My own fascination with the Financial District began almost a decade ago. On assignment, I spent a week in 1991 following the young stage director Peter Sellars as he filmed his first movie—a remake of the 1919 German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Sellars, known for oddball conceits such as setting Don Giovanni in Harlem, had transferred Dr. Caligari to Wall Street. He filmed scenes inside huge office buildings emptied by the 1987 stock market crash. Sellars's idea was that the streets of the Financial District were as full of weird angles and frightening shadows as the set for which the original Caligari was famous.
Sellars's movie was never released, but his dark vision of Wall Street—as an Expressionist nightmare zone—stuck with me. At that time the neighborhood was in a downward spiral: after the crash of '87, New York City lost some 400,000 jobs, many of them in the Financial District. Even as the economy slowly rebounded, the jobs stayed away from lower Manhattan. Many firms rejected the creaky old office towers for cheaper space across the Hudson in New Jersey, for more up-to-date quarters across West Street in the World Financial Center, or for more vibrant neighborhoods in midtown. By 1995, the vacancy rate in the Financial District had reached 25 percent, and many of its monumental buildings were marked by tattered FOR SALE signs. It appeared that the most historically and economically significant section of New York City might simply be abandoned, like downtown Detroit. Except that lower Manhattan was too important to too many people to let it slip away.
Help finally came in October 1995, when the city began granting tax incentives to encourage the renovation of downtown office towers, this time as apartment buildings. Incentives were also offered to businesses that relocated to the neighborhood. Stringent zoning laws were relaxed to allow, among other things, residential units as small as 900 square feet (1,800 was the old minimum) and entertainment facilities.
As the planned revival of an obsolete neighborhood, it was an unusual variation on a familiar theme. In New York and other American cities, such transformations tend to come about organically: artists move into disused industrial buildings; galleries and restaurants follow; the real estate industry takes notice; and soon a SoHo is born. In this case, city officials and local boosters jump-started the process—they created a "new" hip neighborhood through artificial insemination. But instead of planting artists in industrial lofts, they put cyberspace entrepreneurs in unused office space, seeding the neighborhood with techno-chic.
Even before the city acted, developer William Rudin had begun renovating an 18-year-old tower at 55 Broad, emptied by the demise of Drexel Burnham Lambert, Michael Milken's old firm. Rudin stuffed the building's ducts with T-1 Internet lines, fiber-optic cables, and satellite hookups, and renamed it the New York Information Technology Center. Within a year the center had attracted dozens of young electronic media firms, and was quickly marketed as the symbol of a revivified Wall Street.
Since the beginning of 1996 more than 3,800 apartments have been carved out of beautiful pre-war office buildings and a handful of newer glass-and-steel towers. Ordinary New Yorkers, who long regarded the Financial District as a sort of Forbidden City, are moving in. The original idea was that the unorthodox location would make these apartments a bargain, but the boom economy has driven prices up; one-bedrooms here now rent for an average of $2,400 a month.
Still, some residential conversions of office towers—only a handful of which are protected by landmarking laws—are merely a way for the landlords to make money until a more lucrative use for the building or the land comes along. The planned expansion of the New York Stock Exchange, for example, scheduled to begin in a year or two, will very likely require the demolition of at least one residential building—probably 45 Wall, an early residential conversion that still advertises apartments for rent in the newspaper. (When the Dow is soaring, the NYSE is not the best neighbor.)
Surprisingly, only two small areas around Wall Street have been designated historic districts, protected from demolition: the Fraunces Tavern Block and the nearby Stone Street Historic District, a vestigial fragment of pre-skyscraper New York. Tony Goldman—an early developer of SoHo, who in 1996 turned south and opened the Wall Street Kitchen & Bar in the former home of the American Bank Note Co.—now owns a number of the properties along Stone Street. Goldman claims that this small-scale enclave will become the "central destination" that the Financial District now lacks. "This is the Village of Wall Street," he says about the crooked lane that will be refinished this fall (using federal and city money) with old-fashioned cobblestones and lined with faux historic streetlamps.
It's odd that the city and developers like Goldman feel a need to apply "historic" charm to an already quaint street. In fact, what's best about the Financial District is its enduring usefulness. In other historic districts in other American cities, the neighborhoods' original functions became extinct, leaving behind mere husks of buildings, often converted into food courts and Ye Olde Mini-Malls. But here, some of the most glorious spaces are still used for everyday purposes. The great hall at 25 Broadway (the former headquarters of the Cunard Line) is the maritime equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, with ancient sailing vessels painted on the ceiling. It's now used as a post office branch. At 1 Wall Street, while Bank of New York employees work at their desks in the spectacular Red Room just inside the main entrance, tourists stare in astonishment at the red, orange, and gold floor-to-ceiling mosaics.
Despite all the recent activity, spending a Saturday in the Financial District is like escaping to the country. The streets are eerily silent: you can stand for minutes in the middle of lower Broadway and not get hit by a car.
I've come downtown with my friend Jon for an afternoon and evening of exploring. We saunter along Battery Park City's waterfront esplanade, and I lead Jon to the prettiest spot in all of New York: the southernmost corner of Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, where the view of the harbor—including the Statue of Liberty—is uninterrupted and magnificent.
Relaxed and tranquil, we zigzag through deserted streets in search of our dinner destination, Bayard's, an elegant new restaurant in an 1851 Italianate palazzo known as India House, after the private merchants' club that still meets there for lunch. Jon, who has lived in New York for 20 years, is completely lost, and finds it hard to believe that I'm not.
We finally find the restaurant, and climb the staircase beneath the watchful eyes of Glory of the Seas, a ship's figurehead. Once inside, we discover that ours is one of three occupied tables in a dining room that seats 110. It's Saturday night in the Financial District.