Though I traveled to Ellis Island from New Jersey, it is also possible to take a ferry there from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, an area of the island home to a number of fascinating monuments and memorials starting with the landing location for the ferry. Though most people who venture through the gates of Castle Clinton National Monument may be there to obtain tickets in order to visit the Statute of Liberty (the kiosk is within the circular fort), the structure also contains an exhibit about the two-hundred year old site’s history. Indeed, as the display on the history of the fort details, Caste Clinton was built in preparation for the War of 1812 and was later used as an immigration landing depot in the decades prior to the opening of Ellis Island. Battery Park is also home to several memorials, including a Korean War Memorial, an Immigrants Memorial, and a Coast Guard Memorial. Indeed, the site plays host to multiple memorials celebrating those who risk their lives or die on the water including the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial, which portrays the attempted rescue of a man overboard whose arm is increasingly covered by the rising tide, and the East Coast Memorial recalling the names of sailors lost at sea in the Atlantic in WWII, built in 1963 by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
But a few blocks away from Battery Park lies another military monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, which also includes a list of names, in this case of those roughly 1,700 New Yorkers who died in Vietnam. As noted in this New York Magazine article, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza was dedicated in 1985 on land that had previously memorialized an ill-fated late 19th century ship which had disappeared while on a journey to the North Pole. A walk down narrow antebellum avenues towards Wall Street, past historic eateries such as Delmonico’s (which dates from 1837 and bills itself on its web site as ‘America’s First Restaurant’) and Fraunces Tavern (home to a small but fascinating museum of colonial era objects related to New York during the American Revolution including artifacts highlighting the roles of Nathan Hale and Abraham Woodhull, subject of the AMC series Turn: Washington’s Spies which recently returned for a second season and introduced new characters including Benedict Arnold), leads towards two National Park Service sites that largely focus their interpretation on the 18th century. The first site, Federal Hall National Memorial, occupies a building that was home to the first Congress in the late 1780s before the capital was moved temporarily to Philadelphia and (like the President’s House near Independence Hall) today is one of the few sites that focuses largely on telling the story of the early days of the Executive Branch through artifacts such as the Bible used during George Washington’s initial inauguration, although it also contains a visitor center detailing the entirety of the current NPS system.
Just north of City Hall sits the second NPS site which focuses on colonial era interpretation, the African Burial Ground National Monument. Unearthed during the construction of a new federal building in the 1990s, two centuries after it ceased to be used as a cemetery for enslaved New Yorkers of African extraction, the site now includes a New York Times’ reviewed museum that is housed inside that federal building as well as an outdoor memorial that respectfully highlights the reinterred remains of the dead. About a mile west, in view of a financial district ferry landing that offers trips home to Jersey and Staten Island, is a memorial that calls attention to the problem of poverty in a part of the city filled with wealth. The Irish Hunger Memorial, which takes its name from the traditional Gaelic term for the potato famine that killed or displaced millions in the 1840s, combines a textually rich exterior blending quotes from the era alongside contemporary statements about world hunger with a lush interior path reminiscent of the green hills of the old country. And one cannot visit monuments in Manhattan today without stopping by another area of the financial district, the main 9/11 Memorial consisting of two huge marble fountains that occupy the footprint of the former twin towers and include the inscribed names of the victims. This new memorial, in addition to being the subject of considerable scholarly attention including a recent talk I attended at La Salle, also reflects just how much New Yorkers are really willing to pay for public history.
On the one hand, all of the monuments and memorials I’ve mentioned are free to visit, and even the for-profit Fraunces Tavern museum only costs a few dollars to tour (and is well worth it), while the 9/11 Museum offers a limited number of free admission tickets on Tuesday evenings. This is especially impressive given the (literally) billions of dollars of real estate in the most expensive section of the costliest city in the United States that are devoted to these freely accessible monuments and memorials instead of being converted into something guaranteed to be more profitable such as a Battery Park Mall. On the other hand, I have never before in my life seen a line as long as the cue for these free tickets to a museum where regular adult admission runs $24 and seems to reflect broader prices across a city where lunch at the soup restaurant that inspired an episode of Seinfeld can cost almost $8. This suggests two things. First, the model of lower Manhattan shows that it is possible to profitably invest in public history projects that provide low cost tourism options to visitors in an otherwise extremely expensive city amid much more lucrative avenues towards economic redevelopment. However, if those attractions such as the 9/11 Museum which provoke the widest public interest are also the costliest and hardest to access that unfortunately decreases the likelihood most people will have the occasion to visit any of these sites.