Eras Merge in FiDi

BY JENNA JARDINE—A great metal snake, courtesy of Alfred Ely Beach, grinds to a halt beneath what is truely old New York. I remember being told the story almost as a right of passage to become a New Yorker.  Peter Minuit is said to have stood here when he purchased Manhattan from the Lenape tribe in 1626 for all of 60 guilders or $24, little did he know it would become a paragon of modernization. From the industrial revolution to the banking era, to the current start-up culture, the historic has become eclipsed by the futuristic in FiDi.

On the short walk from train to church, I am swept into a giant group of German tourists, their guide speed walking in the front holding up a red, triangular flag on a retractable antenna. Up the narrow set of stairs we go to emerge onto Broadway, the subway station having been built flush with the Trinity churchyard, the modern quite literally pressed up against nearly as ancient as American history goes.  

Trinity church commands it’s own block of real estate in the Financial District. Surrounding the churchyard are sleek towers whose heights dwarf its 281-foot tall steeple, which was once the tallest structure in NYC and is now surrounded by taller buildings considered mediocre by NYC skyscraper standards. Within these towers, meetings take place between high-powered businessmen, guests are treated to a view of Trinity Church in waiting rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, and wealthy families enjoy all the creature comforts of a newly-renovated apartment building with all the modern fixings.

On the ground, tourists pull out their smartphones to take selfies, converting the organic tones of the 14th-century English parish style church into 21st-century pixels, adding an Instagram filter for good measure. Being the third church built on the property, the current structure was finished, however ironically, on Ascension Day in 1846 so considering its age a rational person would assume it would be the building under construction on this block. As rational people are too often these days, they would be wrong. The green grass square of Trinity Church is nearly surrounded by an outline of the forest green boarding used on scaffolding in the city. A steadfast symbol of tradition and history in New York City, Trinity Church is surrounded by signs of futurization, denoting “Work in Progress: Commercial” and “Post No Bills.” While the later sign’s suggestion is often ignored, the former cannot be, Trinity Church is surrounded by change.

Fated to be heading in the same direction, I have somehow become part of the German tour group. I offer up a “danke schoen” to the gentleman who lets me cut in front of him, crossing the threshold of Trinity herself we are greeted by the blinking lights on great, white metal detectors in the entryway. There is a weight to the warm air inside the chapel, smelling of melting wax and incense. A thick velvet rope cordons off the areas tourists are allowed into, reminding me of the possessions so treasured by bouncers at fancy nightclubs. People shuffle to and fro in the semi-circle pathway allotted. Pamphlets on the church’s activities are pristinely organized on the slanted shelf at the back of the pews where Bibles would typically sit. A guest book is perched on a podium with welcome printed on each page in 11 languages. Messages come from as far as the Philippines, proclaiming “Peace on Earth!” and “Ite inflammate omnia.” A wooden-framed sign with large cartoon pictures of a DSLR camera and an iPhone reminds visitors that flash and electronic sounds are prohibited.

Though the chapel is small, tiny microphones hang from the ceiling and large ones are perched on black stands at the end of every other pew. The organic voices of the church choir and powerful sermons are fed through the microphones, though their sources are no more than 20 feet away from farthest pews. A small boy points to one of the flat screen televisions mounted on the restored pillars of the inner arches. Asking his mother if he could watch Dinotrux from the comfort of the velvet seating. Industrial stage lighting is attached various places on the church’s walls and pillars, illuminating the pulpit. Tourists take a load off in the pews, a few seeming to pray, most making use of the church’s free wifi. One man nods his head lightly to whatever music he has playing in his cordless Apple earbuds.

The room is filled with a multitude of small sounds. Hushed whispers flood the space, with the occasional child having to be quieted after breaking the decibel level deemed appropriate by their parents. A nearly constant stream of shutter clicks comes from the many DSLRs set to full auto. Every so often the metal detectors make their presence known with a soft beep, their red lights reflecting off stained glass windows.

Leyla Battez, a young, French tourist, with hair as bright red as the light shining in through the stained glass that makes up Mary Magdalene’s skirts in the crucifixion scene, circles the pillars, metal details on her leather boots clinking as she walks. “It is no Notre Dame, but to see a church like this here is astounding,” Battez said. “I do not think of New York as a place of old history, but in here you can see that this country does go back a long way, not so much in other places.”

Nine-year-old Sarah Fleming has chosen to document this history almost immediately upon entry to Trinity. Abandoning her parents at the door, she marches up to the center of the chapel, pulls out her iPhone and proceeds to spin on the spot with ease, capturing a 360 degree video for her facebook page. She then takes a few selfies, which she tells me she will be posting to her ‘finsta’ within the hour. Finding her parents again, she strides out of the church with a maturity I know I did not have at nine.

Documentation seems to be the key for many in Trinity, as it is in so many instances of tourism. Newlyweds Daniela and Álvaro Pérez, visiting from Spain, sit in a pew taking a photo every few seconds with matching iPhone Xs. Al and Linda Clark, having just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, take two photographs during their 20 minutes in another pew. Both pictures are taken with an early 2000s digital camera borrowed from their daughter for the sole purpose of the trip since their flip phones do not take as good of pictures.

When the two couples exit the chapel, making their way to the churchyard, neither Pérez can tell me much more about the place than ‘beautiful’ despite being fluent in English and taking so many pictures. The Clarks rattle off a few items as their favorite aspects of the church. Linda recounts details of the angel’s wings in the stained glass ascension scene. Al speaks of the beautifully finished pine and intricate metal work on century-old doors that “you just don’t see much anymore.”

Each minute of time in the chapel is punctuated by the infamous words of doorman Gary Jones. It seems his one job is repeating “please step forward” like a broken record to the many tourists who stop in the doorway to take photographs. Jones spends the entirety of his shift directing traffic, saying he usually goes from telling someone to step inside to pointing them to the exit doors when they inevitably use the wrong ones within 20 minutes max. After this short photo taking session inside the church most opt for a quick circling of the churchyard, searching for the inconspicuous headstones of Alexander Hamilton or John Jacob Astor IV.

Wandering the graveyard, the Williams family takes a break from their busy day as tourists in New York City. This is the Ohio family’s first time coming to NYC together, and they are trying to fit everything below Houston, which they pronounce like the city in Texas, into one day. They have just come from a morning on Ellis Island and taking a ferry ride around the Statue of Liberty. After an on the move hot dog lunch, the family spent 30 minutes total at Trinity Church. Carrying a chip bag from lunch, the youngest Williams, Benjamin aged 9, uses his cheeto dust stained finger to point out a 3D carving of a skull and crossbones on the back of the gravestone of one Richard Churcher, aged 5.

“That’s neat honey,” Benjamin’s mother Suzanne smiles. Benjamin’s sister Britney gives an eyebrow raise and pursed lip response, which in teenager speak is as close to ‘that’s neat’ as it gets. Before there can be anymore discussion on this particular point, the family has discovered the picturesque arch of the church’s back entrance and decides to pose for a picture.

Passersby stick their arms through the fences, cameras in hand, taking pictures of the headstones from the street then continuing down Broadway without stopping. The ear splitting sound of a jackhammer rattles through the yard, visitors raise their voices so their companions can hear them over the construction and constant street noise. “Mommy, we’re in a grave,” shouts five-year-old Mia Palmer, carrying a pretzel bigger than her head and wearing a bright red peacoat that would have been the envy of the turn-of-the-century girls buried in the yard.

A group of four noisily exit the church, each wearing liberty crowns made of green foam one even sporting an ‘I ♡ NY’ tee shirt. Rowdy as they are, no older than their late 20s, they make a beeline for the yard’s back exit. Tourists flow through the black, gothic-style gates that surround Trinity church, flooding back out onto Broadway. Many take a sharp left, following their tour group up the street to a second historic site in the area.

The entirety of FiDi is home to preserved architecture like Trinity and the U.S. Customs House, historical hotspots like Fraunces Tavern and museums as interesting as the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and as boring as the Museum of American Finance. All the while, the area’s business atmosphere, constant construction and growing start-up community bolster its reputation as a sort of Silicon Valley of NYC. The rebuilding of this neighborhood, places it in contrast with its neighboring areas which still maintain much of their pre-war architecture, making perhaps the most ‘futuristic’ neighborhood in NYC. The area flashes as quickly as a strobe light from the stained stones of buildings modeled after Greek columns to sleek skyscrapers so different from traditional architecture that not even Fritz Lang could imagine them for his iconic ‘future’ film Metropolis.

A straight shot up Broadway from Trinity is St. Paul’s chapel. Though the two historic churches are only a six minute walk apart, the path between them is quintessential FiDi real estate. I feel like I have taken a ride in Marty McFly’s delorean, going back to the future for the short walk then stepping back in time again upon arrival. I pass street vendors selling everything from NYPD hats to bubble tea, catering to tourists and the office workers of the area. An Anthropologie store makes use of the art deco windows on it’s 1930s building because vintage is in right now. A 1950s subway entrance now leads down to a Subway sandwich shop. The giant grey blocks of 1980s architecture dominate the walk, interspersed with sleek floor to ceiling glass of the current style.

St. Paul’s Cathedral appears from behind a skyscraper. Flashing lights and colors from the Fulton Center building across the street distract visitors, pulling them in with the smell of Shake Shack. St. Pauls is also surrounded, almost caged in by the black, gothic, metal gates. On either side of the main entrance, mock oil lamps are mounted with energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs instead of flame. The space is cordoned off from the rest of the neighborhood, just like Trinity, as if history is allotted a certain space from which it cannot bleed out into the futuristic FiDi it is encircled by. There is always a layer between people and history here, outer gates, inner fencing around the patches of grass where headstones sit, velvet ropes to keep tourists from touching history.

There is no escaping modern FiDi in St. Paul’s churchyard either, completely surrounded by cutting-edge architecture. The Oculus is in the background of every picture taken and freedom tower is what draws the eye, sunlight reflecting off it’s pristine surface and casting a large shadow over the yard. Guides here speak for a few minutes about the chapel, but manly use it as a place to discuss 9/ll.

On one tour heavy Friday, Jason Morrison, who keeps reminding me that he is a “registered guide” for lower Manhattan, brings a group through St. Paul’s yard for 15 minutes. He holds out his arm, moving it slowly over the churches facade, and begins to rattle off a few dates: 1766 (when the original St. Paul’s was built), 1794 (the completion of the church steeple), 1789 (when histories say George Washington attended a service at the chapel). The last date he mentions is 2002, when The Bell of Hope was given to St. Paul’s Chapel by London’s then mayor, as a symbol of solidarity after the 9/11 attacks. Now a fixture in the yard, tourists pose in front of the Bell of Hope with One World Trade Center looming beautifully in the background.

Morrison turns at the mention of 9/11, raising his hand again and gesturing to the Bell of Hope and One World Trade Center as if inspired by Vanna White’s signature move on 1980s-era Wheel of Fortune. A native New Yorker, Morrison explains how St. Paul’s became a refuge for people on the street after the attacks and how the dust that enveloped lower Manhattan hung in the air around St. Paul’s for weeks as it was so close to the buildings. I remember seeing a picture of this rubble Morrison speaks of when 9/11 entered the history books in my later years of high school. Perhaps lower Manhattan’s most remembered event, 9/11 has joined the ranks of the much older histories in the area, as it eclipses one historical tour at a time, bringing together two very different eras of New York.