The Financial District, Symbolic Core of America

I grew up bicoastal—born in so-cal, raised during early childhood in NYC, then back to so-cal, and then back to NYC. I loved downtown as a kid, mainly because I was enthralled with the twin towers. This is definitely not post-9/11 nostalgia at work. I was really into the trade center, researching it’s ranking among the world’s tallest buildings and always asking my mom to take me down there to go to the top. That they would be destroyed one day was unimaginable. It would have been like Mike Tyson losing a fight.

When I moved here three years ago, I stayed with a relative in the financial district. It was the first time I had been in the neighborhood since 9/11. At night, sleeping on the couch in an apartment directly above Wall St., I had nightmares. One in particular involved swimming in an estuary, wading in the dark and somewhat muddy water as I watched slowly move towards me. I pulled my legs in and curled up in a ball, preparing for the attack, and then I awoke. “Swimming with sharks”–the neighborhood transformed into metaphor transformed into dream. Jung was right about symbolism, I guess. My girlfriend fared less well during the nights. Her nightmares were not metaphoric but literal—planes crashing and chaos.

The energy is the financial district is strange. Dense and dark, it definitely feels like an epicenter, like Ground Zero. The symbolism of my dream may have been pointing at a larger truth. Really the financial district is the symbolic (or perhaps subconscious) core of America.

You have the well-known sites: Wall St. and the NY Stock Exchange, the center of global capitalism and a boisterous mainframe turning the world’s goods into pure abstractions; Ground Zero, where endless construction offers hope but also serves as a decade-long open wound, with the impressive Freedom Tower rising out of the ashes but sadly not living up to the architectural prowess of the twin towers. Admittedly tough shoes to fill.

There are the less well-known spots, though, that really add some gravity to the ‘core.’ Most people don’t realize that the best place to get deals on all kinds of clothing and goods—Century 21—sits directly across from Ground Zero, with people from around the world digging through piles of second-hand European clothing in a store whose name is oddly fitting and unsettling. There is the Museum of the American Indian sitting a few blocks away from the stock exchange—a proximity which is, well, strange. At the border of TriBeCa, 33 Thomas Street looms over the million-dollar loft space and expensive spinning classes, brutalizing the neighborhood in a much-needed way (excuse the pun), as best expressed by Jonathan Franzen in Freedom:

“Away to the southwest of where they were standing stood the massive Eisenhower-era utility building that marred the nineteenth-century architectural vistas of almost every Tribecan loft-dweller. Once upon a time, the building had offended Katz’s urban aesthetic, but now it pleased him by offending the urban aesthetic of the millionaires who’d taken over the neighborhood. It loomed like death over the excellent lives being lived down here; it had become something of a friend of his.”

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the hidden African Burial Ground National Monument. In the eighteenth century, over 400 free and enslaved African Americans were buried underneath what is now the center of local government bureaucracy. Skeletal remains, as well as wood-carved coffins from Ghana and other hand-made adornments, were discovered in as construction began on the Ted Weiss Federal Building. That the center of capitalism sat for hundreds of years on top of the remains of slaves is symbolic indeed.

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