A Walk through Teju Cole’s OPEN CITY

Teju Cole’s 2011 nov­el Open City begins in medias res (“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall…”), and it explores what it means to be dropped into the mael­strom of his­to­ry. Open City is a nov­el about walk­ing, about cities, about life in this strange cen­tu­ry fol­low­ing the tur­bu­lent blood­i­ness of the 20th. It is a nov­el about what it means to make sense of our own per­son­al place in his­to­ry, and in the sto­ries of our own tribes, and in the sto­ries of our plan­et. Many of these sto­ries, the tri­umphant ones espe­cial­ly, we project our­selves into in order to feel hero­ic. Many of these sto­ries, the hor­rif­ic ones espe­cial­ly, we nev­er asked to be a part of and we spend our lives dis­tanc­ing our­selves from those. At its best, Open City is a nov­el about all the com­plex and con­tra­dic­to­ry ways we make sense of our­selves as his­tor­i­cal sub­jects.

I’ve been a New York City tour guide for about ten years now, and I’ve taught many cours­es on the lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry of New York. The City is a great teacher of his­to­ry, full of end­less fas­ci­na­tions and rev­e­la­tions and a stag­ger­ing com­plex­i­ty that can only be grasped through par­tial com­pre­hen­sions and incom­plete under­stand­ings. To deal with New York one must accept above all that it will always bewil­der the com­pletist.

There are lay­ers to the city. Julius, the nar­ra­tor of Open City, a young Ger­man-Niger­ian psy­chi­a­trist, stands at the World Trade Cen­ter site five years after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 con­tem­plat­ing the Syr­i­an and Lebanese com­mu­ni­ties that were pushed out to make way for the twin tow­ers. “And before that?” he asks, “What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rub­ble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, writ­ten, erased, rewritten…Generations rushed through the eye of the nee­dle, and I, one of the still leg­i­ble crowd, entered the sub­way. I want­ed to find the line that con­nect­ed me to my own part in these sto­ries.”

What fol­lows is a walk­ing tour through Teju Cole’s Open City. It is designed as a walk­a­ble two-hour tour that cov­ers a por­tion of Low­er Man­hat­tan. It nec­es­sar­i­ly excludes Morn­ing­side Heights (where Julius lives), Cen­tral Park South (where his men­tor Dr. Saito lives), and oth­er loca­tions he vis­its like Chi­na­town and Harlem and Fort Try­on. And, nat­u­ral­ly, it doesn’t cov­er Nige­ria, where Julius grows up, or Bel­gium where he goes on vaca­tion. But it does cov­er one of the most impor­tant locales in the nov­el, the birth­place of the metrop­o­lis, Low­er Man­hat­tan. This tour is an incom­plete sto­ry, as sto­ries can only be. (One sto­ry that I omit by focus­ing on the his­tor­i­cal parts of Open City is the rev­e­la­tion that Julius sex­u­al­ly assault­ed some­one in his past, a detail that this #MeToo era reminds me I should not entire­ly leave out, spoil­er alerts be damned.)

Any tour of New York must begin in the mid­dle of things. And yet the historian’s impulse is to find the point of ori­gin from which to start a coher­ent nar­ra­tive con­nect­ing us to what we see and expe­ri­ence. If a sto­ry is going to be told, then you have to pick a place and start telling. Though this tour was inspired by Open City, one need not have read the nov­el to appre­ci­ate these his­toric sites.

 

6 Pearl Street

I taught Open City in my lit­er­a­ture class­es in the fall of 2016. We met up for a walk through Low­er Man­hat­tan on a rainy, cold Fri­day in Octo­ber. When we walked toward the back of 17 State Street, I was shocked to find that the bust of Her­man Melville that had been there for years was gone. Imme­di­ate­ly I thought of anoth­er great piece of New York lit­er­a­ture, Col­son Whitehead’s Colos­sus of New York, where­in he writes that one of the essen­tial feel­ings of this city is the sense of loss when you vis­it a place that has sud­den­ly dis­ap­peared on you. As he puts it, this is a city where “we can nev­er make prop­er good-byes.” I still don’t know what hap­pened to the bust of Melville. Being a New York City tour guide means con­stant­ly revis­ing your nar­ra­tive to acco­mo­date new real­i­ties.

In Open City, the first men­tion of Melville comes after Julius rides the sub­way down to Wall Street and walks to Trin­i­ty Church on Broad­way, but finds that the gates of the church are closed that day.

About two hun­dred years lat­er, when a young man from the Fort Orange area came down the Hud­son and set­tled in Man­hat­tan, he decid­ed he would write his mag­num opus on an albi­no Leviathan. The author, a some­time parish­ioner of Trin­i­ty Church, called his book The Whale; the sub­ti­tle, Moby-Dick, was added only after the first pub­li­ca­tion. This same Trin­i­ty Church had now left me out in the brisk marine air and giv­en me no place in which to pray. There were chains on all the gates, and I could find nei­ther a way into the build­ing nor any­one to help me. So, lulled by sea air, I decid­ed to find my way to the edge of the island from there. It would be good, I thought, to stand for a while on the water­line.”

In fact, Melville, the young man from the Fort Orange area (lat­er Albany, NY) was born in Low­er Man­hat­tan, in a house on 6 Pearl Street in 1819. The miss­ing bust I was look­ing for had been installed there to mark the site of his birth­place.

I rec­og­nized that pas­sage from Open City, with its ref­er­ence to stand­ing at the water­line, as an allu­sion to the first chap­ter of Moby Dick, or the Whale, which actu­al­ly begins in Melville’s home­town. His descrip­tion of Low­er Man­hat­tan in the mid­dle of the 1800s is a good snap­shot of the metrop­o­lis as it grew into a vibrant port city.

There now is your insu­lar city of the Man­hat­toes, belt­ed round by wharves as Indi­an isles by coral reefs — com­merce sur­rounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you water­ward. Its extreme down-town is the bat­tery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours pre­vi­ous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gaz­ers there…Circumnambulate the city of a dreamy Sab­bath after­noon. Go from Cor­lears Hook to Coen­ties Slip, and from thence, by White­hall north­ward. What do you see? — Post­ed like silent sen­tinels all around the town, stand thou­sands upon thou­sands of mor­tal men fixed in ocean rever­ies.”

 

New Nether­lands Memo­r­i­al Flag­pole (near the Inter­sec­tion of State Street and Bat­tery Place)

A great site to make sense of how that “insu­lar city of the Man­hat­toes” went from Native Amer­i­can land, to Dutch out­post, to British city, to Amer­i­can metrop­o­lis, is this flag­pole with its gran­ite base that con­tains a bas-relief of a map show­ing Man­hat­tan as it looked in the mid-1600s. The flag­pole was a gift from the Nether­lands to the city of New York in 1926 to com­mem­o­rate the 300th anniver­sary of the found­ing of New Ams­ter­dam.

In Open City we get some case his­to­ry about one of Julius’s patients, a woman only iden­ti­fied by the ini­tial V. She is a Native Amer­i­can and an aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ri­an who stud­ies the his­to­ry of Native Amer­i­cans in New York. V. is going through a depres­sive episode and is deeply affect­ed by the his­to­ry of bru­tal­i­ty and geno­cide that she is writ­ing about.

The flag­pole has four sides. On the front is the map of Low­er Man­hat­tan, on two sides there is a nar­ra­tive of the found­ing of New Ams­ter­dam (one side in Dutch, the oth­er in Eng­lish) and on the back is a depic­tion of trade between a Dutch colonist and a Native Amer­i­can. Leg­end has it that in 1626 Peter Minu­it, direc­tor-gen­er­al of Dutch New Ams­ter­dam, nego­ti­at­ed with the Lenape Indi­ans for the pur­chase of the island of Man­hat­tan for $24 worth of trin­kets. There is no actu­al record of this trans­ac­tion. What we know about this sale most­ly comes from a let­ter sent back to Hol­land in 1626. The image on the pole shows the friend­ly rela­tions of trade between the Dutch and Native Amer­i­cans. But a vis­it to the Smith­son­ian Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Indi­an just across the street inside of the US Cus­tom House will let you know that this is an incom­plete sto­ry to say the least. The full sto­ry is blood­i­er than this depic­tion. In Open City, V. strug­gles to tell that sto­ry of geno­cide, even as it takes an emo­tion­al toll on her own well-being.

 

Unit­ed States Cus­tom House

I went down Broad­way, past the Old Cus­toms House, and down to Bat­tery Park…The Cus­toms House faced Bowl­ing Green, which had been used in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry for the exe­cu­tions of pau­pers and slaves.”

For New York his­to­ri­ans, what Julius calls the “old” Cus­tom House is actu­al­ly the “new” Cus­tom House. This 1907 Beaux Arts build­ing designed by archi­tect Cass Gilbert, is the third site of the cus­toms ser­vice in the city. Pre­vi­ous­ly it was in the build­ing that is now Fed­er­al Hall on Wall Street from 1842 to 1862, and then from 1862 to 1907 in the Mer­chants Exchange build­ing down the block at 55 Wall Street. In the 1890s the U.S. Trea­sury depart­ment bought the land near Bowl­ing Green for Cass Gilbert’s majes­tic build­ing. The inte­ri­or rotun­da ceil­ing is cov­ered with murals by the artist Regi­nald Marsh. In front of the build­ing are four sculp­tures, Four Con­ti­nents, by Daniel Chester French. Asia and Africa are on the out­sides with both their eyes closed, rep­re­sent­ing empires of the past that have yet to reawak­en. Europe and the Amer­i­c­as are in the mid­dle. The design of the sculp­tures and their lay­out are instruc­tive in their Ori­en­tal­ism and Euro­cen­trism. The Asia sculp­ture depicts servi­tude and bondage, the Africa sculp­ture naps, naked with her head drooped down. Europe is on the throne rep­re­sent­ing the monar­chies of old Europe, and the Amer­i­c­as, the most dynam­ic stat­ue in the group lurch­es for­ward into the future. Four Con­ti­nents is a visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the ide­ol­o­gy of Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism, an artist writ­ing the nation into the his­to­ry of the world’s great trad­ing empires. Behind the sculp­tures, inside of the build­ing, the exhibits of the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Indi­an help to con­tex­tu­al­ize the human cost of these glob­al aspi­ra­tions.

And across from the Cus­tom House is Bowl­ing Green Park, the old­est pub­lic park in the city, dat­ing back to 1733. As Julius men­tions it was one of sev­er­al sites used for exe­cu­tions (see Jill Lepore’s New York Burn­ing for a glimpse into the bar­bar­i­ty of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ments in colo­nial New York.) It was also the site of a loy­al­ist statute of King George III put up in 1771, a stat­ue top­pled five years lat­er by row­dy colonists who had just heard the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence.

 

Broad­way

Stand­ing just north of Bowl­ing Green Park on a clear day you can see up Broad­way into Mid­town with the Art Deco top of the Chrysler Build­ing off in the dis­tance. Here is one of those for­mer Lenape paths that Julius asked about, the most famous one, the longest Avenue in the city. Its name, which orig­i­nat­ed from the Dutch “Brede Weg” is now syn­ony­mous with the City and its cul­ture indus­tries. Broad­way begins here and stretch­es not only the 13.5 miles of Man­hat­tan island, but then con­tin­ues north and links to US‑9 head­ing toward the state cap­i­tal in Albany.

 

60 Wall Street

On one of his impromp­tu adven­tures, Julius takes the 2 train down­town and decides to get off at Wall Street. He takes a sub­way exit that emp­ties out into the indoor atri­um of the Deutsche Bank build­ing at 60 Wall Street.

I took the esca­la­tor up, and as I came out onto the mez­za­nine lev­el, I saw the ceil­ing – high, white, and con­sist­ing of a series of inter­con­nect­ed vaults – slow­ly reveal itself as though it were a retractable dome in the act of clos­ing. It was a sta­tion I had nev­er been in before, and I was sur­prised that it was so elab­o­rate because I had expect­ed that all sta­tions in low­er Man­hat­tan would be mean and per­func­to­ry, that they would con­sist only of tiled tun­nels and nar­row exits…My orig­i­nal impres­sion of the grandeur of the space, though not of its size, quick­ly changed as I walked through the hall. The columns could have been wrought from recy­cled plas­tic chairs, and the ceil­ing seemed to have been care­ful­ly con­struct­ed out of white Lego blocks. This feel­ing of being in a large-scale mod­el was only increased by the lone­ly palm trees in their pots, and by the few groups of peo­ple I now saw seat­ed under the nave aisle to the right…The hall was sparse, and because it was enclosed, full of the echoes of the few voic­es present.”

Like so many things in this nov­el, Deutsche Bank also has a longer sto­ry con­nect­ing it to Sep­tem­ber 11. 60 Wall Street was built in 1989 as the head­quar­ters of JP Mor­gan and Com­pa­ny (which merged with Chase) but lat­er acquired by Deutsche Bank ear­ly in 2001. On 9/11/01 Deutsche Bank was still oper­at­ing in their pre­vi­ous build­ing locat­ed near the WTC site, a build­ing which was severe­ly dam­aged in the col­lapse of the tow­ers. In the after­math, they relo­cat­ed their oper­a­tions into this new build­ing. The dam­aged build­ing was kept intact due to con­cerns about tox­ic con­t­a­m­i­na­tion if it were lev­eled. There were also human remains still being found at the site, so the build­ing was not allowed to be dis­man­tled until it could be thor­ough­ly searched. In 2007 two fire­fight­ers were killed in a fire at the build­ing. It was final­ly dis­man­tled in Jan­u­ary 2011.

 

Wall Street and Water Street

Lat­er in the nar­ra­tive, when Julius comes back to the Finan­cial Dis­trict to vis­it his accoun­tant (and for­gets his ATM pass­word), he men­tions the rela­tion­ship between Wall Street and slav­ery. The east­ern end of Wall Street at Water Street was the sight of the for­mer slave mar­ket. In 2014 a sign was placed there to com­mem­o­rate the loca­tion. At the same inter­sec­tion, the New York Stock Exchange was found­ed under a but­ton­wood tree in 1792. There’s an intri­cate rela­tion­ship between those two enti­ties. Wall Street was a lit­er­al wall built by African slave labor. The wall is now rep­re­sent­ed by a series of wood­en blocks embed­ded into the sur­face of the street to show where it once stood. Fig­u­ra­tive­ly, “Wall Street” was built by the prof­its of a slave econ­o­my, a fact that the new sign acknowl­edges. And a few blocks north is the African Bur­ial Ground, a tes­ta­ment to the city’s selec­tive mem­o­ry about its his­to­ry.

 

Trin­i­ty Church (Wall Street and Broad­way)

The con­gre­ga­tion dates back to the 1690s when it was start­ed by the Angli­can Church. It has gone through three build­ings, the first burned down in the Great Fire of 1776 dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, the sec­ond dis­man­tled after severe roof dam­age from snow­storms dur­ing the win­ter of 1838 – 39. Its cur­rent build­ing is an 1846 Goth­ic brown­stone beau­ty designed by archi­tect Richard Upjohn, topped off with a 281-foot spire that was the tallest point in New York until the com­ple­tion of the New York World Build­ing in 1890.

In the nov­el Julius goes to vis­it the grave of Alexan­der Hamil­ton. It was always a pop­u­lar site, but has grown even more so since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musi­cal con­quered Broad­way in 2016. It was here that Hamil­ton was buried after he died from injuries suf­fered in that infa­mous duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. His wife Eliza is buried in front of him, and his son, Philip, who died in a duel in 1801, is buried next to them. Every day that the church­yard is open a steady stream of tourists comes by to snap pic­tures next to the obelisk mon­u­ment. So many of them have come that they have now bypassed the con­crete foot­paths that cir­cle through the ceme­tery to the Hamil­ton site, and have beat­en a dirt path through the grass direct­ly to it.

 

209 Broad­way, and the World Trade Cen­ter

From Broad­way, next to St. Paul’s chapel is a view of the One World Trade Cen­ter tow­er, 1,776 feet tall at the tip of its spire, which opened in 2015. Next to it is the weird rib cage struc­ture of the rebuilt Path sta­tion, recent­ly opened in 2016. It was still “Ground Zero” when Julius walks to the site in late 2006. “The place had become a metonym of dis­as­ter: I remem­bered a tourist who once asked me how he could get to 9 ⁄ 11: not the site of the events of 9 ⁄ 11 but to 9 ⁄ 11 itself, the date pet­ri­fied into bro­ken stones.”

You can now vis­it the mas­sive water­falls flow­ing down into the two foot­prints where the tow­ers once stood, and vis­it the 9 ⁄ 11 memo­r­i­al muse­um. It’s a fun­ny thing, this memo­ri­al­iz­ing. The mood there is…strange. It’s a somber place, and yet with the pas­sage of time it has devel­oped the indif­fer­ent ambi­ence of a shop­ping mall. Recent­ly some young tourists were scold­ed for tak­ing sexy self­ies next to the pools where behind them sit plaques engraved with the names of the dead. Many of my own stu­dents were tod­dlers on that day. For them 9/11/01 is not a mem­o­ry, but a date in his­to­ry that they learn about in school and make mean­ing of through sto­ries, and through mon­u­ments like this.

 

African Bur­ial Ground (Duane Street between Broad­way and Elk)

As Julius heads toward the African Bur­ial Ground he notes “the mas­sive Long Lines build­ing on Church Street. It was a win­dow­less tow­er, a giant con­crete slab ris­ing into the sky.” In that build­ing were the switch­boards of AT&T, and it now hous­es some of the appa­ra­tus for its Inter­net oper­a­tions, a sym­bol of the always-on, net­worked, dig­i­tal lives we now lead, even as the hard­ware that enables this life most­ly remains opaque and con­cealed out of sight.

The offi­cial address of the African Bur­ial Ground is 290 Broad­way, which hous­es the visitor’s cen­ter inside of the Ted Weiss Fed­er­al Build­ing. The out­door mon­u­ment is actu­al­ly around the cor­ner on Duane Street, east of Broad­way.

The first enslaved Africans were brought to Man­hat­tan by the Dutch in 1626. Slave labor was instru­men­tal in the build­ing of New Ams­ter­dam and con­tin­ued through the build­ing of British colo­nial New York. The enslaved worked in a vari­ety of fields, includ­ing as farm labor, dock­work­ers, domes­tic ser­vants, and even as skilled arti­sans and crafts­men.

Africans were not allowed to be buried in the city’s church ceme­ter­ies. From the 1690s to the 1790s, the “Negros Bur­ial Ground” served as the final rest­ing place for some 20,000 enslaved and free blacks in New York. In 1799 New York adopt­ed a pol­i­cy of grad­ual abo­li­tion to phase out the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery. July 4, 1827 is Eman­ci­pa­tion Day in New York, as slav­ery was offi­cial­ly out­lawed statewide. The bur­ial ground closed in the 1790s and the area was divid­ed up and sold to devel­op­ers. Over the years, it was built over with­out any regard for the bod­ies under­ground.

In 1991 the site came back in a big way. In Freudi­an terms, you might say this was the return of the repressed. Con­struc­tion crews began exca­vat­ing the site for a fed­er­al office build­ing, and soon their dig­ging brought up human remains. After protests from activists, even­tu­al­ly the con­struc­tion stopped and 419 bod­ies were unearthed. The exca­vat­ed remains were tak­en to lab­o­ra­to­ries at Howard Uni­ver­si­ty in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. where foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gists could study the bod­ies to deter­mine gen­ders, ages, and prob­a­ble caus­es of death. The bod­ies were brought back and rein­terred in a cer­e­mo­ny in 2006. The muse­um and visitor’s cen­ter opened in 2010.

The memo­r­i­al design is titled “Door of Return,” based on the “Door of No Return,” the name giv­en to pas­sage­ways in slave cas­tles on the coast of West Africa where the enslaved were trans­port­ed to the Amer­i­c­as. The water cas­cad­ing into the inside of the memo­r­i­al, col­lect­ing in pools on each side of the stair­case down into the main cham­ber, sym­bol­izes the Atlantic Ocean and the Mid­dle Pas­sage. The site is adorned with Sanko­fa sym­bols. The prin­ci­ple of Sanko­fa is to “Learn from the Past to Pre­pare for the Future.” And down on the floor of the main cham­ber are the approx­i­mate ages and prob­a­ble caus­es of death for the 419 bod­ies exhumed from the site.

While stand­ing at Ground Zero Julius says, “The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, writ­ten, erased, rewrit­ten,” but it is here at the African Bur­ial Ground, a site once hid­den and now made vis­i­ble again with a memo­r­i­al, which was only built after protest and agi­ta­tion, that one finds the most potent sym­bol of the palimpsest, and the City’s com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with its past.

 

Post­script

I fin­ished this piece over two years after my 2016 class. Of course, that fall was also the sea­son of a most unfor­tu­nate pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. On Wall Street the air is poi­soned by that name in gaudy gold let­ter­ing on the build­ing at 40 Wall Street. In the months before the elec­tion I avoid­ed and redi­rect­ed the nar­ra­tive away from that name as best I could. I haven’t led many pub­lic tours since then, and giv­en this cli­mate I’m not crazy about doing so. I can’t be “objec­tive” about this site, and I don’t feel like mak­ing nice with dudes show­ing up in those dumb, cheap red hats. (I’ve seen a few of them sprin­kled around touristy areas in the city, now by the Charg­ing Bull, now on the Brook­lyn Bridge, now in Times Square.)

At the African Bur­ial Ground, Julius thinks of the enslaved Africans who lived and died in the ear­ly colonies. They were not just slaves, but peo­ple with hopes and dreams and desires who led quo­tid­i­an dai­ly lives. We go on liv­ing in and around atroc­i­ty, and I’m afraid this admin­is­tra­tion will bring more atroc­i­ties that many of us will not sur­vive. The African Bur­ial Ground is there as a tes­ta­ment to resis­tance and per­sis­tence, on the part of the enslaved, and on the part of those who demand­ed that the city bear wit­ness to their suf­fer­ing. There’s no bet­ter place to remem­ber why we fight.

 

Bib­li­og­ra­phy 

Cole, Teju. Open City. New York: Ran­dom House, 2011.

New York City Land­marks Preser­va­tion Com­mis­sion. Guide to New York City Land­marks. 4th edi­tion. Hobo­ken: Wiley, 2008.

Kamil, Seth and Eric Wakin. The Big Onion Guide to New York City. New York: NYU Press, 2002.

Lep­ore, Jill. New York Burn­ing: Lib­er­ty, Slav­ery, and Con­spir­a­cy in Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Man­hat­tan. New York: Vin­tage Books, 2006.

White­head, Col­son. The Colos­sus of New York. New York: Ran­dom House, 2003.

Wolfe, Ger­ard R. New York: 15 Walk­ing Tours, An Archi­tec­tur­al Guide to the Metrop­o­lis. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Down­load a pdf ver­sion of the walk­ing tour map

Lavelle Porter is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at New York City Col­lege of Tech­nol­o­gy, CUNY. His writ­ing has appeared in venues such as The New InquiryPoet­ry Foun­da­tionJSTOR Dai­lyCallaloo, and Warscapes. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor for Black Per­spec­tives the blog of the African Amer­i­can Intel­lec­tu­al His­to­ry Soci­ety (AAIHS). His first book The Black­a­dem­ic Life: Aca­d­e­m­ic Fic­tion, High­er Edu­ca­tion, and the Black Intel­lec­tu­al is forth­com­ing from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Press.