The Financial District, NYC’s first immigrant neighborhood

Written by Arielle Kandel

 

Getting out of the Wall Street subway station, in the very heart of the financial district, I felt almost instantly blinded by the immense, modern skyscrapers dominating the narrow streets. I wandered in the neighborhood on several mornings over the winter, wrapped up in my coat to keep warm. It was painfully cold, and still relatively early, and I crossed the path of just a few tourists and latecomer Wall Street employees hurrying in their formal suits.

A graffiti mural painted in memory of 9/11

The financial district encompasses the southernmost part of Manhattan island, bordered in the north by Tribeca, the Civic Center, and Two Bridges, and not far away from Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Across the Hudson River is NYC’s lesser-known borough, Staten Island, which can be reached after a beautiful (and free!) ride on the Staten Island ferry. The neighborhood, as its name suggests, is still known as the home of many of the city’s major banks and financial institutions. For almost thirty years it was anchored by the iconic Twin Towers, and since 9/11 millions of visitors, NY residents and tourists alike, have come to pay homage at Ground Zero. There were concerns after 9/11 that the financial district would fall into decline, as many companies moved out to more attractive parts of the city. But in recent years hundreds of condominiums have been built and new businesses are moving in, including a growing number of start-ups. Today the neighborhood is home to around 60,000 residents, most of them native-born white Americans.

I could have written this first post on one of NYC’s characteristically “ethnic” neighborhoods, Chinatown for example, or Jackson Heights in Queens. But my choice to start with the financial district is deliberate.

It is the very first neighborhood of the city of New York, and many of its buildings and streets bear witness to its rich immigration past, from the Dutch and the British in the 17th and the 18th centuries to the millions of immigrants who disembarked on Ellis Island and then set foot in old downtown Manhattan from the late 19th century.

The original development of the neighborhood started in 1625, after Henry Hudson, a British sailor then working for the Dutch East India Company, discovered the area while searching for a western route to Asia. The Dutch first established a fur trading post on the island the resident native people called “Manna-hatta” (“Island of Hills”) and renamed it New Amsterdam. The financial district roughly overlaps the limits of the New Amsterdam settlement as it was in the late 17th century. Beyond these boundaries, farm fields and forests still reigned. To promote trade, the Dutch enthusiastically opened the colony to people of all nationalities and religious faiths. After the city was conquered by the British in 1664 and renamed New York, the pace of immigration increased even more, with newcomers from all over Europe hoping to find opportunities and adventure in the New World.

In the vicinity of Castle Clinton, a bronze sculpture called “The Immigrants” reflects on NYC’s past as a gateway to the New World

Wandering around the streets of the financial district, I tumbled upon many vestiges of 17th and 18th century downtown Manhattan – St. Paul’s Chapel and Trinity Church, two of its oldest surviving churches; Stone Street, the city’s first paved path; Bowling Green, its first park; the Federal Hall National Memorial, where the US Capitol once stood; and Fraunces Tavern, perhaps best known as the site where George Washington gave his farewell speech in 1783. Inside Battery Park I entered the once imposing Clinton Castle, a former military fort that became the US government receiving center for about 8 million immigrants between 1855 and 1890, before their registration was transferred to Ellis Island. In the vicinity of the castle, a bronze sculpture by an Italian artist, called “The Immigrants,” reflects on this past.

Ellis Island, which can be glimpsed from the nearby shore, succeeded to Castle Clinton as the main point of entry and processing center of over 12 million immigrants from Europe and Asia from 1892 to 1954. Today, on any day of the year, hundreds of tourists travel by ferry from Battery Park to visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The same ferry stops at Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty, which has become the world’s most recognizable symbol of liberty and democracy. The statue is of a robed female figure of Libertas, Ancient Rome’s goddess of freedom, bearing a torch and a tablet upon which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence, and with a broken chain lying at her feet.

Coming out of Battery Park I noticed a small redbrick building that stood out against its more modern neighbors. I entered the church-like structure on the left, a shrine named in honor of America’s first canonized saint (a woman!), Elisabeth Ann Steton. The federal style house forming the right of the building was closed. Intrigued, I later discovered an old picture of the front gate of this house, bearing the inscription “Home for Young Irish Immigrant Girls”. It turned out that an Irish writer and social activist, Charlotte O’Brien, had purchased the building in the mid-1880s and opened a Catholic mission chapel and shelter for young Irish immigrant women. Between 1883 and 1908, the mission provided assistance to nearly a third of the over 300,000 Irish girls who immigrated to New York, fleeing famine in their native Ireland.

 

Between 1883 and 1908, the mission provided assistance to nearly a third of the over 300,000 Irish girls who immigrated to New York, fleeing famine in their native Ireland.

 

In the late 19th century, growing numbers of immigrants from the Levant also arrived in the city of New York, fleeing persecution and economic hardship under increasingly harsh Ottoman rule – Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians who set trading shops, restaurants, and coffee places on Washington Street. The area soon became a thriving community, a “Little Syria” in the heart of downtown Manhattan. But by the late 1940s, a large part of this Syrian quarter was demolished to allow construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and what was left was bulldozed two decades later to make way for the World Trade Center. About all that survives today are three buildings, two churches that are no longer operating, and what used to be a dynamic community center for the Arab and other residents of the neighborhood. On the benches of a plaza not far from Washington Street, six commemorative plaques are a small reminder of the neighborhood’s Levant heritage.

 

On the benches of a plaza not far from Washington Street, six commemorative plaques are a small reminder of the neighborhood’s Levant heritage.

 
Today, the echoes of past immigrants disembarking from Ellis Island and living in old downtown Manhattan are long gone. But like in every neighborhood of New York City, some restaurant and small business owners, and many street vendors, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Veronica’s Kitchen is one of three carts in the financial district serving delicious Caribbean dishes, to the pleasure of nearby Wall Street lunchers. Starved after crisscrossing the financial district for several hours in the cold, I ate with delight a warm and richly spiced jerk chicken roti sandwich. Veronica, who grew up in a small village in Trinidad, immigrated to New York in the early 1980s to find a better job opportunity. Starting as a fast food employee, she then worked with the NYC Buildings Department, but was laid off like so many others during the post-9/11 recession. It’s now been a few years since she started operating her food cart in the financial district, and business has been relatively good.
This is where NYC’s fascinating immigration history begins, and Veronica is just one among many other women immigrants and refugees living and working in present-day New York City.

One of the key initiatives of The New Women New Yorkers, The Hear Me Project, will give a voice to these women, a space where they can share with us their personal experience of immigration, their concerns, and their dreams. If you are interested in learning more about or in participating in this exciting project, please contact NWNY.

I will leave you to this, and I hope you will come back next week to discover another neighborhood of New York City through the lens of immigration and women, the Lower East Side!

 

 

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