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.
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.