Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The Land

The Land

Photograph via Flickr by Mathew Knott

The land, totaling three-quarters of an acre, was born from ice, defended with blood, and blackened by fire. It was thick with trees, taken under with plow, hidden by cut stone. The Lenape lived there, then the Dutch and the British, then Americans. Some believed in the crown, others in the citizen. They sold dry goods, machines, paper. Houses, skyscrapers rose and were pulled down. The land had many owners, many names: the Queen’s Garden, Liberty Plaza, Zuccotti Park.

The land began as clay, sand, and volcanic ash, on the ocean floor. The sediment, pressed into striated rock, sank miles into the furnace of the earth’s mantle. Millions of years later, it emerged as schist, dense and grey, glittering with flecks of white mica. It became mountains and volcanoes, fell under the sea again and resurfaced. Glaciers crawled south, scouring the earth. When they stopped, the land lay interred beneath 100 stories of ice. The ice melted, the water drained into the ocean, and the land thawed. It was a parcel in the southern edge of a long, thin island, abutting a continent. Hunters came, stalking mammoth and mastodon among thickets of spruce and fir. When the earth warmed, the big game left, and the men followed. For two thousand years, no human voices were heard.

When the Lenape arrived, the land was primeval. Above them towered red maples, American chestnuts, and black cherry trees, nested with kettles of broad-wing hawks. In the loamy soil grew panic grass and fleabane, nimble will and white wood aster, viburnum and Virginia creeper; in the underbrush skittered shrews, skunks, mice and voles. The men speared white-tailed deer and black bears, trapped turtle and squirrel, lofted arrows into the great black clouds of passenger pigeons. The women picked ragweed mayflower, groundnut and hawthorn, black current and purple-flowering raspberry, summer grape and crabapple, huckleberry, hackberry, bayberry, and chokeberry, witch hazel, and devil’s tongue. Beside the land, the Lenape beat a trail, their longest.

Benjamin West's painting of William Penn's treaty with the Lenape (1771)

The first white man to see the land was almost certainly a Dutchman. Merchant traders explored the island, Manhattan, in the second decade of the 17th century, seeking furs. In 1625, the Dutch built a fort at its southern tip, calling it Fort Amsterdam, to protect their commerce with the Lenape. “They are all properly formed and well proportioned persons,” wrote one early visitor of the natives. “None are gross or uncommonly heavy. Although nature has not given them abundant wisdom, still they exercise their talents with discretion.” Of course the visitor knew that the natives would be wiped out. After all, his motive for setting down his observations was a far-sighted one, he did it so “that after the Christians have multiplied and the natives have disappeared and melted away, a memorial of them may be preserved.”

Many of those hacked to death were women and children. Those infants not killed outright were hurled into the river.

It was a local keerckmeester, a church warden, Jan Jansen Damen, who was granted the land, the one who tamed it. He felled the timber, cleared the underbrush, and turned the stubbled soil with a horse-drawn plow. On the stripped earth, he raised livestock and planted crops; in his orchards, he hunted bears. Damen’s tract made a thick belt across the island. He was brave, living outside of the fort’s walls, where Indians roamed, and he was prosperous. But his house, mere yards south of the land, in a place the colonists called the Queen’s Garden, was probably humble. The style of the Dutch colonial house was “informal and picturesque,” wrote the great New York architect Aymar Embury II, centuries later. “The Dutch simply do not know how to be stately.”

In this house, Damen began a war, one that would engender the land’s abandonment. At the time, 1643, all the colonies feared an Indian uprising.  The Dutch traded rumors feverishly, and those farmers, like Damen, who lived outside the fort’s walls, all but defenseless, lived in fear. One evening in February, Damen held a Shrovetime feast to celebrate the beginning of Lent. In his frontier property, he plied his lusty guests with beer and wine. Among them was the director of the company, Willem Kieft, a fussy, obtuse man (others have called him “weak,” “criminal,” and “sanguinary”). Once the director was in his cups, Damen presented him with a petition, which he said represented the reigning opinion among the colonists. They were petitioning to make war on the Lenape. Kieft looked it over and, raising his glass, agreed. The savages, he said, would “wipe their chops.”

From Kieft’s perspective, the resulting massacre was a success. Two strikes, under cover of darkness, were made against the slumbering natives, one in what is now Jersey City, New Jersey, the other in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many of those hacked to death were women and children. Those infants not killed outright were hurled into the river. “And when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them,” wrote the Dutch navigator David Pieterszoon de Vries, “the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown.” In all, 129 Lenape were murdered.

The Lenape, choosing to answer in kind, commenced a disciplined program of pillage and slaughter. Farms across the island were burned, farmers slayed, women and children spirited away. Those colonists not done in by hatchet and tomahawk huddled in Fort Amsterdam and prayed. The killing subsided when planting season began—the Lenape had crops, too—but resumed in earnest after the harvest. The Dutch farms fell fallow. In November, the colony sent a bathetic letter to the Dutch government in which they cursed the natives’ cruelty and, fearing starvation, pleaded for relief. “Almost every place is abandoned,” it read. “We, wretched people, must skulk, with wives and little ones that still survive, in poverty together . . .” The war lasted two years. Following this, little record exists of Damen or his farm.

When Damen died, the land passed through his legatees to Maj. William Dyer. In 1664, the British seized Manhattan from the Dutch, changed the name of the now flourishing colony to New York, and set about taxing its merchants. William Dyer, the son of the famed Quaker martyr Mary Dyer, was an officer in the royal army and a collector of customs for the Duke of York. For several months, he was mayor of the city, whose population was nearing 3,000. His tenure came to an end in 1681, when he was arrested on the front door of his house, a casualty in a spat between the city’s merchants and the duke over the rate of duties. The case was never prosecuted, and Dyer was given a promotion by King Charles II; he became the collector of his majesty’s customs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Shortly past midnight on September 21, 1776, a young American rifleman peered out the porthole of his cell, in the belly of the British sloop-of-war Pearl.

It was in this capacity that Dyer would have met Thomas Lloyd, though it is possible that the two prominent men were already acquainted. In 1684, Lloyd, an Oxford-educated Quaker, was appointed by William Penn to be president of the Council of Pennsylvania. Though it was the colony’s governing body, the council had little power, and the anti-authoritarian colonists were a recalcitrant constituency. “[T]hat there was no source of government which would be seen and respected by the colonists,” wrote Lloyd, “resulted in a spirit of anarchy.” The libertarian historian Murray Rothbard has claimed that, under Lloyd, the rowdy colonists, untaxed and effectively ungoverned, were, in fact,de facto anarchists. Feckless government, writes Rothbard, was personified by one despised and almost wholly ignored figure: the king’s collector of customs, William Dyer. It was in the middle of this chaos, on April 23, 1686, that the reviled Dyer sold Lloyd a prime plot of land in Manhattan.

Old Manhattan

In 1695, Thomas Lloyd split the Dyer property into parcels and sold them off. By then, the streets that defined the land’s boundaries were in place. To the west was Lumber Street; to the north, Crown; to the south, Little Queen; and, to the east, the old Lenape trail, still muddy, called “Broadway.” In the next decades, pieces of the land passed into powerful hands, including Rev. John Sharp, the future archbishop of York and founder of the city’s first public library (“There is hardly any thing which is more wanted in this country than learning,” he wrote of New York, “there being no place I know of in America where it is either less encouraged or regarded”); the lawyer William Huddleston, founder of the Trinity School, the first classes of which were held in the steeple of Trinity Church, two blocks south; and the silversmith Jacob Boelen, whose work now sits in the New York Dutch room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Boelen sold his share of the land in 1716, the stretch of Broadway outside his home had just received its first planting of cobblestones.

Shortly past midnight on September 21, 1776, a young American rifleman peered out the porthole of his cell, in the belly of the British sloop-of-war Pearl. The Pearl was anchored in New York harbor, and the prisoner, John Joseph Henry, had been taken captive nine months earlier, during the Continental Army’s failed invasion of Quebec. Through the window, Henry saw a light—from that distance, it offered the brilliance of a small candle—flare up somewhere in the murk of Whitehall Street. Winds, blowing from the south, whipped the fire into a blaze, scooped it up, and dragged it down the west side of the island. In the dry weather, the flames skipped nimbly from rooftop to rooftop, eating everything they touched. The city, already made edgy by war and foreign occupation, fell into pandemonium. “Several women and children perished in the fire,” read an account in the New York Mercury, “their shrieks, joined to the roaring of the flames, the crash of falling houses, and the wide spread ruin which everywhere appeared, formed a scene of horror grand beyond description, and which was still heightened by the darkness of the night.” The inferno continued past dawn. By sunset the next day, a fourth of New York’s 4,000 brick and wooden structures floated through the air, black smoke and ashes.

Through some quirk of wind, only the western half of the land was destroyed. At the time, the intact eastern half showed a small row of shops. One shop at Broadway, a hardware store, bore a sign depicting a golden anvil. Its owner was Peter Theobaldus Curtenius. A son of Dutch parents, Curtenius was an active citizen and a proud American. During the revolution, he was appointed commissary-general and attained the rank of colonel. On July 9, 1776, he was said to been among the patriots who rushed Bowling Green and toppled the equestrian statue of King George III. (The statue was eventually melted down and the lead cast into bullets and cannonballs; in this form, it was returned to the British.) On June 6, 1783, the land echoed with the triumphant report of 13 guns, shot from Broadway, in front of Trinity Church. This marked the end of the British occupation. Over the next years, Broadway evolved into the spine of the city’s commercial and cultural life. Elegant shops sprouted up along the boulevard, displaying in their windows foreign wares—rum from Jamaica and tea from Ceylon, silk shawls and embroidered muslin sleeves, bound pages of the latest European thought—freshly unloaded off the brigs and schooners docked in the harbors a stone’s throw west. Privates carriages trundled down the street, ferrying the city’s gentry through a river of wagons, omnibuses, vendors’ carts, laborers pushing wheelbarrows and hauling flats of brick, horses, cats, donkeys, and dogs. During this time, the streets Little Queen and Crown were stripped of their monarchal connotations and renamed “Cedar” and “Liberty.”

It is to the Civil War that the United States can credit many of its longest leaps in industrial commerce.

A watercolor, painted in 1830, shows a section of the land as it would have looked to a person standing in the middle of the street. It shows a row of three flat-fronted, Georgian-style row houses, one of them, at 135 Broadway, two stories tall, the others, at 137 and 139, four. The brick fronts, painted alternately white and dun, are gridded with sash windows and sport a line of brown planter boxes. Under the canvas awnings, which reach to the sidewalk, the figures are arranged in pairs: men in top-hats and tail coats converse; women in fluffy dresses stroll; boys carry in a wooden crate, backs bent double from the effort.

For the first half of the 1800s, the land was at the heart of the city’s dry goods district. At the century’s turn, the property at 139 Broadway was owned by Henry Whiteman, a maker of buttons and brass buckles. After his death in 1805, the store was passed to a millener, Anthony Bouchard. In a printed advertisement in the December 19 edition of the New York Gazette, Bouchard offered for sale, fresh from Paris by way of the ship Calypso, “dress gowns for balls, readymade,” “handsome bonnets,” and “a box of JEWELLERY, which being intended as a New Year’s Gift, will be sold very low.”

During this same period, next door, at 141 Broadway, Sigismund Hugget sold French and Spanish wines; Cairns Frears, coach furniture and saddles; Somerville & Halliday, ginseng and James River tobacco; Stansbury & Brantinham, groceries (“sweet oil in baskets, London mustard in boxes, curants, raisins in casks . . . almonds, prunes, citrons, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg”). In 1804, J.W. Fenno opened a bookstore, in which he stocked such bestsellers as The Friends, or the Contrast between Virtue and Vice: A Tale Designed For the Improvement of Young Persons, by Elizabeth Griffin; A Narrative of The Extraordinary Adventures and Sufferings by Shipwreck and Imprisonment of Donald Campbell, esq. of Barbreck, with the Singular Humours of his Tartar Guide Hassan Artaz, Comprising the Occurrences of Four Years and Five Days in an Overland Journey to Indiaby Donald Campbell; and The Newtonian System of Philosophy, by Tom Telescope. And when the newest issue of The Anti-Jacobin Review came in—unfashionably Tory, but still popular with some of the local British—he’d stock that.

A Glimpse of New York from the Trinity Church Steeple, 1872

For years, the block’s most successful merchant had been William Bruce. Partnered with his brother Robert, who lived at 145 Broadway, William had owned several ships and ran a brisk trade in fish from Nova Scotia. However, naval blockades thrown up by France and Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars destroyed their business. Unable to get their ships to market, tons of fresh-caught codfish rotted, and by 1814 the brothers were ruined. Yet, the following year, the indomitable William opened a new store, below his house at 139 Broadway. He sold brown stout from London, pickled salmon from St. John’s, gin from Holland, cigars from Spain, spermaceti candles, and “a regular supply of State Prison Manufactured Goods.”

In the second half of the century, the character of the land changed; it became harder, more crowded, more industrial. In 1861, Harper’s Magazine lamented its turn from an old town to a metropolis. “It is not many years since every noted man was known to all Broadway,” it said. “It is not long since, on Sunday mornings, the clergyman, with wide-flowing black- silk gowns, floated and ambled along the street to church. They belonged to the age of three-story red brick houses, and they have gone together.” The wood and brick stores fronting Broadway were demolished and replaced with Italianate townhouses of marble and cast iron. To the west, where there were once modest houses, rose a density of offices and warerooms, tenanted mostly by manufacturers.

It is to the Civil War that the United States can credit many of its longest leaps in industrial commerce. The exigencies of battle produced rapid advances in technology, and the country, particularly the north, ended the war a dramatically more mechanized nation. These changes were felt on the land. A person peeking into the showrooms at 92 and 94 Liberty during the post-war years would have periodically seen Westinghouse selling steam pumps, Otis Brothers taking orders for elevators, Wheeler showing off surface condensers, Nathan stocking air brakes and cylinder lubricators for railroads, Edgarton Bynner dealing hydrants and valves for waterworks, and Friedman explaining the workings of his patent ejectors. Next door, at 96 Liberty, the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Co. boasted hoist engines, cableways, and logging machinery. Around the corner, on Cedar Street, Thorne & Platt had water tube boilers, and rivals Bash and Nash competed to make the best gas engine. Safeguarding these powerhouses of prosperity was a band of part-time firefighters, Washington Engine Co. 20. The firehouse sat at No. 3 Temple Street, a short alley that bisected the land north/south and was staffed entirely by local residents, among them a carpenter, a printer, a bookbinder, a varnisher, and a boatman. The foreman, suitably dexterous with pipe and hose, was a plumber.

In 1861, when the first tenant, the American Telegraph Co., moved in, the telegraph industry was an oligopoly.

Few inventions have more effectively eradicated geographic distance—and, in doing so, salvaged from the furnace greater sums of time, money, and legwork—than the electric telegraph. With cables slung coast-to-coast and across the sea, the machine was the “Victorian internet.” It was on the land that many of these cables were conceived and administered. For more than 20 years the building on the northeast corner of Liberty and Broadway housed a telegraph company. In 1861, when the first tenant, the American Telegraph Co., moved in, the telegraph industry was an oligopoly. Industrialization had given businesses the resources to consolidate as never before, and wire traffic was now controlled by a handful of firms, each holding the lines within a specific region. American, one of the largest, operated in the states along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf. The companies continued to merge until, in 1866, Western Union purchased its last two competitors and, with them, a virtual monopoly on telegraph traffic. That same year, it moved its headquarters to 145 Broadway, where it remained for the next decade.

As an instrument for marshaling the collective forces of a large, disparate group, the telegraph was, in its day, unmatched. On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot. At the time, Cyrus W. Field, the force behind the first trans-Atlantic telegraph line, held an office in the Broadway building. Field, who had campaigned for Garfield, observed that were the president to die, he would leave his widow and five children only $20,000 in inheritance to provide for their rearing and education. So, dispatching a cable to his fellow Gilded-Age industrialists, Field took up a collection, pledging $5,000 of his own wealth. News of the collection spread—by cable, naturally—and money from every corner of the union gushed in. Eleven weeks passed, and Garfield died of infection, but more than $360,000 was raised. The next year, Garfield’s eldest son, Harry, enrolled in Williams College; he later became its president.

The economy helped not just the land but the entire country to swell with new residents. Between 1870 and 1905, the U.S. population doubled and New York City’s quadrupled. Not only were more immigrants forsaking their homelands for U.S. shores, but workers were living longer lives and making more money, money that allowed them to raise larger families. These men, seeking security, bought insurance—home, casualty, fire, theft, life. During those same 35 years, the amount of insurance sold in the United States increased six fold. Rich and poor alike sought the safety of a policy to protect their wealth and to provide their kin an income in their dotage or in their death.

To sell their policies, the insurance companies covered the land with towers. The grandest, built in 1897 at 141 Broadway, was the Washington Life Building. Seventeen caisson piers, hammered deep into the hard Manhattan schist, anchored its huge weight, granting it the stability needed to grow 17 stories without collapse. Viewed from the east, the building cut a slim, graceful figure, taking up only 56 feet of sidewalk, but from the north it would have looked fat, running 159 feet across Liberty Street. In the center on that side, a narrow portico of four smooth Doric columns projected into the street. It was tiered like a dessert cake, the bottom three stories pink granite, the shaft Indiana limestone, and the crown, set at a slope, shining bronze, from which jutted a row of dormer windows, finialed in the style of the German Renaissance. On the other end of the block was the Title Insurance Co. of New York, just as lean and, at 14 stories, nearly as tall. Behind it, fronting Cedar, was the fortress-like Fidelity and Causualty Co., topped by twin turrets, tiled red. Between the towers, in the shadowy canyon of Temple Street, children shot marbles.

Washington Life Building

The buildings lived more than half a century. Then, in the late 1960s, the behemoth U.S. Steel announced plans to build a skyscraper in a plot of land just to the north. The skyscraper, black and framed with the company’s product, would rise 54 stories and consume 1.8 million cubic feet of airspace. Zoning laws required that if a company built a tower of that size, it needed to compensate the public with its own space. So U.S. Steel purchased all the buildings on the land, every structure bounded by Broadway, Liberty, Cedar, and Church, to make way for a park. However, one tenant wouldn’t budge. The tenant, a branch of the chain restaurant Chock Full O’ Nuts, held a lease that guaranteed residence on the bottom floor of 135 Broadway until 1980. Its owner was offered one million dollars to leave; he refused. The rest of the 14-story building, like everything else on the land, was dismantled around the restaurant. For another decade the restaurant remained standing, surveying a vacant lot.

For two decades the land was concrete, studded with aggregate, dotted with trees. It was hard-edged, brutalist even, but to workers in the skyscrapers it was an oasis, an open place in an island of spires. At noontime, stockbrokers and secretaries bought lunch from food carts and watched jugglers. Chess and checkers matches were fierce. It was called Liberty Plaza Park.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, a pinkish-grey dust descended on the park and settled like snow. In a few hours, the dust—a poisonous pulverulence of cement, gypsum, cellulose, glass, synthetic plastic, asbestos, steel, and human hair—would rise to be a foot high. In the days that followed, rescue workers used the park as a flat place to rest their trucks. The sheer weight of the machines caused the park’s foundations to crack. Sinkholes opened, exposing the backfill of centuries of demolished buildings. In its place, the land’s owners, Brookfield Properties, built a new park. The land was covered with 32,000 feet of Atlantic pink granite. Among it were flowerbeds, stocked with perennials, and 54 honey locust trees with canopies like lace. It was named after the company’s chairman, a former deputy mayor of the city, John E. Zuccotti.

At noon on September 17, 2011, several hundred people gathered at the base of Broadway, outside the old U.S. custom house, to protest. At 3 p.m., they marched up the street to Zuccotti Park, chanting and waving signs. When they reached the land, they arranged themselves in a round. For hours they discussed the best way to make themselves heard. Late into the night they debated. Finally, they agreed that they should stay.