. A thorough and, yes, tasteful tribute to 9/11 would involve honoring all those people too, to sit with the reality of the horrible violence and death that happened on 9/11 and in the years after, and not have to pay money in order to do so.

The more I think about all the woefully inadequate ways we memorialize 9/11, the more I feel at peace with Bar9Eleven. In Brent Johnson’s mind, he was trying to do the right thing. And in a ceaselessly commercial landscape of September 11th tributes, declining marketing or profit motives would make Bar9Eleven somewhat distinct. Even though Johnson feels like his bar has helped Americans remember 9/11, he is adamant that he hasn’t profited off it. 

“Now, Eve, I’ve never one time, since 2013, used Bar9Eleven in advertising,” he emphasized sincerely when I met him at his Fort Worth home. “It wasn’t a marketing thing. It had nothing to do with that.” Johnson is a regular Texas baby boomer adhering to the “never forget” adage. It just so happens that in the United States, we do our best communion through consumption.