“Someday we'll go places
New lands and new faces
The day we quit punching the clock
The future looks pleasant
But at present
Let's take a walk around the block.”
- Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin, and Yip Harberg
During the pandemic that restricted so much of our usual busy activity, I reconnected with some of my favorite neighborhood places and wanted to share them with you.
I live in the Financial District of New York City, known for narrow streets and towering buildings. But it’s also got some of the oldest historic sites in the city. Let’s take a walk around and look at some of them.
The Lenape Nation inhabited the island they called Manhattan long before the Dutch and then the English colonized New York, so let’s start at Bowling Green, which has been an open gathering space continually since well before any Europeans arrived. Once the site of council grounds for Native American tribes, it has also served as a parade field and a cattle ground. The Dutch actually bowled on it, and the English built a huge equestrian statue of George III and fenced it in. In 1776, after a speech George Washington gave on the steps of the then City Hall, the revolutionist crowd marched down Broadway and pulled down the statue. They also cut all the crowns off the fence posts, leaving the uneven tops that are present to this day.
Step out of Bowling Green to the south and in front of you will be the Customs House. Now the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, and very much worth a visit, this grand structure was built when customs and import duties were the main source of income for the United States. The four huge sculptures across the front by Daniel Chester French depict the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. Take a closer look at them because they’re decidedly editorial, depicting America as the most energetic, youthful, and forward-looking of the four. (Note the Native American in full tribal headdress peering over her right shoulder.)
At the corner where Broadway begins, we’ll cross State Street and enter the Battery, a 25-acre park established in 1693 at the southern tip of Manhattan. At the entrance is the Netherland Monument, a tablet dedicated to the Dutch origins of the city.
Farther along on your left, you’ll see the Battery Urban Farm, opened in 2011 after eight students from a nearby high school asked for a vegetable garden.
Keep going, straight to the water, to wave hello to the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the US in honor of the alliance between the two nations during the Revolutionary War. Walk south along the water past the World War II monument, one of two war memorials in the Battery centered on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Continue to the SeaGlass Carousel, an homage to the first New York Aquarium, which had its home in the Battery for 45 years (and is referenced in Arlen’s song). From here, leave the Battery and head along Pearl Street to the Fraunces Tavern, which has been in operation since 1762. Washington bade farewell to the officers of the Continental Army here after the last British soldiers had left New York. (He also ordered takeout from here, but that’s another story.) Stop in to the museum upstairs to see some remarkable colonial paintings and artifacts.
Leaving the Tavern, continue along Pearl Street and stop at the Portal Down to Old New York. Here, under glass on the sidewalk, you’ll see the remnants of 17th Century Dutch buildings, including the Stadt Huys, which once served as City Hall (after it had been a tavern for 10 years), uncovered in the first large scale archaeological excavation in New York City – and one of the most productive and expensive urban archeology projects undertaken in a US city. Archeologists uncovered a patchwork of foundation walls, some dating back to the 17th century, and more than four tons of artifacts: bricks and stones, turkey bones, watermelon seeds, oyster shells, buttons, coins and a wide array of pottery, including a bright yellow pitcher and vivid blue-and-white delftware plates, tiles, and apothecary jars. The finds were eventually housed in museums around the city.
From the Portal, walk up to Stone Street for lunch. Almost all year long, every restaurant has tables outside in the street, which is permanently closed to traffic. Stone Street is said to be the first paved street in New York. At its end once stood a brewery, and the heavy horse-drawn carts got stuck in the dirt road when rain turned it to mud, so cobbles were laid down.
Walk off lunch by heading over to the Elevated Acre, a hidden park several stories up at 55 Water Street. The entrance, up some escalators and stairs, is set back from the sidewalk, so most people walk right past it. It’s a lush garden with benches tucked in here and there and a platform that gives you a panoramic view of Brooklyn, the East River, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Once you’ve snapped some pictures and posted them on Instagram, walk a block or so up Water Street to Hanover Square and turn left. Here you’ll find the Queen Elizabeth II Memorial Garden, given as a gift to the City by all the Commonwealth nations to honor the lives of their citizens lost on 9/11. It’s the most perfect little garden and a wonderful place to have a coffee and a bagel from nearby Leo’s on a Sunday morning.
From the garden, walk along Hanover Street to Wall Street. For a block or so here we’ll walk in the footsteps of my great-great grandfather, John Frederick Hillmann, who had taken passage from Hamburg, Germany, to America on the Brig Republic, docking at the foot of Wall Street in February 1846. “I left my trunk in the care of a shopkeeper at the corner of Wall and South Streets, and traveled alone into town, up Wall Street. I stopped at the then Exchange, the big gray stone building with its grand but awkward rotunda.” This is 55 Wall Street, still standing; note the double row of columns at the façade, added later, each made from a single piece of granite. This building not only served as the Stock Exchange but as the Customs House before the building near Bowling Green was built. (Great-great-grandfather Hillmann continued up Wall to Broadway, where he saw “a monstrous large sleigh, with eighteen horses to draw it, for passengers. It had a band of musicians, and the price of a ride was ten cents.”)
Continue up Wall Street and stop just before the corner of Wall and Broad. Here, on the exterior wall of the old Morgan Bank building, you’ll see divots in the wall. These were made by what is widely believed to be a terrorist attack by Italian anarchists in 1920. A horse-drawn cart packed with explosives and metal had pulled up at noon and stopped nearby before exploding and killing 30 bystanders and injuring over 300. The bombers have never been identified, and the wall has never been repaired, remaining a tactile reminder of a violent page from America’s past.
From this corner, look across Broad Street to the New York Stock Exchange, a classical revival building completed in 1902. In the pediment above six Corinthian capitals is a sculpture called “Integrity Protecting the Works of Man.” (Hmmm. We are talking about the Stock Exchange, aren’t we?) Still, it’s a very beautiful building, and I never tire of taking its picture.
Across Wall Street is Federal Hall, a Greek revival building completed in 1842, replacing earlier structures where George Washington took the oath of office as first US president, and where the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch had offices when New York was briefly the capital of the country, from 1785-1790. (Side note: at this corner you can see all three examples of Greek column: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.)
Keep walking up Nassau Street to the Chase Manhattan Plaza at 28 Liberty. Walk back to the larger part of the plaza bordered by William and Pine to check out the Noguchi Fountain and Jean Dubuffet’s “Group of Four Trees,” two instances of great public modern art to be found in the Financial District. David Rockefeller commissioned Dubuffet to make this piece, which Dubuffet called not a sculpture but a drawing that had come off the page.
Now go to the corner of Nassau and Liberty and take a moment to experience this moment of great urban architecture. Two modernist buildings, 28 Liberty and the smoked glass cube of Brown Brothers Harriman across the street, step back to allow several more ornate old buildings to stand out – Liberty Tower (1909), a white limestone Gothic Revival tower at the corner of Nassau and Liberty, the Beaux-Arts Chamber of Commerce building next door (1902), the neoclassical Equitable Building at 120 Broadway (1915), at the corner of Nassau and Pine to your left, with its exquisite coffered ceiling in a lobby that extends a full city block, and even the Federal Reserve (1919; modeled on Renaissance palaces) . In the picture below you’re looking through the Chase building and through the Brown Brothers Harriman building at the Chamber of Commerce and Liberty Tower.
Pop into the Liberty Tower’s lobby to gaze at the imaginative murals:
Now let’s walk along Liberty Street to the front of the Brown Brothers Harriman building to check out another Noguchi creation, The Cube, a vermillion structure tilted on one of its corners. Across the street, at Zucotti Park (home of Occupy Wall Street), you’ll see a similarly colored sculpture, the red “Joie de Vivre” by Mark di Suvero. The backdrop to this park and sculpture are the gorgeous Trinity and United States Realty Buildings at 111 and 115 Broadway, built in 1905 and 1907 and designed by Francis H. Kimball (an architect who designed another of my favorite NYC buildings, the Montauk Club in Park Slope, Brooklyn).
Before continuing, take a moment to look up Broadway to see both the Woolworth Building and the Chrysler Building, two of the most iconic skyscrapers in the city. And don’t neglect to look at the sidewalk, where every 20 feet or so you’ll find a plaque indicating the date and honoree of a ticker tape parade. My favorite is the one dated May 20, 1958, the day a ticker tape parade was held for Van Cliburn, who at age 23 had just won first place in the Soviet Union’s inaugural Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. He was the first classical musician ever to be given a ticker tape parade. One of my earliest memories is of seeing John F. Kennedy in a ticker tape parade when he was running for president in 1960; a more recent memory was the last ticker tape parade, held in July 2015 for the US women’s soccer team after their FIFA win.
Soon you’ll come to Trinity Church, housing an Episcopal congregation chartered in 1697. Trinity has the only 12-bell change-ringing installation in the United States, a gift from an English bell-ringer in 2006. (The bells are undergoing a renovation and are silent right now, but should be back to full peal soon.) Its churchyard is the final resting place for, among others, Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury, his sister-in-law, one of the Schuyler sisters, and Charlotte Temple, a fictional character of a popular 18th century novel, whose headstone is believed to have been carved by a bored stonecutter.
Continuing down Broadway, you’ll see the Charging Bull on an island just across from the old Standard Oil Building, whose facade curves with the street. At the top of the building you can see a huge blackened oil lamp. It was kept lit with oil twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week when Rockefeller’s company had its headquarters there, and was the first light ships coming into New York Harbor saw, well before they saw the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
And this brings us back to Bowling Green, where it all began.
This tour should take about an hour and can be found on the three Google maps linked below.
Great post @Ann72. I only wish I'd had this when I went to New York (admittedly that was 3 years ago). It's often so hard to know where to start when visiting big cities. I remember using host guidebooks the most in New York to find places to eat and visit. 🙂
It must be pretty amazing, walking around your area and seeing so many historic buildings.
@Pat271 Not a silly question at all! I would if I hosted in New York, but alas it is forbidden in my building so I host in Maine. I noticed @Nick’s posts about getting local and thought I’d do this because I really do walk around my neighborhood and look at and photograph all this stuff like a total geek 🙂
Have experiences opened up again? This would be a really great experience. Or maybe Airbnb should just reach out to you and do one of their 'nearby' stories with you narrating.
@Robin863 Thank you and high praise from a fellow New Yorker 🙂
Experiences are virtual now, I believe. But I've left New York until Christmas so would have to put that idea on hold - though it does interest me! I don't know about the "nearby" stories - will look them up.
The crazyest city in the world. I know only the area between Broadway, Columbia University and Gen. Grant's memorial. Also I remember the Port Authority bus terminal, JFK airport and one park, between the buildings, very close to Columbia University-"Morning...something...".