A Tale of Two Tours

Countless tour buses and souvenir kiosks sit on State Street, right outside Battery Park. This sidewalk – because of its proximity to the Ellis and Liberty Islands ferries – is often crowded with out-of-towners waiting to ride the red Big Bus tours that hastily take them around Manhattan’s landmarks.

And lying right in front of a hot dog stand with trash dangling from it, is probably the oldest European-made relic in Manhattan. Hidden in plain sight, a tiny cannon mounted on a pedestal, bearing a plaque that says, “This ancient cannon was exhumed in 1892 on the site of no.55 Broadway on the corner of Exchange Alley, or ‘the highway leading to the fortification’ called Oyster Pasty 1695-1783.” Now it goes unseen.

I learned about this on a tour about the Dutch remnants from the New Amsterdam era. It’s our tour guide Justin Rivers’ favorite story.

“Usually there’s two to three people sitting or hanging their garbage on it,” he explained. “Nobody knows it’s there, so when I bust my way in with the tour, and I’m talking about what is most likely the oldest european artifact in New York  and it has a bag of garbage hanging off the side of it… I just love telling that story because it’s such a surprise!”

Rivers is visibly passionate about history, which made the tour all the more enjoyable. He is the fun middle school teacher you wish you had had: soft spoken, well read, yet exuding genuine enthusiasm for what the average person would find to be boring history. In his backpack he carries about a dozen different maps, laminated pictures of old paintings of New Amsterdam and important characters from the times such as Peter Stuyvesant.

Meanwhile, a block away from the cannon on the northside of Bowling Green, tourists congregate around the Charging Bull to pose for a picture. While some choose to lean on its head, others squat by its polished balls for good luck. The Bull – sculpted by Arturo di Modica and installed overnight in front of the Stock Exchange in 1986 – was considered an act of vandalism before being moved to Bowling Green, where it became a major tourist attraction.

Both objects are respectively emblematic of important times in the neighborhood’s history. The cannon is a reminder of New York City’s origins in New Netherland, whereas  the Bull critiques American capitalism and the bullish attitudes of big business. They are also components of many bus and walking tours that happen around Lower Manhattan. There are over a dozen tours that take place in the Financial District; this is the tale of two of them.

I spoke with two tour guides who take different approaches to talking about the history of Lower Manhattan. While some like Rivers are interested in the neighborhood’s origins, others concern themselves with its current dynamics. For the last three years, Michael Pellagatti has been giving a tour about Occupy Wall Street drawn from his three month long experience as an activist living in Zuccotti Park in 2011. “It’s one thing to read about history, it’s another thing when you live it,” he said. His own knowledge of the events that transpired and the movement itself was evident in the confident manner he spoke about his time as a protester.

Rivers’ tour began to come together as he realized that many people didn’t know how historically dense the Financial District actually was. Yet over the past few years, Rivers has noticed that more international tourists were interested in Wall Street and the Stock Exchange since the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. “I think there was a lot of limelight put on that area, and that a lot of people are curious about this economic epicenter of the world and what makes it tick,” he added.

As a naturally curious person, I felt in my element being surrounded by history nerds like me. On most of Rivers’ visits, the tour goers are New York history buffs, neighborhood residents, and people who have traced their ancestry back to the Dutch living in New Amsterdam in the 17th century. “You can’t talk about New York History unless you go the Dutch… I mean New Amsterdam is the core New York as we know it,” Rivers told me.

While walking down Wall Street, I noticed the distinction between the tourists interested in the Financial District, and those interested in the neighborhood’s influence on early American history. Across from Federal Hall, where Washington was sworn in as the first president, sat a souvenir stand selling miniature replicas of the Charging Bull and NYSE flags. Countless people stood in line for the Museum of American Finance, only a few looked up to the George Washington statue standing in front of Federal Hall.

In the years after Occupy Wall Street, a whole new type of tourist came down onto the Financial District, people who are interested in learning more about finance and economics. Now, tourists aren’t coming down to visit the historically important landmarks like Federal Hall or the South Street Seaport Museum.

On Wall Street, I spoke to a family on their first trip to New York City from the Bay Area. Though they had only been here a day, they had checked all the boxes of must-see landmarks. “We’ve been to Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Central Park… and then after this we’re going to Little Italy for some cake,” the mother told me. They had decided to stop at Wall Street because the son was looking at becoming a stockbroker and the father was interested in the stock exchange. They, too, had taken a Red Bus tour.

Pellagatti felt that other neighborhood walking tours did not provide the complete portrait of the events that took place during Occupy Wall Street. “I was sitting in [Zuccotti] Park one day and I would see a lot of tour guides walking through the park but they would mention Occupy only in passing,” he explained. As he was already a licensed tour guide giving tours about the counterculture and protests in the Financial District, he took it upon himself to “preempt any situation with other tour guides coming to Zuccotti Park and perhaps doing an Occupy tour without knowing all the facts.”

Both tours begin on the south side of Bowling Green Park, in front of the Customs House and National Museum of the American Indian, before separating on Broadway. The history of Occupy Wall Street begins there as did the first protest, intersecting with the history of the Dutch arriving on the Mannahatta island.

Long before activists protested income inequality, long  before the museum or the Customs House were erected, stood Fort Amsterdam, built in 1625 by the Dutch West Indies Company to defend their settlement: New Netherland. Instead of the art-deco buildings and high rises that tickle the sky, the streets of Lower Manhattan were populated by Dutch colonial buildings with crow-stepped gables and gambrel rooftops.

The National Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) wrote in 1983 that “The street plan of lower Manhattan – south of Wall Street and within the confines of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam – is a striking reminder of New York’s colonial past and provides virtually the only above-ground physical evidence in Manhattan of the Dutch presence in New York during the 17th century.”

When walking around the neighborhood, I noticed the curves of the streets, the natural arc the buildings make as they lean into the narrow paths, making me question whether I was still in Manhattan’s square grid or roaming the streets of a Western European town. The names of the streets – Pearl, Water, Bridge– hint at what used to occupy that space. “Now almost 360 years after the arrival of the first Dutch settlers, lower Manhattan continues to evoke its colonial past through the configuration of its streets,” the LPC statement reads.

Yet many people in the street fail to look for  the history that inhabits these where they walk. At least that’s what it looks like. Rivers supposes the people who work in the Financial District don’t know much, “but the people who live down there are more interested in the history of the place they live.”

When Pellagatti began giving tours in 2013, his two-and-a-half hour tour on protests in the Financial District soon became a four to five hour tour once he arrive at Zuccotti Park. In the #OccupyTourNYC, he is able to focus only on the events that went on during the three month period the park was occupied.

“At Zuccotti Park, I kind of do a run through of the workstations, [and point to] where the media group was, the cigarette rolling group was, where the kitchen was, and then I talk about how the movement was successful and what was problematic,” he said. Past tour-goers write on his website that the tour is engaging, rendered vivid with vignettes of Pellagatti’s life in the encampment. He points to where he slept, where he ate, and where he live-streamed the protests. Most tour goers are teachers and their students and, he added, “they like to study how the movement became as big as it did as fast as it did, and they like to learn how the movement impacted American society and American politics.”

Whereas all the buildings from the New Amsterdam era have since been torn down and replaced, the  layout of the streets has stood the test of time. The streets of the area are registered by the National Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC), and are the only remnants of the Dutch colonial settlement.

Last October, a woman booked a spot on the tour with the condition they stop at a specific address on Broadway. “She knew her great-great-times-eight-grandfather [had] lived [there], which, of course, is now the corner with a HSBC Bank, but she said ‘I don’t care, I just want to stand there,’” Rivers shared.

I returned to the neighborhood on a cold Monday evening, hoping to interview someone about FiDi’s history. Rush hour in the Financial District is a sight. Hunched over suits walked hastily – their head turtled inside their long coats and propped up collars – across Zuccotti Park to the Cortland Street station where the PATH or subway will beam them home. Gushes of freezing wind were sucked between the buildings, hitting struggling passerbys, arms wrapped around themselves, trying their best to shield the cold from seeping through any uncovered skin. Crowds of people passed by me, all frowning  and unaware of the history that surrounds them. They were in their own minds.