At least I hope so, because it was looking pretty gloomy as I stepped out into Hell’s Kitchen this morning! I had an appointment to meet my friends at Newark Airport at 1:00 PM to prepare for AIDS Walk New York, but when you’re a little beaver in a big city, there are so many things to discover before appointments! So I started with one place that has an unmatched hold on American culture: Times Square!
Maybe, if you’ve never been to New York before, you’re not sure what exactly Times Square is, beyond the section of Broadway between 43rd and 47th Streets! Well! In January of 1905, Adolph Ochs organized the construction of Times Tower, second tallest building in the city and new headquarters of the New York Times, converting the drab Longacre Square into Times Square!
After installing early electrical news displays and a New Year’s Eve tradition, the Times outgrew their tower and left. However, this central hub only kept growing, drawing in reputable theaters from surrounding areas to set up shop in this major crossroads of the city. That’s why, ever since World War I, “Broadway” has been synonymous with top-notch American theater!
At any rate, after the incredible power of the electric lights last night, the Square was a little lackluster this morning, and I had places to go! I hopped on the southbound R Train to City Hall, where I spotted a sign for the People with A.I.D.S. Plaza, named for the organization of the same name in the 1990s, and a reminder of why I came to New York in the first place!
This wasn’t my destination, though. I was headed for a sacred space tucked away among the buildings: the African Burial Ground National Monument!
This 6.6-acre plot was the only place where African-American New Yorkers could bury their dead loved ones under mostly British rule from the 1690s until 1794. It was lost to years of development until 1991 when the bodies were discovered during installation of the new Federal Building! What’s important to know, though, is that African-Americans have been critical to the construction of New York from the very beginning! In fact, before the American Revolution, New York had more enslaved African people, from many different languages and cultures, than any of the other twelve colonies! Their labor built Broadway and the Wall, which we now call Wall Street, where I was headed next, since the visitor center here didn’t open for another hour!
Wall Street has a long history of financial exchange, dating back well before a stock market and Federal Reserve. Long after African-American slaves built the defensive wall that gave the street its name, this was the site of New York’s official slave market, as of 1711!
Nowadays, Wall Street looks nothing like the Wall Street I expected! Firstly, with the exception of some maintenance vehicles, it was entirely a pedestrian zone! Tourists mingled with folks in suits, bustling to and fro to get that perfect angle, or perfect investment!
This is where the New York Stock Exchange has stood since May 17, 1792, when 24 stockbrokers and merchants signed the Buttonwood Agreement and listed the Bank of New York as its first listed company! This is where the Crash of 1929 brought on the Great Depression and the Financial Crisis of 2008 galvanized the nation financially and politically, with effects still being felt today!
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the New York Stock Exchange is where you can buy and sell shares in a company’s future, kind of like becoming part of its extended board of directors! You can also buy and sell government bonds and treasury notes, which grow more slowly but are presumably more stable. In many ways, though, investing in the stock market is a lot like gambling, with potential consequences that can span the globe!
I thought about going inside, but the security line was awfully long (and strict)! Instead, I turned my attention to another important NPS site: Federal Hall National Memorial, the birthplace of U.S. Government!
It was here in 1789 that George Washington took the first presidential oath of office, standing on a balcony of the old British city hall, redesigned by Pierre L’Enfant. While the original building no longer exists, the stone on which President Washington stood has been preserved!
This was also where Congress held its first two sessions before moving to Philadelphia! From the first session came the U.S. Departments of War, Treasury, and Foreign Affairs (State), as well as the Supreme Court, and the first twelve amendments to the Constitution, ten of which we now call the Bill of Rights! From the second session came the Naturalization Act, Patent Act, Copyright Act, and designation of a spot on the Potomac River for the future capital city of the United States! So you could look at it as though the government and Wall Street have been tied together since the very beginning!
I was rapidly running out of time, but I had to make a quick stopover at the Charging Bull down the street at Bowling Green Park. Arturo di Modica created this iconic sculpture after the stock market crash of 1987 and had it trucked secretly to the front of the New York Stock Exchange on December 15, 1989. The city initially rejected the sculpture and had it removed, but eventually, they found a better place for it at Bowling Green, where it is now a nightmare for photos!
The picture you see was taken after pushing and showing through dozens of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks, cramming their way up to see the bull. I lost a lot of time here, but, like Times Square, this is one of those symbols of New York that just can’t be passed up!
Anyway, I got my photo and hustled back up the street. I checked the time: 11:05. I had to be at Newark Airport by 1:15, which meant catching the 11:50 NJTransit train from Penn Station. And I still had to visit the visitor center at the African Burial Ground National Monument! Plenty of time, right?!
Well, in addition to being open an hour later than scheduled, the visitor center only allows 5 people through security at a time! And the line was long! It was great to see such enthusiasm for this place, but I was sweating, even though it wasn’t especially hot!
By the time I got inside, at about 11:40, I learned that the first non-native person to settle in New York (circa 1613) was a half-African, half-Portuguese fellow named Jan Rodrigues, who was so talented with languages that he became an important intermediary in trade agreements between the Dutch and the local Lenape!
Unfortunately, that was all I had time to learn, because soon enough, I was blazing my own trail back to Penn Station, long after the 11:50 train had left. Even though that stuck me on a later train, I was glad I at least got a taste of the information inside the African Burial Ground. I’ll have to go back next time I’m in the Big Apple!