New York: The target called 'Ground Zero'

Oct. 19, 2001 at 11:57 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- It was a perfect target, this place they now call Ground Zero.

If you stood on this exact plot of land 400 years ago, you would have seen every single enticement that brought Europeans to America in the first place. It was a woody place, with fresh streams and ponds and so many birds they couldn't all be counted. The forest of cedar, chestnut and maple included so much game -- raccoons, bears, foxes, beavers, otters, quail, turkey -- that the people who first saw it thought it impossible ever to go hungry here.

And then if you had stood here 30 years later, after the Dutch West India Company arrived, you would have seen a giant windmill and a typical Dutch farm, worked by Walloons who immigrated from Leyden, and an abundance of wheat, rye, buckwheat and grasslands for the cattle owned by the company managers.

By the year 1640, you would see that same farm abandoned and decaying, as the settlers had to take shelter inside the city's stone bastion when wars broke out with the 11 tribes of the Hudson River Valley, creating brutal massacres on both sides. From the very beginning, it was a place where the inhabitants feared sudden attacks.

Ground Zero was never the center of New York life. The mansions of the rich were along Lower Broadway to the east. The centers of finance and government were always clustered along the East River. Ground Zero was always the place where the common folk worked. In the 17th century they might have seen the birth of wampum as the local currency for the fur trade, and some of them would have been employed in making the six-foot-long wampum strings with clam and whelk shells from Long Island.

It was always a multi-ethnic place as well -- Dutch, English, German, Portuguese -- and by 1660, a 20 percent population of black slaves. Most of them received their "half-freedom" under the Dutch, allowing them to use the courts, and as they became skilled artisans, in the cottage shops that grew up around Ground Zero, they would eventually receive full freedom long before the rest of the country even considered it an option.

A person standing at Ground Zero in 1700 would have been able to see the King's Arms, the first coffeehouse in New York, where the city's first theatrical performances were staged and where, two generations later, George Washington would often dine.

As late as 1750, you would still be standing on farm land -- the Church Farm, it was called -- but Trinity Church would soon subdivide it and donate a large plot for the building of King's College, which opened in 1756 and eventually became Columbia University.

Yet, even in the shadow of that symbol of Tory traditionalism (King's College was run by the Anglican church), Ground Zero itself would remain the dwelling place of working-class patriots --cartmen, bricklayers, masons, carpenters and stonecutters who lived in wooden houses they built themselves.

The fashionable tried to avoid the place -- too much garbage and manure on the muddy roads. But most people living there would have secretly exulted when the pro-British president of King's College was chased out of town in 1775, and they would have cursed the redcoats who marched in 1776, looting and vandalizing, using their houses as barracks.

Ultimately it didn't matter, because on September 21, 1776, a fire that started in the Fighting Cocks Tavern wiped out every building in the 16-square-block area of Ground Zero, destroying 500 dwellings, or a fourth of the city. The British suspected that rebels had set the fire, so they rounded up 200 people, and one of them was Nathan Hale. He was executed as a spy the next day.

In "Gotham," the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the city, authors Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace quote Alexander Graydon, who was watching the Great Fire from the Harlem Heights. "The heavens appeared in flames," he said of Ground Zero.

After the war Ground Zero would be at the heart of a brash, wild and growing country. In the 1780s you would see naked boys swimming in the Hudson--outraging the local moralists--and in the nineties you would see Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson going to and from their offices as they built the new federal system.

In those early years of the republic, you would see the angry mobs that rioted against grave-robbing doctors in 1788. You would see a flourishing red-light district a few blocks to the north -- and the Bawdy House Riots that erupted after a wealthy rake raped a 17-year-old sewing girl but was acquitted in 15 minutes by a jury of the privileged class.

You would see the city's first textile factory go up near that famous piece of twisted metal on Crown Street, later renamed Liberty Street. It had 14 weavers and 130 spinners, but it went bankrupt after two years.

You would see learning, and writing, and journalism flourish here. You would witness the formation of the Friendly Club of Elihu Hubbard Smith, where the rights of women were seriously considered for the first time in America. You would see the breaking apart of traditional religious choices when John Butler, the Unitarian minister, rented a hall near Ground Zero and lectured to "truly alarming crowds" on Cortlandt Street.

Even in 1800, Ground Zero was considered the northern part of New York, but if you lived there you would probably be driven out by the yellow fever epidemic that caused all the swells on Lower Broadway to seek safer real estate around Columbia College.

In 1804 a Ground Zero inhabitant could watch the warships firing guns in New York Harbor as Alexander Hamilton's funeral cortege snaked solemnly through Lower Manhattan. In 1807 you could walk down to the foot of Cortlandt Street and watch the very first voyage of Robert Fulton's steamboat.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Americans living at Ground Zero would see the flowering of a nation. A hundred craftsmen were employed at Duncan Phyfe's workshop on Partition Street, making sofas and sideboards that were bought by the wealthy all over America. The family of the adolescent Herman Melville would move into the neighborhood. Alexis de Tocqueville would stop by the New York Athenaeum for its lectures and its reading room. Walt Whitman would move into a boarding house on Vesey Street.

And you would see the cycles of darkness and death and poverty that always afflicted us. After the Panic of 1837, a crowd angered by the astronomical price of flour rioted at Eli Hart's store between Dey and Cortlandt Street. In the 1849 cholera epidemic, there were 5,000 dead bodies stacked in the streets.

The neighborhood was destined to become a disease-infested slum. To clean it up, the city flushed thousands of hogs out of cellars and garrets and paid young boys to kill all the stray dogs.

As immigrants poured into the city, there were seedy tenements and filthy boarding houses. Authorities hounded the famous Madame Restell for years as she sold $20 abortions to the poor, and $100 abortions to the wealthy.

A Civil War American at Ground Zero would be living in a black and Irish slum, and during the Draft Riot of 1863 he would see one of the most shameful four days in the nation's history, as mobs burned police buildings, armories, homes of the wealthy, and then turned on the blacks, leaving anywhere from 200 to 1,000 dead in the street before federal troops could restore order.

Two years later, Ground Zero would witness Lincoln's funeral cortege. And yet that was the beginning of the neighborhood's comeback in the late 19th century. The tenements were torn down and replaced with warehouses and office buildings. The Western Union Building, the city's first skyscraper (230 feet) went up in 1875 and was illuminated 24 hours a day. In 1879 the New York Telephone Company located its switchboard, with its popular "Hello Girls" (operators) working out of a warren of cubicles on Cortlandt Street. In the 1880s the New York Steam Company at Dey and Greenwich first created those underground pipes that to this day startle tourists when steam pours out from holes in the streets.

Ground Zero was a first dwelling-place for thousands of immigrants in the 1890s. It was a haven for dockworkers that would carouse in its taverns and brothels. It was where Eugene O'Neill almost drank himself to death before he became our first great playwright.

And then Ground Zero declined again in the 20th century, as small office buildings replaced the warehouses, and then those decayed as the skyscrapers of Wall Street rose to create the great financial canyon that remains the center of the world's commerce.

Ground Zero was the ultimate urban-renewal project of the 20th century, when 16 blocks were destroyed to make way for the World Trade Center. It was the last project of that size in New York, and in this time when small is considered better, it's unlikely to be duplicated for a long time.

But even when the world's largest office building went up there, it wasn't a place for the rich or privileged. It was secretaries from Long Island and accountants from New Jersey and tourists from Cleveland who danced away the nights at Windows on the World. It was an expression of what it had always been and what it will probably be again. It was quintessentially American.

It was a perfect target, this place they now call Ground Zero.

(John Bloom writes several columns for UPI. He can be reached at

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