Downtown is looking up
New York story... a subway station on the Lower East side. Photo: Ross Duncan
Once New York's wounded heart, Lower Manhattan has its neighbourhood groove back, writes Nigel Tisdall.
The dog walkers give it away. You can always tell if a New York neighbourhood is prospering by the number of pampered pooches and mollycoddled mutts that strut the streets every morning. Even in a city where canine equals king, it is a surprise to find the shadowy canyons of Lower Manhattan - home to Wall Street, Ground Zero and a forest of eye-straining skyscrapers - are now considered pet-friendly places.
For the thousands of tourists who pop up daily from the subway stations at Fulton Street and South Ferry, eager to enjoy such celebrated sights as the Statue of Liberty, the Staten Island ferry and the historic sailing ships of South Street Seaport, it is a welcome bonus to find that the southern tip of this intense island is also home to parks, cycleways and waterfront promenades.
From a distance, the massed towers of the Lower Manhattan skyline look like a dense, spear-carrying army gathered for battle but in fact there are many pockets of peace within its ranks. The area has twice the amount of open space than that of Midtown to the north, which is one reason it makes it an attractive base for a visit. Another is that it bristles with historic sights, from St Paul's Chapel - founded in 1766 - to the astonishing, cloud-piercing buildings now shooting up where the Twin Towers stood before the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Stand beside the trees of Bowling Green, where Broadway begins its 21-kilometre march up the length of the island, and you are at the starting point of a wonderful story called America. As the novelist Jay McInerney put it, "You think of the wooden shoes of the first Dutch settlers on these same stones. Before that, Algonquin braves stalking game along silent trails."
There is a further draw: a district most of us assume to be all about financial power is now acquiring what real estate agents call "neighbourhood charm". These days, big-money deals can be done on beaches and in bunkers as well as on Wall Street and it is a sign of the times that a branch of clothing discounter T.J. Maxx has opened next door to the New York Stock Exchange.
Sea breezes, excellent transport links and the chance to walk to work are a few reasons people have been moving here. It's not just about being able to pull back the curtains and enjoy a breakfast view of the Statue of Liberty - the quality of life has greatly improved. As well as jogging beside the Hudson River, residents can now pick up designer breads and gourmet cheeses at a twice-weekly farmers' market next to the Andaz Wall Street hotel, get their nails done at a glossy new Duane Reade in the Trump Building and shop and dine at more than 1000 shops and restaurants. Even a trip to Ikea is a scenic joy on the bright-yellow New York Water Taxi service that shuttles between Pier 11 and the store's dock in Brooklyn.
How did this turnaround happen? In 2001, after the tragedy of September 11, Lower Manhattan was a landscape of misery and devastation epitomised by an eight-storey mountain of rubble left from the collapsed Twin Towers. The debris took nine months to clear. "No one wanted to live here," says a former Morgan Stanley employee, Annaline Dinkelmann, who now leads walking tours of the area. "Then young people moved in because it was cheap. They've stayed on and have families now."
The number of residents has doubled in a decade. Office buildings have been converted to apartments and the authorities have had to open six new primary schools in the past two years. Dinkelmann points out one school on Broadway, which I'm amazed to find is right beside the famous Charging Bull statue - said to be the most photographed attraction in New York after Times Square. Pupils needing a quick American history lesson need only pop along to Trinity Church to see numerous illustrious graves, including that of Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, whose face now graces the $10 bill. The Museum of American Finance can explain the current economic crisis, while the splendid 1907 US Custom House, with its monumental embodiments of the four continents, is a masterclass in civic confidence.
Of course, the area is also a walk-through catalogue of human disaster, with its tributes to famine in Ireland, the loss of the Titanic and the slaughter of the Korean War. For me, the most poignant is the often-unnoticed glass wall in Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza. Look closely, between the smokers and the sandwich-munchers, and you find it is etched with heartbreaking letters from the troops. "Dear Mom and Dad, When I think about the hell I've been through in the last few days I can't help but cry ..."
A primary school also forms part of New York by Gehry, one of the most eye-catching new buildings on the Lower Manhattan skyline. Close to City Hall, it rises to 76 storeys and has a facade like a rippling steel curtain. Opened in July, Frank Gehry's first skyscraper is the city's tallest residential building and a standard bearer for a development boom that has brought a rapid rise in the number of hotels in the area.
The place to watch, though, is Ground Zero - although that name now seems inappropriate. Leading the way is the reborn World Trade Centre, an ensemble of six towers spearheaded by the 105-storey One World Trade Centre, once known as the Freedom Tower, which rises to a symbolic 1776 feet (the year of the American Declaration of Independence).
All this is now rearing up and if you think building sites are unsexy, think again. Americans get very excited about construction, engineering and transport, and the buzz associated with the rebuilding of their wounded city is electrifying. Last year, more than 9 million visitors flocked to Lower Manhattan and many were there to behold a project that is nothing less than a restoration of national pride. New Yorkers are captivated by the multitude of lofty cranes assembled here, often decorated with enormous Stars and Stripes flags.
It will take time, though, with completion envisaged by 2016. Last September the first piece of the jigsaw was unveiled, the 9/11 Memorial, with its roll call of the lost and gaping twin voids fringed by tumbling waters. It already attracts about 10,000 visitors a day and a National September 11 Museum will follow, with exhibits donated by survivors. You can learn more about what is to come in the Skyscraper Museum near Battery Park, where there are also photos of the city with the Twin Towers in situ and an entertaining account of how their bland design was vilified for being "General Motors Gothic".
While the world already has much taller buildings than One World Trade Centre, the twists of history mean its soaring bulk is already on a fast track to fame. Try to see it at night, when Ground Zero is floodlit like the set for some demonic opera. At times the burgeoning skyscrapers disappear into the fog, like Jacob's ladder reaching to heaven. Once again, New York has become a city that induces a neck-cricking awe, a place where visitors peer into the sky and simply say "wow".
Qantas has a fare to New York from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1785 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then to New York (5hr 15min); see qantas.com.au. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at
Admission to the 9/11 Memorial is free but visitors must book and take ID; +1 212 266 5211, 911memorial.org.
Wall Street Walks runs themed group and private tours of the area. A 90-minute History of Wall Street walk costs $US25 ($24); wallstreetwalks.com.
The Downtown Culture Pass provides admission and discounts to 11 attractions in Lower Manhattan over a three-day period. Adults pay $US25 with reduced rates for children; downtownculturepass.org. For passes with a wider range, see citypass.com and smartdestinations.com.
Bike and Roll has a bike-rental outlet next to Battery Park — it's best to book; take ID and a credit card; bikenewyorkcity.com.
- Telegraph, London