Some years ago I was summoned to perform a civic duty at the Federal Courthouse in lower Manhattan. As it turned out, my judgment was not needed on a jury that day. So around lunchtime, I found myself in the oldest part of New York City on a lovely summer day. What else could I do but stroll around and explore? There’s quite a bit of interest there, if you know where to look.
Should you find yourself in Manhattan with half a day to kill….
Either take a cab or bus to City Hall, or take the Lexington Ave. Subway (the 4, 5, and 6 lines) to the City Hall / Brooklyn Bridge station.
City Hall Park is that nice triangular patch of green. In its history, it’s been home to a Commons (like the one in Boston), an “almshouse” (a retirement home for poor people), a military parade ground, and a prison. Check out the fountain and the gaslights!
At the north side of the park is City Hall. Duh. It’s been landmarked out the wazoo. A National Historic Landmark, the National Register of Historic Places, and both the exterior AND interior are New York City Landmarks.
That truly massive building over to the northeast is the Manhattan Municipal Building. Built back when government buildings were supposed to look good as well as be imposing, it’s one of the largest municipal government buildings in the world.
Over at the east is the Brooklyn Bridge. Personally, I think it’s overrated. There are many other bridges in NYC that don’t get enough respect. The Verazzano Narrows Bridge, guarding the main entrance to New York Harbor. The sister bridges, the Throggs Neck and Whitestone, soaring gracefully over the upper East River. The Hell Gate Bridge, with its white towers and purple-painted steel. The George Washington Bridge, which, when they light it up at night, looks like it’s made of crystal….
To the west, at the southern tip of City Hall Park, is the “Cathedral of Commerce” – also known as the Woolworth Building. The tallest in the world when it was completed in 1913. It’s still a working office building, so unless you have business there (or have arranged for a private tour), you’re not getting past the lobby. But you can stick your head inside the lobby, provided you remember to pick your jaw up off the floor afterwards.
Now that you’re on Broadway (the Woolworth Building is at 233 Broadway), head south. Pay attention to where you are putting your feet. See those long strips with names and dates on them? You are in the Canyon of Heroes, the route taken by New York City’s ticker tape parades. Each strip marks a parade, and there’s some on each side of the street. Going north to south like this is going back in time, since the dates run from south to north. It’s easier to add strips going north, since Broadway technically runs for hundreds of miles. If you added them at the southern end, you’d eventually run into the harbor. It’s interesting to see who got honored and when. Adventurers and explorers in the 1920s, heads of state that the US wanted on their side against the Commies in the USSR in the 1950s, sports teams in the 1990s…..
Five blocks south of the Woolworth Building, between Liberty and Cedar Streets, you’ll find Zuccotti Park. While the various Historical Points of Interest collections usually focus on the really old things, here’s where some recent history happened. It was in Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 that the “Occupy Wall Street” protest occupied a lot of local and national attention. I don’t know if any protesters are still putting up signs and things. Do you think there will be a historical marker here in the future?
We’re about halfway done, so it’s time for a break. At Broadway and Wall Street, you’ll find Trinity Church. Step inside and relax in quiet contemplation. Keep in mind that it is an active church, and be respectful. By the way, now is your chance to see Hamilton. No, not the musical – Alexander Hamilton was a member of this church, and he’s laid to rest in their cemetery.
A short stroll down Wall Street is Federal Hall. It’s the classical building with the statue of George Washington in front. It’s where he was inaugurated, and the Hall served as America’s first capitol. We were a smaller country then, and the federal government was correspondingly small…..
Across the street (kinda sorta) at the southeast corner of Wall and Broad Streets is the building known as the House of Morgan. Look closely at the stone wall facing Wall Street. See those pockmarks? Those are the result of the deadliest terror attack in New York City prior to 9/11. The damage is pretty much the only indication that anything happened there. One of the “Wall Street History” signs in the area has a paragraph or two on it, but that’s it.
Go back to Broadway and head south. There’s that “Charging Bull” statue, and perhaps that statue of the little girl that’s been making such a fuss lately (as I write this) is still there. But I don’t care much about all that sound and fury, signifying nothing. They are at the northern tip of Bowling Green, which is what I really want to talk about. It’s the oldest park in the city; the site’s been used as an open, public space for well over 300 years. The iron fence, by the way? It’s the original one from 1771…..
At the southern side of Bowling Green stands the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s one of the many museums under the general umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. The building, by the way, is the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House. There’s that guy again…. If you get the chance, pop inside and check out the Rotunda. The murals on the ceiling are the work of Reginald Marsh (and eight assistants), and were paid for through funding from the federal government…. Your (more likely your great-grandparents) tax bucks at work!
Back outside, that honking great park to the southwest is Battery Park (and the end of our journey). Take time to stroll around and visit the many monuments and gardens and carousel and fountains and urban farm…..
One place that’s definitely worth a visit is the Castle Clinton National Monument. It started as Fort Clinton, defending the harbor for the War of 1812. Then it did time as a concert hall, immigrant receiving center, and aquarium before its current incarnation as the terminal for the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Ferry.
To get back to where you came from, head to the southernmost part of the park (and Manhattan, for that matter). There you’ll find the terminal for the Staten Island Ferry, where in addition to the Ferry you can get a taxi, buses, or hop on the subway at the South Ferry station (on the 1 line).