Despite being where New York City got its beginnings, the bottom end of the island of Manhattan has long been defined by little more than commerce and big business. However, a wealth of new architecture, food, and nightlife spurred by post-9/11 affection for the area is giving Lower Manhattan an entirely new image, and putting it back on top of the town.
“‘Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.’ Uh, no. Make that, ‘He romanticized it all out of proportion.’”So begins the prologue to Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. Set against a montage of black-and-white images of the city, the voiceover, delivered in Allen’s nasally New York accent, starts and stops a series of new beginnings for the book his character is writing until finally landing on “New York was his town, and it always would be.” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” hits its symbol-clashing climax, and fireworks explode above the Midtown skyline. It’s been deemed the best film tribute to the city, and I agree, except for the fact that it leaves out an entire part of town: Lower Manhattan, the southern tip of the island below Canal Street. The skyscraping Financial District, the austere municipal buildings, Battery Park, South Street Seaport, TriBeCa—all absent.
Yet it’s fitting. Lower Manhattan has never quite offered the quintessential New York experience. It’s never had the streets of walk-ups and brownstones bathed in the orange of streetlights; it’s never had great museums or galleries or theater; it’s never had a food scene, and certainly nothing good going on after dark. In the two years I lived in New York and the innumerable times growing up I visited my grandma at her apartment on East 30th Street, I’d rarely had a reason to come all the way downtown. For most people, the romanticized city has long stopped at Canal Street, and below that is a dark hole of finance, some mediocre historical sites, memories of 9/11, and the impending doom of juryduty.
However, shortly after moving from the East Side to the Far East a couple of years ago, I began seeing headline after headline about the revitalization of Lower Manhattan. Perhaps the value of Manhattan’s limited land would have spurred change eventually, but this was a concentrated series of new beginnings coming as rapid-fire as Woody’s. The catalyst was a newfound pride for the area after the attacks on the World Trade towers—New Yorkers are a resilient bunch—and the results of the wave of work and money poured into the area in the early 2000s are finally coming to fruition: the opening of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum; the new One World Trade building; an expensive new mall; an even more expensive train station; and a plethora of restaurants, shops, and nightlife that make the area a point of pride.
And so, on one of my first nights back in the city after being away 17 months, I find myself heading toward Lower Manhattan on a sailboat that supposedly once belonged to Zelda Fitzgerald, gliding past the Statue of Liberty back to harbor near Battery Park. It’s late September and the night of a blood moon, and I’m sipping dark lagers with friends and eating potato salad and steak grilled and salted on the back of the boat. Lights are glittering in the windows of skyscrapers, crunched together on the jellybean tip of land, and all I can think is, where are the fireworks?