You are going to downtown, again. Since New York City has so much to offer, you may wonder if drinking in that same bar in the East Village is a good idea, or if you should try something new. You may also think that it is time to enjoy the city, just like millions of tourists do every year, but paying $34 for a ticket to One World Observatory doesn’t excite you so much. Why don’t you try, for once, to look up from your phone and enjoy the beauty of New York’s most diverse and historically interesting areas?
“There are amazing parks and vistas all over Lower Manhattan, and the architecture is marvelous. All you have to do is take a stroll and enjoy the changing landscape as you walk casually around the city,” said Karl Willers, a long-time New Yorker and art museum curator in Chelsea. To help you make the most out of your walking adventure, here are seven secret things to discover in downtown Manhattan, right below 14th street, that most New Yorkers don’t know about.
- Stroll through the oldest parts of New York City – and imagine.
Downtown Manhattan is home to some of the oldest marvels of the city. Walking on the crowded sidewalks of Wall Street, imagine what the area looked like when George Washington was inaugurated first president of the United States in 1789. The inaugural parade stopped at St. Paul’s Chapel, which had the exact same look as now. In her book “New York City Yesterday & Today,” Judith H. Browning explains that at the time the Church on Vesey and Broadway was built outside of city limits, in the extreme north, even though it’s barely more than a half mile to the tip of Manhattan now. Imagine how small the city was at the time! Don’t forget to stop by Fraunces Tavern, in which most New Yorkers gathered to celebrate the inauguration. Browning explains that the popular inn, built in 1719, was restored in 1904 and still houses a restaurant as well as a museum.
- Look at the vernacular architecture.
Many of the brownstone houses of Downtown Manhattan were built in the 19th century, and the entire city grew up around them. Just imagine how many people have lived in these houses and what stories they could tell. One building that you should pay more attention to is the Tenement House on the Lower East Side. Kerry Dean Carso, a Harvard Alumni and professor at SUNY New Paltz focuses on American Architecture and teaches a course called The Architecture of New York City. She often recommends a visit to the Tenement Museum. She says, “It does a wonderful job of explaining what life was like for immigrants coming to the United States in the 19th century through the material culture of their lives.”
- Learn the stories of Trinity Church.
At the corner of the busiest streets of the city, Wall Street and Broadway, one wishes that they could hear the stories from the walls of The Trinity Church, completed in 1846. Although it may seem tiny when surrounded by skyscrapers, Browning indicates that its architect “was determined to create a church that would reach to the heavens.” Right next to the swirling traffic, you will be surprised by the importance of people resting in its churchyard. Among the oldest tombstones, you will find Francis Lewis (who signed the Declaration of Independence) and Robert Fulton (the great innovator who invented the steamboat and many others). The oldest grave in the cemetery is from 1681!
- Explore the tiny streets of the West and East Village.
The Eastern and Western sides of downtown are called “villages,” which is a good description of the different feeling you may have when exploring them. Carso explains that “the commissioners’ plan of 1811 laid out Manhattan streets in a rectilinear grid pattern, but downtown already had settlements and street patterns in place” Many other places in New York could look like this, if they had not been destroyed. This is why we should be appreciative for the conservation of those historical neighborhoods. Carso adds “Jane Jacobs, activist and author stood up to the forces of urban renewal and slum clearance and helped save her neighborhood from a large-scale urban project that would have been extremely detrimental to the neighborhood feel of the Village.”
- Don’t just watch the city, watch the people in it.
Sit on one of New York’s numerous benches and watch. This is what Willers likes to do when walking in Downtown Manhattan. He considers New York as “the best people-watching city in the world.” With about 8,550,405, million inhabitants, tourists from the whole world and 38% of its population immigrants, New York is one of the most diverse places in America.
“I’ve traveled all over the world and no city has so many interesting different faces to look at as New York. The mosaic and the melting pot, all the clichés are true. And that endless shower of traits and races and tonalities is without contest what makes this city so beautiful,” said Hugh Siegel, communication director for ICAP at Columbia University and long-time New Yorker.
This article was originally published in the May Issue of The Teller Magazine.