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Battery Park

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Home to monuments, performance events and ferry docks

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The Commemorative Landscape of The Battery
by Chris Neville

Most people come down to the Battery to catch a ferry or take in the view. Either way, the harbor beckons. But as you start along the pathway that leads from Broadway to the shoreline, the first thing you will see is Fritz Koenig’s 1971 sculpture, The Sphere. Salvaged from the rubble at Ground Zero, and still bearing the scars of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, it was re-erected here in 2002. This grim but resilient presence is the most recent memorial in Battery Park, but it is also hardly the first. In fact, the Battery marks the center of the densest concentration of public memorials in New York City. This commemorative landscape extends beyond the park itself to include nearby sections of Lower Manhattan, not to mention Liberty and Ellis Islands. But it all starts with the Battery: the southern tip of Manhattan is New York’s oldest civic space, in continuous use since 1626, and marks the city’s historical epicenter.

In the years since the Dutch built the first fort here as the seat of their colonial power, this site and the city around it have been transformed beyond recognition. But despite the Battery’s gradual evolution from administrative center and military installation into a public promenade, it has endured as a legible reminder of the city’s origins as a seaport and trading outpost. Today’s New York may be a world unto itself, but the city was born at the Battery, and the Battery will always remain the furthest downtown a New Yorker can go.

The tip of Manhattan has long been this port city’s principal threshold onto the harbor and the wider world. Since it emerged as the ceremonial focus of the waterfront in the early nineteenth century, the Battery has welcomed generations of heroes and dignitaries. It marked the traditional start of the grand processions up Broadway to City Hall that have evolved into today’s ticker-tape parades. In the waters just off shore, fireboats and flotillas have celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal, the Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, and the Statue of Liberty, and much more recently, the nation’s Bicentennial. With far less ceremony, and to much greater effect, the Battery also welcomed the nearly eight million European immigrants who disembarked at Castle Clinton from 1855 to 1890, and the millions more who arrived here after their transit through Ellis Island in the years that followed.

During the 20th century, the Battery’s twin roles as the city’s historical point of origin and as the port’s most important point of entry came together, creating a sort of commemorative critical mass. The Battery’s urban threshold became a broader stage, first with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and more extensively with the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War. The parades and turn-of-the-century portrait bronzes gave way to a steady stream of collective memorials and commemorations of events that took place elsewhere.

Since the 1980s, this rising tide of commemorative projects has spilled outside Battery Park itself, to include a number of sites along the shoreline of Lower Manhattan: near the East River, the city’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was created at Jeanette Plaza in 1985; along the Hudson, we now have the New York City Police Memorial (1997), the Museum of Jewish Heritage Living Memorial to the Holocaust (1997), and the Irish Hunger Memorial (2002).
All this has underlined Lower Manhattan’s new role as a platform for the remembrance of major events in the world at large. While no single site can represent New York in its entirety, the Battery comes closer than any other — it is one part of this city that can stand for the whole. Standing both at the city’s heart and at the water’s edge, the Battery remains a place for New York to remember.


Ellen Callinan Fischler (Georgetown University Law Center)

This point at the tip of Manhattan is the real window on the world. It’s historic and spectacular–especially on July 4th! It’s beautiful and located on the harbor.

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