Hills...Drunks...Washington...And Defending the Financial District
With an hour to spare before leaving for a business trip, I zipped up to 110th Street & 5th Avenue last Saturday to join a walking tour through a section of Central Park I never visited before -- the Northern Highlands.
My goals were simple: get some fresh air before being cooped up in a plane for 9 hours and see more of the amazing park I sometimes forget is in my backyard.
- Meet Dick Cheney's twin brother
- Ponder the lasting impression of hills and drunks
- Stand in the historic shadow of General George Washington, and
- Gain a new perspective on the financial district.
Manahatta: Island of Hills? Or Drunks?
When I arrived at the Dana Discovery Center on the shore of the Harlem Meer about 10 others were already there. I joined the gaggle glued to the side of a friendlier, tour guide-version of Dick Cheney and let him take me back in time to when the city was not much more than a long stretch of hills.
Mannahatta, he told us, was the name the Lenape Indians had for Manhattan. I never knew that and I never would have questioned the most common translation (Island of Hills) had he not mentioned the other possible translation (Island of Drunks).
From my vantage point on the Meer and the many "hill" neighborhood names scattered around the city (ie. Lenox Hill, Murray Hill, Carnegie Hill, etc. ), the first translation seemed absolutely fitting. Yet, as I reconsidered the second option and watched Cheney point out the spot where McGowns Pass Tavern stood for many decades, it occured to me that it is much easier to find a historic tavern in the city today than it is to spot a hill. So, even though it's not as romantic, Island of Drunks won me over as a more fitting and time-tested name.
Central Park Was George Washington's Escape Route
Crossing the Delaware, I learned, was not George Washington's only famous transverse. He crossed through Central Park's Highlands, specifically through McGown's Pass where I stood on Saturday.
The year was 1776 and he raced south to defend the city against the British invasion. When he arrived at the site of the battle (around E. 30's) he witnessed the collapse of his make-shift army. His citizen soldiers threw down their weapons under heavy shelling and ran for safety. Realizing his untrained troops were ill-equipped in numbers, weapons and morale, Washington led the retreat out of Manhattan, once again via McGown's Pass. He crossed the Pass for a third time, seven years later, when he returned with his tattered army and successfully reclaimed NYC for America.
The city in those days was a mere fraction of what it is today; a population of just more than 5000 and a border somewhere near what is now Canal Street. The New York of the 18th century, the city George Washington knew he had to reclaim to win the war, was not much more than the financial district we know today. Yet, despite its small size, its location at the center of the very active harbor made it the cornerstone in the nation's budding economy. If it fell permanently to the Brits, they would control commerce, weapons transport and the people that arrived on American shores.
When our guide moved beyond the Revolution to explain the roll the Highlands played in the War of 1812 and how it served as home for a religious convent many years later, I listenedd but I couldn't get my mind off Washington. I found it fascinating that even in the 18th century, the financial district was too important to fail or fall into the wrong hands.
It seemed oddly coincidental that today the financial district is once again at the heart of another battle. Once more it seems to be in need of defending. Could Timothy Geitner be the modern-day Washington? If he and his Treasury Plan are leading the financial district into retreat, will he soon ride back to restore its place in American society. Maybe someday another walking tour guide will tell that story.
Never has one walking tour made me think so much about the city, I thought I already knew.