The Other Ghosts of Ground Zero

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

As a result of the battles for control of Manhattan, the land, currency, and commerce were badly damaged. "The big question is why in the next 40 years, New York transformed into the colossus of the Western world," said Kenneth T. Jackson, editor of The New York City Encyclopedia. The transformation wasn't instant. According to Kathleen Hulser, public historian for the New York Historical Society, widening slums of Lower Manhattan were proof of the ravaged and destitute country's fight for survival. But through the efforts of effective governors, Lower Manhattan forged an identity as a trade center.

That business identity began in 1792 under a buttonwood tree, on Wall Street of course, east of ground zero, when merchants and brokers agreed to sell on a common commission basis. The bustling curb market that became the New York Stock Exchange worked the area streets until it moved indoors in 1921.

In 1811, when nearly all of New York still sat below Canal Street, lieutenant governor and mayor DeWitt Clinton decided to develop the rest of the island, flattening the hilly island and building the roads into a grid of 12 north-south avenues and 155 cross streets.

Downtown, large manufacturing workshops supplanted artisans and family-owned businesses, and the streets were littered with garbage and animal waste. A few men made quick fortunes owning the workshops that turned out hats, shoes, and iron goods, and moved northward to newer, cleaner areas. An ever growing class of poor laborers and slaves, some of whom had been self-employed artisans, were forced into the same crowded flammable spaces where they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, without the luxury of clean water.

Despite their productivity, the working class was only heard through massive protests, like the one in 1788 when medical students used to go grave-robbing for cadavers on the grounds of the African Burial Ground and Trinity Church. While the African American community petitioned the City Council about this, the theft of white remains provoked a mob of 5000 to riot around Church Street and today's West Broadway.

There was another riot at ground zero in 1793, when a 17-year-old worker named Lanah Sawyer alleged that Henry Bedlow, a wealthy man with a "libertine" reputation, had lured her to Mother Carey's bawdy house on Ann Street and raped her. A jury speedily acquitted Bedlow, upholding the common belief that lower-class women were loose, prompting hundreds of laboring men to riot around Greenwich, Warren, and Murray streets. Cartmen, shopkeepers, and mechanics lived there by a red-light district known as "the Holy Ground," popular with Columbia students.

A third major riot in the WTC area happened when the Panic of 1837 delivered yet another unexpected blow to the poor. A depression was set in motion by a single vengeful banker that year when President Andrew Jackson vowed to take federal funds out of private banks. Stocks fell and flour prices soared to $12 from $4.87 a bushel in 1834. The Eli Hart and Co. flour business on Washington between Dey and Cortlandt streets among others, was destroyed by a mob of nearly 5000.

By 1837 other issues were heating up, like the anti-slavery movement. Some blacks had once again become property owners at ground zero. New York's first degree-holding black doctor, James McCune Smith, who had trained in Scotland, opened a medical practice and pharmacy on West Broadway. In 1846, Smith wrote a widely distributed rebuttal to arguments made by the staunchly pro-slavery U.S. senator and former vice president John C. Calhoun on the capacity of a black man's mind. Also inside the zone were black businessmen Edward Felix, a tinsmith, at 148 Church, and William Wally, a soap and candlemaker, at 161 Broadway.

Trade thrived in the second half of the 19th century with the construction of the Clinton's Erie Canal and the influx of mostly Irish immigrant workers. Notorious Tammany Hall leaders like "Boss" William Marcy Tweed—perhaps New York's most popular icon of civic corruption—implemented public services including paved streets, schools, hospitals, and sanitation departments. And P.T. Barnum built the American Museum at Ann and Broadway. (One Barnum concert in 1850 cost up to $225 a ticket—$5000 today.)

As more New Yorkers visited Lower Manhattan—by the end of the 19th century the home of Wall Street, and the center of shopping and culture—scientist Alfred Ely Beach designed a subway using the same technology that later allowed mail to travel 30 miles per hour through a network of pneumatic tubes. However, with railway plans of his own, Boss Tweed threatened to stop Beach in his tracks, literally. In 1870, Beach hired workers to secretly dig a tunnel under Devlin's Clothing Store at Murray and Broadway and two months later, he unveiled the first New York subway, which delighted riders, who paid 25 cents to travel 312 feet down Broadway to Warren.

There's lots more, but perhaps the most notable development at ground zero in the 20th century was the early race to construct the tallest buildings. In the twin towers area alone, four skyscrapers have at one time claimed the title of tallest building in the world: In 1898, it was the St. Paul Building on Broadway and Ann, outdone the next year by the 1899 Park Row on Broadway, south of City Hall Park. In 1908, the title went to the Singer Building on Broadway between Cortlandt and Liberty, then in 1913 to the Woolworth Building on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay, and of course, in 1973, the World Trade Center Towers took the prize, but only for a year. While perhaps nothing is forever, each new skyscraper said do nothing halfway, go for broke.

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