Standing in Union Square, its hard to imagine the history of this vast city. Dominating the square is Zeckendorf Towers, four towers shooting up into the sky 26-stories, and topped by green glass pyramids which light up at night. To the north is the Flatiron District, boasting trendy Madison Avenue, to the south once-Bohemian Greenwich Village and sprinkled about are dorms for N.Y.U. Within the looming stone, granite and brick structures rests this sanctuary, laid out in 1832, and named "Union" for the intersection of Manhattan’s two main thoroughfares (Broadway and the former Bowery Road, now 4th).
Over three hundred years prior to this square’s creation an Italian explorer hired by the French, Giovanni da Verrazano, sailed into New York harbor in search of the Northwest Passage. Henry Hudson would follow in 1609, and within a year fur traders would travel the coast seeking their fortunes. But, it wasn’t until 1621 that the Dutch recognized the area as valuable, and chartered the Dutch West India Company to protect their interests. A colony of Belgian, Dutch and French-speaking Walloons was formed three years later, and they called their settlement "New Amsterdam".
The growing settlement purchased the island of Manhattan in 1626 from the Algonquian Indians for beads, axes, cloth and other items valued at $1,000 (in 2006 currency). There were now 270 colonists, 30 houses and six farms in the area. Within a decade 104 muskateers and a fort, also called Amsterdam, were established. By 1638 New Amsterdam expanded into what is now Brooklyn and a ferry service was organized. Within two years the Dutch purchased all of the boroughs of present-day New York.
In 1653 New Amsterdam broke away from the province of New Netherland, ended the control of the Dutch West India Company, and celebrated with (what was probably the first) parade down Broadway. The new director-general, Peter Stuyvesant, also ordered a quarter-mile long wall to be built along what is now Wall Street.
Immigration began in ernst the following year as 23 Jews from Spain and Portugal arrive. (Italians had already been in the area for 20 years.) The Jews and Quakers were fleeing persecution and the first laws regarding religious freedom were established in the New World. However, this new freedom and peace was not to last.
In 1664 the Duke of York sent a British armada to this growing port. They quickly captured Staten Island, sent troops into Brooklyn, and forced the surrender of the city to Britain. New Amsterdam became New York. The British controlled the city until the American Revolution.
To view some of this very early history of New York, we made our way to Battery Park, a 22.9-acre public park hugging the southern shoreline of Manhattan, and named for the military compound established by the Dutch.
At the southern end of the park, just off of South Street, rests Castle Clinton. The round red brick building was built between 1808-1811, and called West Battery (it became Castle Clinton in 1815, named for a New York mayor). Originally the structure stood on an artificial island, but during the 19th century the island was incorporated into a park on the mainland when landfill connected the two.
The U.S. Army ceased using the fort in 1821 and three years later the area became Castle Garden, which now contained an opera house, promenade and restaurants. In 1855 an Emigrant Landing Depot was established at the site (the nation’s first) and processed eight million immigrants, including Oscar Hammerstein, Harry Houdini and Joseph Pulitzer, until 1890 when Ellis Island opened.
Battery Park: www.nycgovparks.org/parks/batterypark. Nearest subway: 4, 5, R, W, 1. Facilities include bathrooms, water fountains, playgrounds and surrounding eateries. The park also boasts numerous statues, memorials and gardens.
Today, Castle Clinton (and Liberty State Park in New Jersey) are where you can purchase ferry tickets to both Liberty and Ellis Islands. Purchase tickets online in advance (as far in advance as you can) at: www.statuecruises.com.
Line 1: opens at 8:15 to pick up tickets. Tickets sell out very quickly.
Line 2: security check (think airport security) opens at 8:30
Line 3: board the ferry to Liberty Island, first departure 9:00
Line 4: exit ferry after a 15 minute ride
Line 5: second security check if you purchased either "crown" or "pedestal" tickets.
Line 6: elevator. Or you can climb the 153 steps to the pedestal.
We opted for "pedestal" tickets. This means you are allowed out on the granite pedestal which Lady Liberty stands on. Its roughly ten stories up and offers a 360° view of New York harbor.
Although the lines are horrific, and you begin to feel like herded cattle, I would still recommend seeing Lady Liberty up close and personal. As an American, I bet you’ll get choked up too.
To think that the colossal statue (a bit over 151 feet tall, weighing 225 tons) almost never reached the United States. The majestic robed figure, Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, holds a torch and tablet of law, and was the brainchild of Frenchman, Frederic Bartholdi. In 1875 it was decided that the French would build the statue if the Americans found a site and provided a pedestal. Easier said than done.
"Liberty Enlightening the World" was to be proudly displayed in Philadelphia but then-President Rutherford B. Hayes selected Bedloe’s Island in New York harbor as the final destination of the monument. Meanwhile, publisher Joseph Pulitzer began a campaign to raise the needed money to build the pedestal. Over 120,000 citizens donated and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28th, 1886. Celebrations of the completion of the statue included New York City’s first ticker-tape parade.
Another 15 minute ferry ride will drop you at Ellis Island. (If pressed for time, this is missable). The island was originally home to Fort Gibson, but from 1892 to 1954, twelve million immigrants passed through the large building, which is now a museum. Inside, you can wander through the "Registry Room" in which immigrants were processed or visit the genealogy library ($5 for an hour search).
On both Liberty and Ellis Island are snack bars and facilities. Sidenote: The original torch was deemed too fragile during a renovation and is now displayed in the bottom of the pedestal.