By Micaela Arena, Tristan Genetta, Finn Clarke, and Rosalyn Bradshaw
We met Mr. Roper, history teacher at York Preparatory School, at Bowling Green outside the National Museum of the American Indian. My first impression: he’s kind of old to lead a walking tour of lower Manhattan in 90-degree summer heat. This idea was quickly dispelled when Mr. Roper introduced himself. His voice boomed out across Bowling Green, as if it were coming from a megaphone. It became clear that he was an experienced tour guide. Then he began to walk at breakneck speed—clearly Mr. Roper meant business. Our first stop was the entrance to Battery Park. “How much were the Native Americans paid for the island they called Mannahatta?” questioned Mr. Roper. “24 DOLLARS!” he answered. “BUT YOU CAN’T BUY LAND FROM PEOPLE WITH NO CONCEPT OF…” yelled Mr. Roper. “Ownership?” someone replied in a comparable squeak. “EXACTLY!” bellowed our tour guide, extremely enthused.
“Where we’re standing is not part of the original island of New York City,” said Mr. Roper, “Battery Park was largely added onto the island during the 1850s.” I’d heard this, but to see the expanse of land created by piling dirt into a river was impressive. Thinking about the giant apartment buildings built on that dirt in Battery Park City makes it even more incredible.
People are capable of so much. They can buy an island for 24 dollars and see it as a fair trade, they can add more than 25 acres of land onto that same island, then they can build skyscrapers on that land, and then people can remember it through history. That is what Mr. Roper helped us do on the tour. He helped us to remember.
“I want to talk about this fence,” said Mr. Roper. “This is the oldest fence in the city.”
“You can feel where the cast iron crowns that used to be atop each fence post were cut off on July 9, 1776,” shortly after the Declaration of Independence had been read to the troops in NYC for the first time. The patriots also pulled down the statue of King George III that was in Bowling Green and melted many of the pieces down to be repurposed as ammunition (several of the pieces remain intact and are in the N-YHS museum collection).
“I cannot bring you back in time,” said Mr. Roper, “but I can bring you to the place where something happened.”
After everyone had felt the grooves in the fence, Mr. Roper turned, facing the four large sculptures in front of the National Museum of the American Indian. These sculptures each represent a continent: Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Africa. He explained how these sculptures were meant to be seen from all sides, not just the front, using Asia as an example.
“The sculptor emphasized that Asia is the birthplace of the world’s major religions. See the Buddha in Asia’s lap, the lotus flower she’s holding. Look at the boy kneeling in prayer at Asia’s side. All of these are symbols of religion.” Mr. Roper moved to the other side of the sculpture. “Look to Asia’s left. There is a tiger looking up at her. You would never see it if you only looked at Asia head on. This is what I meant when I said that the sculpture must be viewed from 360 degrees.”
His final example was Africa. He looked at the sculpture, then back at us.
“The sculptor believed that Africa has not yet woken up. The continent is full of potential.”
We visited so many sites on our walking tour, but the one that I really connected with was the African Burial Ground National Monument. It the first time for many of us going there, and Mr. Roper handled the site respectfully, making our experience that much more fascinating. During the stop he said, “New York City is just as guilty as Charleston, South Carolina,” in regard to slavery. New York was the second largest slaveholding state before the Civil War. When slavery was abolished, New York still benefited from the sale of cotton and other goods from the South. We live in a time period where racial tension remains high. We thought about current day events and how they relate to this monument. New York City may not have had the Confederate flags flying over their capitol building during the Civil War, but many New Yorkers were southern sympathizers. In other words, they benefited from slavery. On the burial ground itself, Mr. Roper said: “I do not talk here. This is beyond words.”
As Mr. Roper continued to move like a cheetah through Lower Manhattan, past tourists and executives on their lunch breaks, he focused his tour on how people exercise their freedoms. Next we entered Trinity Church, where Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton came together to sign the Compromise of 1790, which made Washington, D.C. the capitol of the United States and established international credit.
Coincidentally, one of our Student Historians, Tristan, saw the amazing play Hamilton on Broadway. He thought the production was rip-roaringly funny. A song sung by Aaron Burr, titled “The Room Where It Happens,” is centered around that clandestine meeting between those Founding Fathers. Tristan felt fortunate to enjoy a play based on historical events that he’d just learned about hours earlier. (And Tristan believes Hamilton is definitely worth seeing!).
Overall, the walking tour of Lower Manhattan was very memorable and emphasized the many layers of the past that can still be found in plainsight throughout New York City, despite its non-stop growth. Thank you, Mr. Roper!