Skip to main content

New York City’s Historic Downtown (Pt. 1)

the bull statue at Wall street, New York

A Portrait of its Heritage Treasures through the Eyes of Children

One of the most pleasurable — and at times, memorable! — moments on a stroll is overhearing sidewalk conversations that pique our interest, engage our curiosity, charm our sense of humor, and have us trying to delve for our own answers!

With each NYC neighborhood having its own personalities and quirks that animate imaginations into further flight, children have proven to have the most wide-eyed lenses, compelling expansions of our own observations and perceptions. Immediately drawn to the alluring, the strange, the curious, children will attune their heightened senses to absorb all around them … often (and most always!) leaving parents or guardians with the challenge of answering that perpetual child’s question, “But why? ….”

Here, we present a dozen questions on Lower Manhattan that we have kept in our hearts’ sacred vaults. While we cannot claim to know every parent’s or guardian’s response (often starting with, “Hmmm”, or “Well, uh, ….” or “Because that’s the way it is…”), we thought we’d take our editorial broad-stroke brushes in our own childlike ways for a palette that captures a neighborhood’s stories … a gathering of questions overheard at its famous sites or attractions. So here is a collection that paints a delightful portrait of a neighborhood through some of its heritage treasures, with answers for children’s rating and review. Enjoy!

At City Hall:
Why is the flag blue, white and orange? And what is the circle in the middle?

The New York City flag has three vertical stripes of blue, white, and orange with the city’s seal in the Center.

About the flag: its three colors honor the role that the Dutch played in the city’s history and development. When they settled a trading colony called New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan in 1625, they flew the Prince’s Flag of the Dutch Republic — which carried the same colors — over the community.

About the seal: it contains many symbols. A bald eagle represents the United States; a Native American honors the region’s original Lenni Lenape inhabitants; a sailor pays tribute to the city’s maritime heritage; beavers, flour barrels and a windmill represent early commerce and industry.

On Nassau Street:
Why are the streets so narrow around here?

We are walking on trails from colonial New York’s Dutch past (1624-1664). The layout of these streets formed a settlement they called New Amsterdam.

A map of the Dutch colony, created in 1660 by surveyor Jacques Cortelyou, shows that the original street plan of that time is the essentially the same one walked today, with little changed over the centuries in maze-like routes and rambling patterns.

If we had that 1660 map — called the Castello Plan for an Italian estate where it was rediscovered in 1900 — we will see many details to help us reimagine the many homes, businesses, canals, streets … and a wall that once stood along our stroll! But narrow were the streets then … and definitely narrow remain the streets now.

On Wall Street:
Why did the Dutch build a wall?

In early 1653, the Dutch colony’s Director-General Stuyvesant was ordered to fortify the settlement of New Amsterdam from oncoming English warships bent on taking it to expand their territorial hold on trade. To protect the Dutch community from the English, African slaves built a 12-foot wall of logs along the northern edge of New Amsterdam. It stretched across Manhattan island — from the Hudson River in the west, to the East River.

But the wall didn’t really work. In 1664, the English came around the tip of Manhattan via the waters of New York Harbor, demanding a Dutch surrender. The British takeover would result in the renaming of New Amsterdam to New York, in honor of the Duke of York, who organized the mission of conquest.

At Federal Hall:
Are we in the center of NYC?

In many ways, yes. Historic Downtown is recognized as the source of New York City’s growth. The host of many “firsts”, The nurturing ground through which political, financial, economic, cultural and other countless milestones would be achieved.

But, no, Lower Manhattan is not the geographic midpoint of NYC. With the metropolis’ expansive area coverage of boroughs, islands and bodies of water, the exact location of “Geographic Center” is still disputed. The battle for prestige continues between the neighborhoods of Woodside, Queens and Bushwick, Brooklyn, who both claim the title.

At St. Paul’s Chapel:
Why does the eagle look like a turkey?

Above George Washington’s pew in St. Paul’s Chapel, where he knelt to pray following his inauguration as the First President of a new nation in 1789, hangs one of the earliest, original oil paintings of the Great Seal of the United States.

Commissioned in 1784, the year after Washington’s Presidential Inauguration, the painting highlights our proposed National Bird with a banner in its beak bearing the national motto “E Pluribus Unum”: Out of Many, One.” On its chest is a crest featuring thirteen stripes for the thirteen states, representing the new American republic.

But, wait, do our eyes deceive us? Is it an Eagle … or a Turkey? Which feathered competitor would more fittingly carry the role? It is from observations such as these that myths and legends tend to form …

With the just-formed republic requiring a Great Seal, the early design on the oil painting prompted one Founding Father to focus on the portrayal of the National Bird, weighing its merits of integrity as an official national emblem for a fledgling nation. In a 1784 letter addressed to his daughter Sarah, Benjamin Franklin criticized the original design of the eagle, saying that it looked more like a turkey.

In appraising the eagle, he wrote: “For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character.” And in defending the honor of the turkey against a proposed Bird of Dominion, he continued, it is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”

At Trinity Church:
Why does the church have that brown color?

Let us introduce the brownstone.

The present Trinity Church, completed in 1846, is a Gothic Revival monument executed in brownstone by the noted ecclesiastical architect Richard Upjohn. It is generally regarded as the first significant building in the city with brownstone walls.

Local brownstone, a red sandstone, was the material of choice for many churches and was frequently used in New York construction before the 1850s. Supplied by quarries along the Passaic River in New Jersey, this type of sandstone as a building material is solid, yet easily carved.

By Hamilton’s Grave at Trinity Church:
Why do they leave so many coins here?

When Lin-Manuel’s musical Hamilton burst onto the stage with phenomenal success, this Broadway hit drew — and continues to attract — countless visitors to Alexander Hamilton’s grave in the Burial Grounds of Trinity Church.

The number of coins, flags and flowers laid at his grave has its worth! It is a fitting homage for a Founding Father, who most profoundly influenced the economic development of this country: our nation’s first secretary of the Treasury as well as the chief architect of the American financial system. The face on the $10 bill.

Hamilton's grave at Trinity Church

Hamilton’s Grave at Trinity Church


On Beaver Street:
Why is a street named after a beaver?

The beaver greatly deserves the recognition! Tributes gratefully appear in more places than one. In addition to this street sign, beavers are featured on The Seal of the City of New York — and on the facade of many landmark buildings — for the essential role played in early history and commerce. Their pelts from the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam to European markets in the early 1600s spurred the profitable fur trade across the oceans, with more than 80,000 skins exported.

These days, the beavers are fortunately spared their earlier fate. And, yes, we are happy to report they are back in NYC waters, swimmingly safe.

By the U.S. Customs House:
What are those statues on top of the building?

Situated at the south tip of Manhattan by New York Harbor, the U.S. Customs House is often associated with the import and export of goods, signaling maritime impact. In homage to this tradition, the twelve marble statues above the columns on the main facade represent personifications of seafaring nations through both ancient and modern history.

Each sculpture is 11 feet (3.4 m) tall and weighs 20 short tons (18 long tons; 18 metric tons). These allegorical sculptures were arranged in chronological sequence from east to west, beginning with ancient Greece and Rome, progressing into more recent French and British empires. With the official opening of the U.S. Custom House in 1907, NYC’s status as an economic powerhouse was solidified, joining the lineage of ancestral ports prominently displayed on the building.

Today, the U.S. Customs House is home to The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

On Stone Street:
What kind of stones are they?

In the old days of New Amsterdam, this was a main road — once called Hoogh Straet (High Street) — that ran along a mere block from the water’s edge at Pearl Street. At the request of residents who complained of the road’s heavy dust and poor conditions, it was paved in 1658 with roundish cobble stones typically pulled from nearby river beds that smoothened the stones’ rough edges over time.

The current name of Stone Street comes simply from the paving of one of the city’s oldest roads —first with naturally occurring cobble stones, then with hand-carved granite stones known as Belgian blocks. This is how the formerly-name Hoogh Straet earned the honor of becoming the first cobbled street in New Amsterdam.

By Fraunces Tavern:
What did Washington eat there?

Our first President was a patron of this noted tavern — then known as the Queen’s Head. He would dine there when first arriving in New York City on April 13, 1776 and would return on momentous occasions. This famous gathering place — which witnessed the British Colonial Period, the Revolutionary War, and the birth of a new nation — was owned by Samuel Fraunces, whose culinary skills were offered on full display, but whose alliances were kept a closely-guarded secret during a precarious time in our history.

If ever there was a “go-to” center for any motive or occasion in British Colonial New York, it would be Fraunces Tavern. A hub for the era’s patriots, loyalists, and spies; a ground cover for extremist organizations; a destination for fine dining in British Colonial New York; a magnet for the community. Over its tables were disclosed troop movements, secret messages, political debates, comings-and-goings, invitations to lavish celebrations or announcements of somber ceremonies. But from Samuel Fraunces’ kitchen emerged meals and pastries which Gen. George Washington’s palate could never resist.

Before finally leaving New York at the end of the Revolutionary War, Gen. Washington would walk through Fraunces Tavern’s doors on at least two more occasions for celebratory dinners. The first would be on November 25, 1783, a date signaling the evacuation of British troops from the city; the second and final one, several days later on December 4, 1783, when Washington would bid farewell to his troops.

According to the Montclair Historical Society’s The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook, the menu for the Evacuation Day Banquet included Fresh Sorrel Soup with Sippets, Roasted Lamb with Oyster Forcemeat, Tipsy Squire and Carrot Tea Cake. And while no detailed records are disclosed for menu items on the Farewell Dinner at the Tavern’s Long Room, it is famously recorded that Washington stood before the Continental Army and bid goodbye to each of his officers in an emotional toast. A glass of wine in hand.

Along the Canyon of Heroes:
Who are the heroes?

If we take a stroll on Broadway, along a stretch between Battery Park and City Hall, we notice black granite plaques embedded on sidewalks on both sides of the street. There are more than 200 of them, each with a story.

A closer look at each plaque would reveal a date and a name. A date for a ticker-tape parade. And the name of an honoree: a “hero” whom we exalt with showers of confetti and deafening cheers along the skyscraper-carved canyon of Broadway.

From the first festivities spontaneously given during the 1886 Dedication of the Statue of Liberty … to the long-planned 2021 Hometown Heroes celebrations for pandemic first-responders and essential workers … the parades have honored heads of state, war generals, athletes, foreign dignitaries, and more. We might pause: What was the life behind each victory? What were the times in which it earned accolades? What were the popular sentiments rallying for its memory?

A meditative and thought-provoking stroll along the Canyon this can be.

In Battery Park:
Why is the Statue of Liberty Green?

When the Statue was unveiled in 1886, it was shiny penny-colored brown. Its exterior is made of copper, and it turned that shade of green because of oxidation.

By 1906, it was covered with a blue-green patina, due to chemical reactions between metal and water. With New York Harbor’s extreme elements of high winds, salt water and air pollution, the blue-green patina is a protective layer that shields the statue and preserves it.

And, last but not least, a frequently-overheard inquiry …

By the Charging Bull:
Why are there more people taking pictures at the back of the bull rather than the front?

As fate would have this, it appears the Charging Bull has been destined for greater viewing: from all sides … and from either end. The rubbing of the rear — specifically, the “Bulls Balls” — has evolved to become a venerated tradition, a preferable homage for the assurance of good fortune and wealth. But when sculptor Arturo Di Modica first gifted New York City with an 11-foot tall, 18-foot long, three-and-a-half-ton bronze “Charging Bull” 33 years ago, his creation was not welcome!

The sculpture — neither commissioned nor approved — would first make its appearance by going on covert mission: unbeknownst to the entire city, it would be planted in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in the early morning light of winter’s December 15, 1989. A mysterious Christmas gift without any sighting of a Santa Claus or Elf. A recognized symbol of America’s tenacious stock market and a country’s financial might. A tribute to the power and resilient spirit of New York in the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash known as “Black Monday”.

But, as the sunrise greeted office workers to the Financial District, the Bull would be rejected by NYSE, much to the distraught of a far more welcoming and excited crowd that had gathered to greet it. The New York Police Department (NYPD) would be called and the Bull would find itself carted away on a massive rig that took all day for the NYSE to find. But feisty New Yorkers, denied of their Christmas Gift, clamored for its home and would not temper their outcry over its displacement. Gratefully, the Mayor’s Office, New York Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Bowling Green Association joined forces to comply.

Thus, on December 21, 1989 — within a week of its being cast out by the Exchange — the Charging Bull would find a permanent home where it now stands, enthroned by millions. In all sorts of ways, from all angles and directions, in all its “golden” glory.

Should you — or your child — have a question about the Historic District or any neighborhood, do send them in. Or, for the pure pleasure of discovery and exploration, we invite you to join our tour of Historic Downtown, and have you asking more!

Dialogues with Gods of Beaux-Arts and Art Deco New York Previous Article Finding Seneca Village in Central Park Next Article