Review: Downtown: My Manhattan

By | May 13, 2013

I cannot count the number of times I’ve started and stopped reading Pete Hamill’s Downtown: My Manhattan. Not because I didn’t enjoy reading it, but because I never seemed to have the time to commit to it. I can’t even blame it all on library book expiration — at one point I’d mooched two copies off BookMooch and managed to give away/donate both before I read it! I started thinking about it as well as Philip Lopate’s Waterfront during last summer’s Loop, but never got my hands on a copy. Recently I got back into it and decided this was the time. I would re request a copy for the library as often as I needed to. Luckily, it only took one renewal and I absolutely love this book. I find myself wishing for a sequel.

I like Hamill’s idea about owning a city (and its neighborhoods) in different ways.  It’s something I never really thought of, but it’s absolutely true. I argue about the boundaries of the Upper East Side in the same way he does about “Downtown”. Your perception depends on your attitude, your hobbies, your favorites and your age. Hamill is significantly older than I am so his view of his neighborhoods were different to mine even when they overlapped. There’s also the question of timing — this book was published in 2004 which doesn’t seem that long ago, but is significant in the development and change of NYC.

Perhaps the key change was the view of 9/11: in Hamill’s writing, the city was still dealing with the hole in Lower Manhattan. While I was reading, they placed the spire atop the new Freedom Tower. Healed? No. But in a much different place than the early 2000s.

The other issue that time hurt? His bibliography. So many titles I want to read. ** So few available for Kindle and some out of print entirely.

Two lines from the book’s beginning and end tell Hamill – and New York’s — stories in a nutshell:

I live here still. With any luck at all, I will die here. I have the native son’s irrational love of the place. For any native the home place is infused with a mixture of memory, myth, lore, and history, bound together in an erratic, subjective way. That’s as true of the natives of New York as of the natives of Oxford, Mississippi. … ….  The wanderer in Manhattan must go forth with a certain innocence, because New York is best seen with innocent eyes.

New York is the same… and different, depending on the person looking at it. When it’s home, it’s yours. You are possessive. Don’t tell me all of the Upper East Side is rich yuppies — it’s my home. I can see beyond the stereotype for the people who actually live there and call it home. But at the same time, when I explore a new area I see it through wide eyes like I’m traveling for the first time. Many weekends last summer I had a book, a camera and a breakfast bar. NYC was just as easily Australia, Spain or Japan. It wasn’t home, it was a new place to explore. I never planned to move back to NYC – or even stay once I was here for grad school, but I’m still here. Will I die here? I don’t know — I can see the up and down sides of both.

Then, for the first time, I saw them: spires aimed at the sky. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. All gilded by morning sun. “What is it?†I said in a stupefied way (as my mother told me years later). “Sure, you remember, Peter,” she said. “You’ve seen it before.”  And then she smiled.  “It’s Oz”   … Was at last a kind of grown-up, living in the buildings of Oz itself. Living, that is, in Manhattan.

Nothing can ever compare to the first view of a city — I don’t have that memory of New York – I started coming here when I was too young. I do recall my first trip to the Statue of Liberty — riding in the car with my grandparents and grandpa telling me the name of every bridge. I was amazed that he knew that. For me? That first city view is the one I alluded to in my review of Where God Was Born … Jerusalem. Nothing will top the old city from Mt. Scopus. Something close, but not exactly, is my view of the Colosseum when I walked from the Vatican while in Rome. Magic.

Sentimentality is always about a lie. Nostalgia is about real things gone. Nobody truly mourns a lie. More millions grieved for the world that existed on September 10, knowing it was forever behind us. I believe that New York nostalgia also comes from that extraordinary process that created the modern city: immigration.

This is an interesting contrast. I don’t know that it’s as black and white as Hamill makes it, but I do believe that sentimentality is often tainted by rose colored glasses. But you can be nostalgic for things that your memory made out to be better than they were, so I’m not sure.

They will discover that the easiest way to know this place is to start at the beginning. That is, to go on foot to Downtown. The liquid heart of the city…. Like many New Yorkers, I’m a creature of habit. I usually walk directly to the railing of the Admiral George Dewey Promenade, a name that no New Yorker ever uses, and I face the harbor. …some unplanned way, part of the Battery is now a necropolis. Here we can pause and remember the dead of various wars and other calamities, or we can move past them in an indifferent hurry. … Over the years the landfill even closed the gap with the old red sandstone fortress now called Castle Clinton. This was built in 1811 on a small man-made island a hundred yards off shore...Nobody would. This was a harbor. All harbors were safe. Or so we believed. …

So much of this series of passages resonated with me. Even though I didn’t grow up in NYC, I grew up as a child of the Hudson — or the North River as Hamill likes to call it. The Hudson is the liquid heart, the Harbor even more so. it fed the city and helped it to develop intro the metropolis that it is. But a necropolis? I know, of course, about the Sphere and eternal flame that have served as 9/11 memorials even with the opening of the official 9/11 Memorial, and I know about the Merchant Mariners’ monument,  but I didn’t realize how many other memorials are within the grounds of the Park. I’ve been down there many times and I’m wholly guilty of moving past in an indifferent hurry… I need to take the time to appreciate the Battery and not just for the sunsets and quiet reading place.

The one exception to the erasure of the Dutch town is the small triangular park called the Bowling Green. Nobody bowls there anymore, although the Dutch and English once did. …. Stewart was clearly a mindless fool. The first Marble Palace is still there at Broadway and Chambers Street. It has recently been rehabilitated after years of decay, but there is no sign that tells passersby about Alexander T. Stewart or his extraordinary monument. He is, in fact, largely forgotten by all New Yorkers except students of the city’s history. One reason: He left no heirs. There would be no family foundations to perpetuate his name, no doors erected in his memory to decorate a city church, no college scholarships

I had no idea none why Bowling Green had the name it did. In hindsight, that’s sad. I wonder what Hamill’s thoughts were on the citywide celebrations of Henry Hudson quadricentennial in 2009. Would it seem odd to celebrate a heritage that has been mostly wiped out? And why was it wiped out? Was it only due to no heirs, like Stewart? Is it due to the old adage of the victor’s writing history? I think it’s a little bit of both — and either makes me sad at the history that was lost to history. What else might we have known about this wonderful city?

Even its location speaks to our origins as a city, for Trinity faces Wall Street, creating a symbolic crossroads of God and Mammon. … Today the tombstones and monuments, like so much about Trinity, exist as testimony. They tell us something about mortality and vanity, of course, as all graveyards do, but they also speak to us about history and change in the city of New York. …But with the probable exceptions of Hamilton and Fulton, even those whose names remain legible are now as forgotten as those whose names have been erased. …St. Paul’s Chapel, a branch of Trinity that had opened in 1766 …. But the spare simplicity of St. Paul’s was fitting for a president who represented republican values. It remains the oldest continuously used structure in Manhattan. After September 11, 2001, the chapel served its city with great honor, providing food, drink, and rest to hundreds of rescue workers and hard hats, and its fences were decorated by thousands of spontaneous messages from those who came downtown to find lost relatives, friends, or lovers, or simply to mourn. St. Paul’s has been witness to more history than Trinity itself. …It still asserts a sense of phoenixlike triumph, rebirth, and enduring faith.

So much intertwined history between the churches of Lower Manhattan, including Grace Church on Broadway and E. 12th, which Hamill references later. I don’t think I realized how connected the three are, although they certainly fall under the If These Walls Could Talk umbrella because they have been witness to some amazing history. Oddly enough, that’s something I usually attribute to Europe, not Manhattan. It’s the old cliche. “In England, 100 miles is far. In America, 100 years is old”. But that’s not true of Lower Manhattan. It’s only fitting that St. Paul’s served George Washington, but also the 9/11 rescue workers. Trinity itself was damaged in the attacks, but it – like New Yorkers – shows its resiliency.

Thanks to the desperation of Aaron Burr, he had discovered the true religion of New York: real estate. … The adherents of the secular New York religion founded by John Jacob Astor saw manna falling from the skies. Inevitably, Manhattan went up. First, uptown. Then to the sky. … From roughly 1880, and for another fifty years, there was a vivid architecture of New York grandeur. Some have called it the New York Renaissance. Others define it as part of the City Beautiful movement. The name doesn’t truly matter. But most of the physical New York I love comes from that era. …the Woolworth Building, the Flatiron, the Daily News Building, the Seagram Building, the Chrysler Building. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, the New York Public Library, the old Custom House, the New York Stock Exchange, Carnegie Hall, Judson Memorial Church ….at Columbia University, and dozens of others scattered through the city. When I think of New York as a visible city, these are the buildings that dominate all others. …. Sullivan’s maxim was used to justify some of the worst architectural junk in the twentieth-century city. These new blank and faceless examples of the International Style, with its roots in the Bauhaus, made the beaux arts buildings even more valuable presences in the city. They were also crucial to the city’s sense of itself

Some things never change many centuries later. Reminds me of another book on Mt. TBR. When the Astors Owned New York. Sadly, it’s pretty far down Mt. TBR as I own it in dead tree format. On the other hand, that should be a reason to read it sooner — reclaim the space. But I never have occasion, or space, to carry around a dead tree book.  While I’m not hugely into real estate, I loved his description of the city’s architectural evolution. Hamill’s habit of talking about the building(s) and what they are now really helped set the setting to understand NYC in the time he was seeing it.

Each time I came for a visit to Penn Station, there was less of it. I was not alone, gazing at this immense act of municipal vandalism and whispering, You bastards. You stupid goddamned bastards. …basic model was the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, but the designers never lost sight of its function as a railroad terminal. …The vandals had attacked some core image New Yorkers had of their city and themselves. The landmarks movement rose from the rubble. Because I was in Europe at the time of the first assault, I never had a chance to walk through that magnificent waiting room and run my hands over the sensual marble and travertine, and say a proper good-bye.

Penn Station was long gone by the time I was born. As much as I love Grand Central’s beauty, I have a hard time romanticizing Penn, which I hate. But in a way, I’m grateful to its destruction because it created the Landmarks movement which is currently celebrating a “landmark” anniversary with a fabulous exhibit at the Queens Museum. I wonder why the timing was perfect 50 years ago to celebrate the city’s architectural history, and not before. I wonder what else might have been preserved if they acted sooner.

Broadway in my mind is an immense tree, with its roots deep in the soil at the foot of Manhattan, which is why I insist so stubbornly to my friends that the uptown places I cherish on Broadway are actually part of Downtown. But there also exists in me an idea of Broadway. It swells with every variety of urban swagger. You see the swagger in the old downtown financial district, where men in conservative suits and overcoats walk toward offices, or clubs, or lunch at India House in Hanover Square as if certain of their destinies. …Sometimes, New York knocks you down. It also teaches you, by example, how to get up. …Obviously, each of these Broadways is shaped by the neighborhoods through which it passes.Broadway never obeyed the commandments of the grid, and the reason was simple: Broadway was Broadway, and even the planners knew they must not tamper with what it already was.

I have often struggled with this idea of Broadway as a physical place while also being an idea. That doesn’t even take into account Google Maps’ current idiocy of referring to every road called Broadway as Broadway Theatre. Go ahead, test it out, it’s insane programming. But Broadway goes beyond many descriptions and it’s its own thing to different people. There is no right or wrong. Strangely, he never touched on my favorite part of Broadway — the Canyon of Heroes. I love that as a tribute not only to the city’s history, but also a path through the living history, whether it’s Bowling Green, Zuccotti Park, City Hall, Broadway is a path through history in Lower Manhattan. It turns into a path of commerce, but to me, Broadway is NYC’s living history.

For a brief period during its construction, it was known too as Stewart’s Folly, because he chose to build on the east side of Broadway, and right behind his emerging store lay the Five Points. No decent woman, it was said, would risk shopping there, where thieves and pickpockets and other predators could strike swiftly and then vanish into the lawless alleys of the city’s worst slum. At night, it was predicted, armed gangs from the Points would come to loot the place.


After Broadway, a second major street had carved its way into the old empty farmlands of the early nineteenth century and into our present history: the Bowery. ….but in 1849 the well-off citizens who resided near the upper Bowery had the name changed to Third Avenue in an attempt to evade the raffish stain of the true name. …Bowery Theater was built in 1826 on the corner of Canal Street (the present 50 Bowery). It offered three thousand seats and was the first American theater to be fully illuminated by gaslight. After the Civil War, the Bowery went into steady decline and then suffered a fatal blow. As happens frequently in New York, the blow fell in the name of progress. … After the el was taken down in 1955-57, and sunlight returned, and the old bums blinked at the sight of the sky, the Bowery remained squalid.

I knew very little about the Bowery (and nothing of Five Points, sadly) until I took the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy’s Grit, Graft & Grandeur : The Bowery walking tour.  I was fascinated by this tour and wished its three hour run was thirteen or thirty hours.  There is so much fascinating history in this region. It has been and continues to be Broadway’s ugly step child, but in reading this book and taking the tour I realize there’s so much relatively unknown history tied to this street. One of my favorite photos of the Bowery is its old and new: the New Museum and the Bowery Mission. I cannot imagine an El dropping embers onto theatergoing women — I cannot imagine the Bowery as a hub of NYC theater, even though I know it was. Some of Bowery’s Skid Row history is on visible display in 190 Bowery — but it’s old history is gone. Lost to progress as he says.

FROM THE BEGINNING, Fifth Avenue was a very good address, although it seldom had any murders. It did, alas, contain murderers. The social and geographical foundation of what was called “the†Fifth Avenue for most of the nineteenth century was Washington Square. And before its six and a half acres were laid out as the city’s first planned square, it was the potter’s field. But in the center of today’s square at approximately where the fountain was built in the 1960s stood the gallows. …. even in the late 1950s, when I was living in the East Village and spending time around the square, old residents were telling me tales about how on certain foggy nights you could see the dead rising from below the grass and the footpaths. Some wore the yellow shrouds in which they were buried, identifying them as victims of the fever. Some had distended necks. Many were women. I didn’t believe a word of these tales, of course, but knew they must be true.

I knew about the potter’s field — thank you Linda Fairstein’s books — but I had no idea about the Gallows. How did I do grad school at NYU and not know about this. How did the professors not use it as a way to behave. And yes, there are so many tall tales that in some ways, we still know to be absolutely true and false at the same time.

At the same time, I also had no idea of Union Square’s theatrical history even though many of the buildings remain today. I didn’t think about its connection to the Jewish Rialto (again, thank you LESJC!) despite some obvious lines from the Merchant of Venice. As Hamill said, “If to the brownstoners Fourteenth Street was a branch of Fifth Avenue, to the actors, musicians, and writers it was a branch of Broadway.”  As a fan of Off-Broadway, I wondered how/why it developed apart from Broadway (besides the current union issues that make it so today). I’m not surprised that I learned that in this book — or that it grew out of the old Jewish Rialto.

Union Square, after all, was named because of the planned union of Broadway with the Bowery, not as an homage to that union for which so many New Yorkers had died…. The Academy of Music had sealed its own doom as a venue for opera when it refused to sell boxes to the new men of wealth; they responded by building the Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and Thirty-ninth. Its first season was 1883. Three years later, the Academy was finished as a venue for opera and other upper-class entertainments. The old Academy of Music had been hammered into dust in 1926 to make way for the massive headquarters of Con Edison. Its once-powerful neighbor, Tammany Hall, had vanished too, taking the remains of Tony Pastor’s stage with it. In 1929, the politicians opened their new headquarters on Union Square and East Seventeenth Street, where this last Tammany Hall would remain until 1943 (it’s now a small, elegant Off-Broadway theater and the location of the New York Film School).

Wow. In many ways, Ochs was lucky that this also hasn’t happened to Times Square. It’s amazing how the city has progressed northwest, leaving its history “hammered into dust” and leaving few traces of its roots. Tammany Hall is another one of those figures like Broadway — physical or an entity. Or both.

Were the Occupy Wall Street riots really just the current installation in the cycle that included the Draft Riots and the Tompkins Square riots? Is the Brooklyn Renaissance new, or is it just the next in the cycle of renewals that also included the Bowery, Tompkins Square Park, Times Square and many others?

The seeds of excess and empty theaters led to the sell off that led to the current problem: not enough space on Broadway. It’s a shame the Hudson Theatre is now home to a hotel, and can’t welcome back the Tonight Show’s return to NYC in 2014.

Then the Depression happened, and Forty-second Street began what seemed a terminal decline.

For the Bowery, it was the Civil War. For 42nd Street, or the Deuce, as Hamill likes to call it, it was the Great Depression. What was it for 125th Street? Hamill doesn’t touch on that since he acknowledges he doesn’t know Harlem the way he knows his Manhattan. Disney is the new Hangman? First it came for 42nd Street, and then 125th (at the Apollo). The financial crisis of 2008-09 didn’t claim another neighborhood, but the pattern is there. Has the city learned from it?

Toward the end of the 1970s, every New Yorker, male and female, white, black, and Latino, had learned to live with fear. They grew up in a world of plague, where the combination of drugs, guns, illiteracy, casual violence, and the rise of AIDS was creating a nihilistic hell never imagined by Dante Alighieri. Even priests and cops walked with wary steps. The Deuce was the place in which the hard kids lived most fully during that brief time between a lost childhood and the penitentiary. Very few New Yorkers expected a happy ending to the squalid saga of Forty-second Street, and yet a reasonably happy ending was what we got. Sometimes miracles do happen. In the 1990s, through a combination of planning, will, intelligent politics, and sheer luck, the Deuce was reclaimed.

And now? AIDS is a museum exhibit. That’s not to say that it’s not a part of every day life — but IV drug use is down, casual sex is discouraged, crack “fad” is gone — and 42nd Street is a family destination.

That openness is essential to living here. It is based on choice. You can choose to look at the Vermeers in the Frick or walk around Chinatown. If you live downtown, uptown is also yours, a subway ride away.The wanderer in Manhattan must go forth with a certain innocence, because New York is best seen with innocent eyes.

These “innocent eyes” are off to more reading because I have a new-found love for the city I call home.

Reading List:

One thought on “Review: Downtown: My Manhattan

  1. Pingback: openhousenewyork: Trinity Church |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *