Manhattan's History Is Being Neglected in the Debates About 9-11 Memorials

Roundup: Media's Take

Russell Shorto, in the NYT (Feb. 9, 2004):

Acre for acre, Lower Manhattan may be the most historic piece of real estate in America. Here the Sons of Liberty plotted revolution, the Stamp Act Congress met to defy taxation without representation, colonists exchanged fire with British ships in the harbor, and General Washington and his officers celebrated their victory. The first president was inaugurated here, and Congress, meeting at Federal Hall, wrote the Bill of Rights. In one remarkable moment in time, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton all lived and worked in these narrow streets. For two centuries, this tiny quadrant was New York — and the gateway to America for millions of immigrants.

It was also, of course, the site of the World Trade Center. Both the building of the twin towers and their destruction flow from that deep history, for the events that occurred here contributed not only to the nation's growth but to the rise in might of New York as global capital and lower-case world trade center.

It would seem natural, then, to connect the site to its past. But neither the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial nor any of the public conversation or press attention surrounding it have attempted to do so. A sense of history has been absent from the whole process.

Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. The fact is, Lower Manhattan — which after all is America's financial capital, and has business to do — has never had the reflective, carefully tended atmosphere of Boston's historic center, Philadelphia's Independence Hall, or the memorials in Washington. Monuments that anywhere else would serve as a city's cherished heart are lost in the Wall Street shuffle. Many historic events that took place here don't even rate a plaque. Over the past three years, while working on a book about Manhattan's founding, I spent a lot of time in and around the historic sites of Lower Manhattan, and routinely encountered clusters of tourists zigzagging haphazardly through the area, guidebooks in hand, knowing that they were walking streets redolent of the past but having a hard time sniffing it out.

The reason for the city's offhand approach to its most elemental history goes all the way back to the beginning, and has to do with New York's unique development. While the colonies to the north and south were English, the population of New York, dating from its beginnings as the Dutch city of New Amsterdam, was mixed,"foreign." For all New York's power, the Brahmins in Boston and the planters of Virginia kept it at arm's length. New York's image of itself has always reflected this. From early on, the city ceded patriotic sentiment to others and put its energy into the present. New York, the feeling goes, is too big, too chaotic, too jazzed and hustling and busy to turn itself into a museum.

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