9/11, the 10th anniversary of the Financial Crisis, and Downtown Manhattan: A lesson in resiliency

With this week including both September 11th and the 10th anniversary of the Financial Crisis, it has been a great week to reflect on Lower Manhattan.

I have been reading a lot about the history of New York lately, and that little bit of land at the very southern tip of the island of course has a long and interesting history. It was where New York was founded, was as much a part of the founding of the United States as anywhere, and grew to become the center of the financial – and later cultural – universe.

But that all didn’t happen seamlessly. I’ll list just a few things that has happened that centered on the (rough back-of-the-envelope calculation…) four square miles below Canal.

And every single time, it has shifted its form, becoming something else entirely.

We’ll start when the Dutch took Manhattan from the Lenape. The Dutch weren’t great neighbors. But they wanted money and power, they filled the shallows in (go look how the pavement slopes on Pearl Street), and startedto build up its commercial port.

Then the British took over, reclaimed more land from the sea, and started building up the wharves and seawall.

A statue of King George III went up in Bowling Green, but that was pulled to the ground by American revolutionaries, then, as the New York Times noted,

“His statue here has been pulled down to make musket ball of, so that his troops will probably have melted Majesty fired at them,” Ebenezer Hazard, the New York postmaster, wrote to Gen. Horatio Gates.

The population boomed in the 1800s, as the American’s created even more land. As Adam Davidson noted in his fantastic book Magnetic City,

Huge loads of ash, offal, manure, dead horses, and household garbage were carted to the water’s edge and loaded onto floating “dumping boards” and into the shallows and slips, where they gradually alchemized into real estate. The slow process haloed the city in stink, but in the long run it proved to be the most profitable form of recycling.

A 1835 fire burned down almost everything in Lower Manhattan, including the Merchants’ Exchange and the Tontine Coffee House, the birthplace of the American-style market economy.

From the ashes, though came the Woolworth Building, opened in 1913 as the tallest building in the world Its architect, Cass Gilbert, said it had “a measure of beauty, and that architectural beauty, judged even from an economic standpoint, has an income-bearing value.” It was a physical symbol of technology (the skyscraper), beauty (just look at its turrets and green copper top), and America’s capitalist might (Gilbert said it was just a machine that makes land pay).

Not everyone was so enthused, including a terrorist who bombed JP Morgan and Co. in 1920. You can go there (23 Wall Street) and still see the marks on the building from the blast.

New York’s shipping industry collapsed in the mid-20th century. But out of that, a group of artists moved into the Coenties Slip, into the industrial lofts abandoned by shippers. Some of those artists? Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana.

Then New York almost went bankrupt in the 1970s. Some fantastic books were written about how New York at that time (most notably Ken Auletta’s The Streets Were Paved With Gold).

But the city recovered in the 1980s and became the “Master of the Universe” global center of wealth and culture, and all the good and bad that came with it.

Then 9/11 happened. A total aside: I was a senior in high school at the time. That entire day still sticks out vividly in my mind. I was watching MTV, who was playing music videos from New York banks through the night after. I recall watching Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Girls:

But guess what? New York recovered. 

The disasters that followed in the 2000s and 2010s – the Finacial Crisis and Hurricane Sandy – were also devistating to Lower Manhattan – though certainly in different ways than 9/11.

Yes, Wall Street is there, but in an increasingly decentralized financial universe, there is less of a need for a footprint around the exchange. But the neighborhood itself is far different than it was in the mid-2000s. People actually want live there.

Now, some of those monuments to the past are being converted to totally new, different uses. Look at 70 Pine Street, which was the headquarters of AIG, the insurer that blew up and almost brought down the entire US economy in 2008. Now, it was converted to residential. Here’s your typical 1BR apratment, for just $4,550 a month.

Or the top of the Woolworth Building, which was gutted of its elevator and mechanical equipment and converted into a $110M home.

Photo via Curbed/Williams New York

Or the JP Morgan & Co. building on Wall Street. Davidson wrote,

“In its new incarnation, the roof of Morgan’s folly has become a poolside arbor in which to lounge with a cocktail and admire the muscular marble figures laboring in the pediment of the Stock Exchange across the street. The roof garden, Starck enthused, is “like an Italian villa on a lake. You’re in the middle of a sculpture, in a garden in the middle of the world. It’s an ecstasy trip.”

Affordable housing is without a doubt the biggest problem in New York. These transformations are all creations for the absolute wealthiest, and do nothing to address the most pressing need of the city. So some of the most recent changes in Lower Manhattan are indeed an evolution, but an evolution to what end?

But the point still stands that Lower Manhattan will adjust, shift, iterate, mold itself into something new. You can throw whatever you want at it, but it’s about the most dynamic place on the face of the earth.
Lower Manhattan has lived a hundred lives. It still has a couple thousand more to go.

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