Financial District

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Recently I was fortunate enough to see the new musical “Hamilton” at the Public Theater (arriving on Broadway this summer), leading me to my last  blog  post – a walk through Hamilton Heights, the neighborhood in upper Manhattan where Alexander Hamilton had farmland and lived in his final two years. However, much of Alexander Hamilton’s time in the city was spent in the area now known as the Financial District. Roughly occupying the same space as the original settlement of New Amsterdam, it lies at the very southernmost point of Manhattan, below City Hall Park, excluding the areas of Battery Park and Battery Park City. This neighborhood is a unique mixture of very old (the colonial remnants of New Amsterdam) and very new (it’s only recently become a popular choice as a residential neighborhood and new development buildings abound). With these thoughts in mind, I decided to take my next unplanned walk in an urban environment (a dérive) in the Financial District.

I emerged from the subway at Bowling Green, the traditional starting point of ticket tape parades up Broadway. This tradition with a spontaneous parade associated with the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, and since has continued with celebrants as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt (upon his return from safari in Africa in 1910), Albert Einstein in the 1920’s, Charles Lindbergh as well as Amelia Earhart following their successful solo trans-Atlantic  flights, Jesse Owens after winning four Olympic gold medals in 1936, the pianist Van Cliburn in 1958, the Apollo 11 astronauts, and the New York Yankees (nine times).

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Wandering from Battery Park to State Street and on to Pearl Street, I came across what is possibly Manhattan’s oldest building (from 1719), Fraunces Tavern. This building is now a museum and restaurant as well as a National Historic Landmark. Once the meeting place of the secret society the Sons of Liberty, it became the headquarters for General George Washington at one point during the Revolution, and is where he gave his famous farewell address to his officers.

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Continuing north on Broad Street, as I approached the intersection with Wall Street it was impossible to miss the imposing façade of the New York Stock Exchange. The roots of this center of American finance go back as far as the years immediately following the Revolution, and the earliest securities traded were War Bonds and stock from the First Bank of the United States (established by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton).

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Nearby, on the corner of Wall Street and Nassau Street, is Federal Hall, the site of the first United States Capitol Building and the location of George Washington’s inaugural. A statue of the first President stands imposingly in front, gesturing as if to say “hold your applause.”

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Nearby at Broadway and Wall Street is Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church, first charted during colonial days (1696) by King William III. The current building on the site dates from 1846, but the cemetery attached to it is much older, and one of the few in Manhattan. It holds several luminaries, including Robert Fulton (inventor of the steamboat) as well as Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza Schuyler Hamilton.

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Walking behind the cemetery along Church Street, it is impossible to miss One World Trade. Adjacent to the original footprints of the World Trade Center (now reflecting pools) and the site of the 9-11 Museum, it dominates the skyline in the area, and is now open for business. The influx of workers to One World Trade is bringing new shops and restaurants to the area.  The new World Trade Center transportation hub is due to open at the intersections of Vesey, West Broadway, and Greenwich Streets at the end of 2015. Designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it has been the source of controversy over its cost and overruns. However, seeing it soar in such an emotionally impactful area (Calatrava has said it is supposed to look like a bird being released from a child’s hand) was very pleasing to me.

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Prior to 2001 and the 9-11 attacks, about 15-20,000 residents lived in the Financial District. Nothing could be more revealing of the strong and resilient nature of New Yorkers (and also of the success of some incentives and tax breaks created by the city to spur growth) than the fact that now there are over 60,000 residents of the neighborhood. In 2014, the average price per square foot in the Financial District was higher than the average in Manhattan for the first time, comparable to that of the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village. Simultaneously historic and fresh, this neighborhood is the closest thing New York City has to the center of Rome, where new buildings are interspersed with views of the Forum or Coliseum.

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Hamilton Heights

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The hottest ticket in New York City this year is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical, “Hamilton,” currently at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street but moving to Broadway this summer. Coincidentally the day after I was fortunate enough to see it, while searching for a new apartment for a couple, I found a possibility for them in Hamilton Heights. Of course I had heard of the neighborhood in upper Manhattan and had been there before, but the connection to Alexander Hamilton didn’t fully register until that moment. I decided that my next dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) would take place in Hamilton Heights, while the soundtrack to “Hamilton” was still freshly ringing in my head.

Hamilton Heights lies between 135th and 155th Streets to the south and north, and between Edgecombe Road and the Hudson River to the east and west. This puts it just south of Washington Heights (location of Miranda’s “In the Heights”) and just north of Manhattanville and Morningside Heights. Why all the “heights” in upper Manhattan? Take a walk in any of these neighborhoods, and you will see – the elevation in this part of the island is considerable, and some streets are quite steep, particularly rising from the Hudson. Alexander Hamilton’s farmland in the last two years of his life before the infamous duel with Aaron Burr was roughly in the part of the neighborhood between 140th and 146th Streets.

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Public transportation options are good in Hamilton Heights. The 1, A, B, C, and D trains all make stops here, and it is possible to get from 155th Street to Times Square in about 15 minutes. For my dérive, I took the C and emerged at St. Nicholas Avenue and 135th Street. St. Nicholas Park rises steeply to the west of St. Nicholas Avenue here, and the majestic neo-Gothic tower of Shepard Hall of the City College of New York can be seen rising from the ice-age Manhattan schist that was used to construct the iconic campus buildings. CCNY was the first public institution of higher learning in the United States, and the beauty of its campus holds up to the private colleges and universities that predated it. Ten Nobel Prize winners have graduated from CCNY, the most recent alum winning for Medicine in 2014.
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Just to the north of the main quad of CCNY sits Alexander Hamilton’s home for the final two years of his life, named Hamilton Grange after his ancestral home in Scotland. This location in St. Nicholas Park is not where he lived, however – the house itself has been moved three times, but has settled in this location, not too far from its original spot. The Grange is a National Park Service site, and has been restored to reflect its appearance during 1802-1804 when Hamilton lived in it.

Walking north on Hamilton Terrace from St. Nicholas Park, it is easy to forget that you are in Manhattan. This is a very quiet, residential neighborhood with rows of townhouses or brownstones on tree-lined streets. Hamilton Terrace goes on for blocks without any intersections, and most of the townhouses here date from the 1890’s. Hamilton Terrace runs into Convent Avenue, and continuing north, the sub-neighborhood of Sugar Hill reveals stately rowhouses that once were the residences of famous New Yorkers such as Cab Calloway, W.E.B DuBois, Duke Ellington, and Babe Ruth (when he was an infant). Nicknamed Sugar Hill because it was where wealthy residents of Harlem moved in the 1920’s to enjoy the “sweet life,” the area holds large pre-war apartments that are still affordable, by current New York City standards.

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The Billy Strayhorn standard, “Take the A Train,” most familiar as an instrumental version performed by the Duke Ellington orchestra, does have lyrics, and they give you clear directions about how to get to this charming affordable neighborhood in upper Manhattan:
You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A Train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now, it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)
Get on the A Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem

New York City townhouses and mansions

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When one thinks of living in New York City, apartment living is the default – and in fact the majority of New Yorkers do live in multi-occupant housing, ranging from luxury high rises in Manhattan to duplexes in College Point, Queens. However, apartment living is a relatively recent development in NYC history, and even today there are single-family townhouses (and even a handful of outright mansions) available in the city. What’s the definition of a townhouse versus a mansion? Well, there firm criteria do not exist, but a townhouse 25 feet wide or wider starts to be under consideration as a mansion, particularly if the façade is limestone and the overall square footage is 10,000 or above. (Also, you will know it when you see it.) In Europe, a mansion traditionally has a ballroom, but there are few of those left in New York City.

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The golden age of mansions in New York City was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of those mansions in fact did hold ballrooms. The Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue at 77th Street (now the site of an apartment building) had 25 bedrooms and 35 servant’s rooms. Charles Schwab built a 75 room mansion on Riverside Drive between 73rd and 74th Streets, also now replaced by an apartment complex. The Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth and 57th, the largest residence ever built in New York City, had a two story ballroom as well as stables – and was destroyed to be replaced by Bergdorf Goodman. Some of the mansions in Carnegie Hill (all 50,000 square feet or more) faced somewhat better fates. The Carnegie Mansion now holds the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Warburg Mansion houses the Jewish Museum, and the Otto Kahn House is the location of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an independent school.

Until the end of the 19th century, apartment buildings – mainly tenements – were only for the less affluent. The middle class began to be attracted to the convenience of apartment living as the 20th century dawned, but the truly wealthy continued to live in single family homes until enough spacious apartments along Fifth Avenue (many with 12 rooms or more) were built and certain buildings became more prestigious. By the 1930’s, the tide had turned and more middle- and upper-class New Yorkers lived in apartment buildings than in single family homes, and now there are fewer than 2000 single family homes in Manhattan. However, there are considerably more in other boroughs. While a single family brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just as difficult to find (and afford) as one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it is possible to find a variety of housing choices elsewhere, such as detached single family homes in Flushing, Queens or Staten Island, and even enormous homes with lawns in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn (home of the famous holiday light displays in December). For those with the funds to spend $20-100M on their new home, the few genuine mansions available offer far more square footage (and often significantly lower real estate taxes, unless comparing to a new development condo with a tax abatement) than some of the new Billionaire’s Row apartments making the news. Similarly, a townhouse in Washington Heights near the landmarked Morris-Jumel Mansion offers considerably more space than a similarly priced 2 bedroom coop on the Upper East Side.

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Townhouse living is radically different from apartment living, and there are those who would never consider living in a townhouse in the city (the stairs – no super – even having to take out and bag your own garbage!). However, for the person who does appreciate the difference, being able to own an actual home, as opposed to shares in a corporation (in a coop) or a certain number of square feet within a building (in a condo) is priceless. Real estate taxes often favor the single family dwelling, and of course there is no coop or condo board process to go through – if you can pay for the townhouse and the owner accepts your offer, you are in. I have a customer who will accept nothing else but a townhouse (specifically, between Central Park West in the 60’s or 70’s!), but many others who appreciate the convenience of an apartment in an elevator doorman building. Much as New York City neighborhoods provide a rich diversity in atmosphere to live within the city, the variety of housing types (condos, coops, and townhouses) also provide the possibility of finding the perfect home for each potential home owner – one that fits their own individuality, as well as helping them express it.