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24 Hours in Manhattan’s Financial District: Observations and Reflections

December 11, 2012
The Financial District, Lower Manhattan

The Financial District, Lower Manhattan

On Friday, November 30, I flew into New York City for a workshop at New York University. The event paired historians and philosophers who are tackling hot-button education topics for a forthcoming University of Chicago Press series.  I was paired with Rene Arcilla, and we are writing about “The Great Books Controversy” (our working title).  We performed respectably with our too brief time on the floor. I’ll write more about that at a later date.  Right now I want to reflect on the neighborhood wherein I lodged: the Financial District. I’ve been to New York three other times, and always stayed in Midtown. So this was an experience.

This was not, however, my first time around the Financial District.  I had first walked through the southern most tip of it, The Battery, in 2009. I was with my spouse and we were doing the tourist thing—taking the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Upon leaving we grabbed the train at Bowling Green.  And that was it.  I’ve since learned that The Battery is technically not a part of the District, so whether I was there or not in 2009 might depend on whether I crossed a street near it.

Charging Bull in Bowling Green

Charging Bull in Bowling Green

This time was different. I stayed at a Club Quarters on William street, between Wall and Pine.  By way of triangulation, the Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church was north of this Club Quarters, across Pine. And the famous art deco skyscraper, 70 Pine Street (currently the 6th tallest building in New York City—until One World Trade Center is complete), is located a few buildings away from the church.  I saw most of these buildings at night, after dinner and after the conference.  I had been sitting all day, on planes and at the workshop in 20 Cooper Square, so I was ready for a late night walk. In addition to the area around my hotel I walked over to Broadway, near the historical Trinity Episcopalian Church, and then south on Broadway until I reached the Bowling Green station. There I saw the famous Charging Bull statue (right). Then I returned north.

On my way home I ran across the infamous The King’s College—recently led by Dinesh D’Souza. All I could see, in its building at 52 North Broadway (east side of the street), was a long, clean, relatively barren entry way manned by a security guard.  It was only an accident that I noticed the crest of the college hanging the entry way. Knowing that D’Souza has left the presidency of the institution after a scandal, I couldn’t help but reflect on the relative peace of the security guard, by himself reading the paper, in contrast. After that I walked until I reached Wall Street, where I took a right turn, heading east, to actually stroll down the famous stretch of real estate.

Wall of New Amsterdam plaqueRight off, at 1 Wall Street, I ran across a plaque noting that the northern wall of the New Amsterdam colony did indeed exist on what is today Wall Street. The wall ran from the Hudson to the East River (read the plaque for more info).  1 Wall Street is an impressive building, by the way. The Wikipedia link above provides a picture of the entrance, but what it doesn’t show is the lobby behind that grand brass-lined doorway. The walls of the grand lobby behind those doors consist of a reddish, gilded mosaic that seems especially glittery and grand when viewed through the door windows at night. The contrast is truly spectacular. That entryway leads one to a bank, of course—The Bank of New York Mellon. It was not surprising to see the “Mellon” name attached to that spectacular building.

As one walks east down Wall Street from Broadway—and you do truly walk down a grade—you find heavy duty street barriers. They are really retractable, reinforced steel walls that can rise up from the street, each about three feet high.  The New York Stock Exchange, located at the bottom of that grade on the right, is formidably guarded, intimidating even.  These barriers obstruct every road heading to the NYSE, each apparently guarded 24 hours. There seemed to be a large black SUV, with engines running continuously, near each of the street barriers. As for the NYSE itself, it sits on the southwest corner of Broad (a north-south street) and Wall.  The famous front of the NYSE, with its six pillars, actually faces Broad. I chose to avoid walking in front, however, because a VERY LARGE Christmas tree was located on a semi-truck in front of the building. I’ve never seen a bigger tree—larger for sure than whatever piddly thing the White House orders. Yes, I know that’s a false comparison given the different dimensions of the rooms, respectively, that each decorate. But still, that tree was huge.

Federal HallAfter the NYSE the next most prominent building on Wall Street follows immediately, on the northeast corner of the same intersection: Federal Hall National Memorial (right). Because it was late I could only walk around the front, near the George Washington statue. And I wouldn’t be able to see more the next day, Saturday (12/1), due to the fact that the Hall is only open 9-5, M-F. I wasn’t counting on a visit, but those are disappointing, sort of bourgeois tourist hours.  C’est la vie.

So, after a long day of working my mind and then my feet, I returned to my lodgings. Thankfully, however, I would have some time, almost two hours, the next morning to explore more of the District.

My first stop the next day was going to be the Trinity Church.  I had passed it the night before, and noted the line of Occupy Wall Street protestors in sleeping bags out front.  Apparently some had moved here after being driven out of Zuccotti Park  (Aside: I had no idea that some of NYC’s parks were Privately Owned Public Spaces).  Anyway, some of the protestors’ bags were still there, but the bodies had departed for Saturday morning activities. I didn’t know that the bags could serve as placeholders. I digress.  Although I intended to visit the church that morning, my desire for coffee and breakfast sent me northward to a Starbucks right by Zuccotti Park. After breakfast I caught sight of the One World Trade Center tower and decided to walk around the Trade Center grounds. I would circle back to the church after.

The new World Trade Center site is impressive: the towering, nearly complete One World Trade Center (needing only the spire), the footprint memorial fountains (the “National September 11 Memorial and Museum”), the forthcoming Calatrava-designed transportation hub, the evolving 4 World Trade Center, and the completed 7 World Trade Center. I knew abstractly of these plans, and was happy to know the site was being re-imagined and put to good uses. Still, the construction is impressive in person.

Despite it being a cold Saturday morning, and I noticed a number of tourists were walking around the site. And walking is all one can do because you can’t spontaneously obtain entry, or tickets, in the Memorial. There is large sign at its entrance informing you that pre-purchase is a must. On the walkers, however, I especially noted their homogeneity: they were predominantly white/Caucasian tourists, all of them seemingly from the Midwest.  Considering the diversity of the city this surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have. Why would New Yorkers being touring the site on a cold Saturday? Besides, what was I but another white Midwesterner checking out the site as a tourist.  I guess I expected more people of color from out of town, or perhaps international tourists.

Trinity ChurchNext up was Trinity Church. Also known as “Trinity Wall Street,” this parish has been active since 1698. That’s right: 1.6.9.8.  Amazing. The parish was chartered by King William III in May 1697, and Captain Kidd lent a hoist from his ship for the stone work.  The architecture of the main building is neo-gothic. What drew me to the church, however, was its cemetery. It’s jarringly beautiful in the context of its surrounding skyscrapers. The cemetery occupies plots on either side of the church (north and south). The front of the church faces east toward Wall Street (the vantage point of the picture to the right).

The cemetery holds an array of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century luminaries: Alexander Hamilton, William Bradford, Robert Fulton, etc.  The monument to Hamilton, at the south end of the south lot, is particularly impressive (and visible from the street). But lots of anonymous and lesser-known figures are buried throughout the cemetery. This Flickr page holds forth a number of head stones.  The Puritan-esque figures on the tombstones made more sense to me after having read this essay by Sally Promey in Figures in the Carpet (ed. Wilfred McClay).  Also impressive is a monument, located at the northeast corner of the northern plot, dedicated American Revolutionary soldiers who died in the British “Sugar House” prison.

The inside of Trinity Church is impressive. The pews are dark-stained wood, the stained glass behind the apse/bema is incredible. Here’s a lighted photo of its nave and ceiling. When I was there it was dark (more like this photo, scan down) but no less awe-inspiring. Honestly, I’m at a loss for words—even a week and half later. Whatever you do, go inside if you’re in the area.

What does one make of all this? It is great to now possess a geographical and material frame of reference, a scale, for that larger, near mythical entity known as “Wall Street.” I am pleased to own a personal image of the place that involves real people, trash, religion, honking horns, construction equipment, fast food, historical markers, and even art. Even so, my feelings about “Wall Street” as a larger abstract entity, a symbol for elitism, power, and dominance, have not changed.

I fear and despise that entity. Courtesy of the 2008 Downturn and Occupy Wall Street, I have completely reevaluated my formerly simplistic thoughts on what happens there. I’m convinced the “financialization” of our economy that has taken place over the past 30-40 years has been a disaster for equality—economic, socially, and politically.  This is going to sound fearful and grandiose, but I do believe that the idea of democracy in America is in peril right now. I’m less terrified of external terrorists threatening democracy than I am of the internal terrors of extreme inequality. And this place which is also a symbol, “Wall Street,” feeds my fears.  – TL

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