As is often the case in the city, after we disembark the sailboat, an attempt to find a bathroom turns into an ordeal, and we inadvertently end up underground in along white-marble corridor supported by rib-like columns and beams. The hour is late and the place is empty, and I feel like I’m Jonah in a whale created by Apple. Where we are, in fact, is the new World Trade Transportation Hub, a terminal designed by Santiago Calatrava. It’s been in the works since 2003 and is hailed as Calatrava’s magnum opus, its exterior meant to evoke a bird about to take flight with two waves of curved columns for wings and a spine of a skylight that floods the domed interior with light.
Its purpose is to be a streamlined terminal for commuters taking the South Ferry from Staten Island and the PATH train from New Jersey, with an estimated 250,000 people passing through daily. But it hasn’t quite been received with kisses, primarily because it cost nearly US$4 billion to build, making it the most expensive train station in the world. Calatrava and a legion of supporters, however, make the argument that public service buildings are more deserving of money and artistry than anything else. And there’s something to be said for that; as much as the Hub looks like a fossil from the future, it’s in fact joining the legacy of this area’s past as a port of entry.
Lower Manhattan is where the Dutch founded New Amsterdam in the early 17th century as the island’s first European settlement. When the British seized it in 1664 and renamed it New York, the colony already had more than 1,500 residents. In the 1800s before Ellis Island opened, this was the landing point for 10 million immigrants to the United States, relatives of mine included. Now, Lower Manhattan is New York City’s economic nucleus and the daily landing point for more than 200,000 people who work here, with one of the most rapidly growing job markets in the Northeast—and more than 10 Fortune 500 companies in less than four square kilometers.
Wanting to see this varied demographic of New Yorkers in their natural habitat, I head to where they lunch: the new Brookfield Place mall, which sits below the office towers that Time Inc. inhabits (and Goldman Sachs is right nearby). In the second-floor food court, Hudson Eats, tenants comprise an all-star roster of the city’s finest take-out joints, which draw a democracy of bankers in Canali suits, stylish young editors with unscuffed Nikes, construction workers, and passers-through like myself, all ruled by whoever is shouting order numbers at Black Seed Bagels, Dos Toros Taqueria, Little Muenster, or Num Pang Sandwich Shop. A lucky few snag stools at Blue Ribbon Sushi and order some of the freshest fish in the city off of iPads, while directly underneath is a conceptual French market called Le District that’s a gorgeous example of why New Yorkers with high five-figure salaries complain they still can’t afford groceries. Everything is displayed on spacious shelves or in glass cases like art, making you forget all about the bananas you came for and instead leave with bags of hyper-local produce and imported delicacies. I suppose that’s the only explanation for why I come in for a coffee and wind up sipping a sazerac at the bar and lunching on by-the-piece chocolates decorated with colorful little motifs.
The mall has also brought the most in-trend luxury stores to Lower Manhattan—J. Crew, Tory Burch, Michael Kors, Lulu Lemon. An outpost of Saks Fifth Avenue is opening this year. But its centerpiece is the Winter Garden, a four-by-fourgrid of palm trees under a 10-story glass atrium that has served as an indoor public space since 1988. The last time I was here was at the tail end of Occupy Wall Street in December of 2011, and a group of holdouts was sitting in a circle, taking a break from the cold. Now, the atrium is used as the stage for Brookfield’s series of performances and art programs and filled with nice wooden benches. I grab one and gaze out the glass windows to the small harbor in the Hudson, where Zelda’s supposed sailboat bobs next to fancy yachts.
Due east from Brookfield on the banks of the East River is South Street Seaport, which has evolved into a similar concept—an outdoor district for food, shopping, and art—yet couldn’t feel more different. The Dutch built a pier here in 1625 when New Amsterdam was rapidly transforming into a commerce hub, and many of the buildings lining the cobblestone streets date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1982, an enormous mall was built on one of the piers; it quickly became a tourist attraction, and thereby repellent to native New Yorkers. But after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Seaport in 2012, the Howard Hughes Corporation took a second stab at rejuvenating the area. Now, it feels more akin to Brooklyn than Manhattan with an offshoot of the Smorgasburg food market; cafés and coffee shops; rotating art exhibits in the streets and indoors at Seaport Studios; and eclectic boutiques such as Brother Vellies (African-made shoes), Farm Candy (herb-blended salts and sugars), and Bowne& Co. (one of the city’s oldest printing presses).
I stop into Rialto Jean Project, a small brand started in L.A. that sells painted vintage jeans—old Levis, J. Brands, Ralph Laurens, each a different work of art with purposeful Pollock-like explosions of colors. “The Howard Hughes Corporation actually reached out to us a year ago to do a pop-up during fashion week,” says designer Erin Feniger. “After a month down here I had absolutely fallen in love with the entire neighborhood and vision to revitalize this area to be very fashion- and art-centric.”