The old and the new converge at the lower tip of Manhattan, where Colonial churches and early American monuments stand in the shadow of skyscrapers. New York was born here and this was the site of the nation’s first capital. Commerce has flourished since 1626 when Dutchman Peter Minuit made one of the history’s most famous property deals, purchasing the island of “Man-a-hatt-ta” from the Algonquin Indians for beads and goods valued at $24. The stakes have become higher but finance remains at the heart of this part of the city.

“Island of Many Hills”

Manhattan means “Island of Many Hills” in the language of the Algonquin Indians and, long before the hills of Manhattan were leveled and the marshes drained, the island was an extraordinary wilderness where chestnuts, oaks and the North American walnut tree grew. Salt marshes and meadows were refuges for black bears, moose and turkeys. On both sides of the 21-kilometer long island stretched sandy beaches; the people of the Lenape people found mussels and oysters in abundance. Manhattan’s creeks and rivers together were more than 100 kilometers long.

Most history books state that Henry Hudson was the first explorer to set foot on the island of Manhattan. However, this is a common misconception. The Italian, Giovanni da Verrazzano, originally from the North Italian village of Greve, persuaded King Francis I of France around 1523 to support an expedition in order to identify a western passage to the East Indies from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Verrazzano prevailed and was the first to explore the East Coast of what is now the United States of America, arriving in what is now New York Bay on April 17th, 1524.

Decades later, in April 1609, the English captain, Henry Hudson, set sail for the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) under the Dutch flag. His mission was to find a Northern Passage to China. On September 12th, 1609, he navigated into the river – now known as the Hudson River – and was convinced that he had found a passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It has not been handed down whether he knew that one of the coasts, where Indians offered fruits, birds, and furs in exchange, was an island. Before long Hudson realized that he had reached a dead-end and had not fulfilled his mission. Fortunately, he brought so much news to Europe that another expedition was financed for him. However, his never-ending thirst for adventure was so much greater than that of the crew of his ship, the “Discovery”, that he was left behind by them in the subarctic bay, now known as Hudson Bay, where he disappeared forever.

Becoming the world’s Financial Hub

Hudson’s Dutch clients recognized the value of their possession the American East Coast and in 1626 they named the existing busy trading settlement New Amsterdam. Unfortunately for the Dutch, they lost the colony to the English in 1664 and the settlement was re-christened into New York in honor of the Duke of York. Under British rule, the city prospered and the population grew rapidly. The bolting of flour (grinding grain) was the main commercial enterprise. However, ship-building also flourished. By the 19th century, the city was firmly established as the nation’s largest city and pre-eminent seaport. In 1807, Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat named “Clermont” which made travel and trading with the Frontier, constantly being expanded westwards, much quicker and easier. Many New Yorkers made their fortune by trading with the interior by steamboat and canal boat but also with clipper ships for overseas trading. By 1900, New York was the hub of American industry: 70% of the country’s companies were based there and the port handled two-thirds of all imported goods. The 1920’s were a time of high living but when in 1929 the stock market crashed the good times came to an abrupt end. By 1932, Mayor Jimmy Walker had resigned having been charged with corruption and one-quarter of New Yorkers were unemployed. Fortunately, after the election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933, the city began to thrive again. Established as the financial capital of the world, the city itself almost went bankrupt in the 1970’s. Wall Street hit its peak then experienced its worst crash since 1929 both in the 1980’s. Despite or maybe because of its many ups and downs, the city has a long history of trading and it is seen as the world’s financial hub.

Exploring and Discovering the Financial District

Back in November 2019 when I first visited New York City I was overwhelmed and completely baffled. It is everything I have ever heard and dreamed of: loud, chaotic, fast-moving but also relaxing, colourful and diverse. It was my first time in this vibrant atmosphere and I was only able to stay for a weekend. However, my goal was to see as much of the city as possible. This meant there was not much time to lose! Apart from visiting the well-known and beloved tourist spots, I decided to visit the district where New York was born. I did not know anything about this pulsating part of town in which I thought only people who work there go. However, keeping an open mind, I decided to join a free walking tour, where I was proved wrong.

The Financial District exudes prestige by being home to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the New York Stock Exchange and is headquarters to numerous financial institutions. Well-worn streets guide huge influxes of office workers and tourists to landmarks and museums around the neighbourhood. Such landmarks include the Federal Hall, which the National Park Service calls the birthplace of the American government, Trinity Church built in 1846, where Alexander Hamilton and other notables are buried, St. Paul’s Chapel, where George Washington worshiped after taking his first presidential oath at Federal Hall, the “Charging Bull” and the “Fearless Girl” statues opposite the New York Stock Exchange. Newer spots include the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, the One World Observatory, the newly refurbished South Street Seaport, the Fulton Center and the Oculus, the new transit hub which includes a shopping centre.

Thanks to Carly Feldman I am now able to re-narrate this information to you. You may ask yourself who this young lady is. Carly Feldman is a passionate New York tour guide who leads you through the “DiFi”, which she knows like the back of her hand. If she had not been so enthusiastic, I, with my occasional attention span of a goldfish – i.e. short or non-existent – especially on guided tours would not have been so enthralled and managed to absorb copious amounts of what many might consider “monotonous” history. By the way she shows you all the important buildings and monuments, which are all within a short walk of each other, you do not notice the distance covered until you check your step counter! After two and a half hours, the tour ended at The Westfield World Trade Center which offers numberable shopping options and, most importantly, a cup of coffee and a restroom.