The Other Ghosts of Ground Zero

Unlike Other New York Landmarks, the Twin Towers Were Built on Landfill(ed) With Drama of the Past

Even after recovery workers at the World Trade Center site clear away the massive steel debris and uncover land on which new buildings and a memorial can be erected, we will perhaps forever know the site as ground zero. It would be a wonderful addition to any new structures built there to display something of the complete history of new york life in and around those 16 acres of Lower Manhattan that have now become sacred ground.

Because it sits on the very oldest part of the city, the area has a nearly 400-year-old past, filled with the whimsy of P.T. Barnum's first exhibition of stupid human tricks, the horror of a lynching of 30 black men and four whites, the hustle of curbside trading, and ambitions of every kind. The area's inhabitants—whether colonial revolutionaries or Wall Street brokers—seldom settled for halfway or half done. They went for broke.

These are just some of the stories that aren't widely told, from in and around ground zero's approximate borders: Chambers Street on the north, Liberty Street to the south, Broadway on the east, and the Hudson River on the west.

The oldest structures at ground zero were huts. Back when a couple of Dutch fur traders sailed to the Hudson shore in 1613, the Lenape Indians, who lived in northern Manhattan and Long Island and considered Lower Manhattan too marshy to be habitable, only used the place to fish and hunt. Maybe that's why they didn't mind trading it to the Dutch, if in fact that's what they thought they were doing, in 1626. The tribe had already made a road down the middle of the island; the Dutch simply widened it and called it Broadway.

Ground zero itself didn't exist 400 years ago; the Manhattan shoreline was where Greenwich Street is now. And some of the landfill put in over the years included remains from the African Burial Ground that was in use by 1712.

The Dutch West India Company had a charter for the island and they built docks near ground zero for fur trade. And into this settlement came the first municipal labor force—11 enslaved Africans arriving in 1625—and other Africans (who quickly became 20 percent of the population), Jews (who began the first Jewish congregation in the New World), and many just looking for a new start. The village of New Amsterdam had a steady population boom for years. As early as the mid 1600s the Puritans of New England considered Manhattan a haven for immorality.

In 1664 the British took over, gave the area to James Stuart, duke of York, as a birthday present, and renamed it New York. This began a period of greater dependence on the slave trade and battles over multiculturalism. According to Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and an author of The Black New Yorkers, during this time Africans began being forced north, which continued into the 20th century. The Dutch commander Jacob Leisler ran out the British governor in 1689 and led anti-Catholic rioting. The British later hanged him near City Hall Park. Things were so nasty during this time that privateering was legal, and William Kidd, a Pearl Street resident who owned a pew that still sits in Trinity Church, became a legendary pirate.

Wall Street, (not strictly in our 16-acre site, of course) was also the home of the slave market. The mixed slave and free black population shared harsh lives, and in 1712 there was a bloody slave uprising on Maiden Lane at the eastern border of ground zero. Some of the blacks killed themselves rather than be caught; the others were hanged, starved, burned at the stake, or killed on a bone-crushing wheel.

One hundred and nineteen years of British rule gave us first a tavern in the 1660s, then the King's Arm coffeehouse in 1696 on Broadway between Liberty and Cedar, and then King's College in 1754—now Columbia University—started in Trinity Church and moved to Park Place between Church and West Broadway.

In 1741, a series of fires prompted a witch-hunt of sorts in Lower Manhattan when local officials came to believe that white tavern owner John Hughson had conspired with his black customers to burn down the city. City recorder Daniel Horsmanden convinced Hughson's 16-year-old indentured servant, Mary Burton, and others to testify against them in exchange for freedom. In the end, 30 blacks and four whites were burned or hanged near City Hall Park.

The Sons of Liberty, a working-class revolutionary crew, were more like a thorn than a threat to the British. But after destroying buildings and carriages, a series of their pranks escalated into a bloody clash in 1770 that marked the first time American blood was shed in the independence struggle. They put up so-called Liberty Poles—metal shafts holding banners that read "Liberty"—all around Lower Manhattan, including at their headquarters, Montagne's Tavern on Broadway between Warren and Murray inside ground zero. When the British destroyed that pole a riot ensued known as the Battle of Golden Hill.

Six years later, during the Revolutionary War, another fire engulfed Lower Manhattan. The British accused the Americans, and 200 Americans were arrested. Though George Washington's youngest army captain, Nathan Hale said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," before he was hanged for the blaze, his involvement was never confirmed.

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