Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: St. Paul's Chapel and The Half Moon

You know how they say there's something about autumn in New York? Well, perhaps there is a little something unusual about this season in our coastal city. Events of great significance seem to happen in lower Manhattan in early September, leading me to wonder if there isn't some sort of geographical and temporal convergence here on the Eastern seaboard at a latitude of 40.74°N.

Now, not to get silly, but there are certain places around this town with a little more presence than others. I'm not talking about the gaping hole in the ground where everyone is gathered today. I am talking about a small, pretty structure that lives right next door: St. Paul's Chapel.

St. Paul's has its back to Broadway; its entrance faces west onto its own compact churchyard, giving it an air of separateness from the city. There is a distinct feeling of peace in that churchyard, and the long-standing building, the oldest in lower Manhattan, is unique for having survived the many disasters that felled its Colonial neighbors. Inside it looks more like a baroque drawing room than a Protestant church, all pale blues and pastels and crystal chandeliers -- you wouldn't be surprised to see Cupids cavorting on the ceiling -- giving it a light, airy, and distinctly non-oppressive, non-denominational feel. In other words, you are not overwhelmed with religiosity. Now a surviving Colonial building may not seem like much unless you know what has happened in lower Manhattan over the years - for instance, a great fire in 1835 destroyed nearly everything. (Trinity Church, in contrast, has been destroyed and rebuilt twice.) And St. Paul's location right next to the twin towers is positively astonishing -- the towers turned into huge columns of ash and St. Paul's survived with nary a crystal of its chandeliers shattered. Only its pipe organ was damaged by dust, rendered unplayable, and a single tree -- one tree -- was felled.

The chapel now is the most vivid and moving memorial to 9-11 that exists in this city; simple displays of the cots used to shelter rescue workers as they sifted through the wreckage are still set up in the aisles, accompanied by handwritten notes of thanks. Somehow, between the strange, quiet, steady peacefulness of the church and churchyard, and these simple monuments to thanks and grace, St. Paul's gave me pause in a way that few other places in New York ever have. There is a steadiness to this place, an uninterrupted steadfastness, that quietly yet firmly whispers to you as you walk through, "This is our church. And our city. And no one will disturb it." Gazing at the front of the building from the strangely silent churchyard (where did all that street noise go?) you can believe the chapel is sternly warning you, daring you to touch it or its island's inhabitants. It's almost intimidating. This tiny, unostentatious chapel will not be moved. You don't see a lot a buildings so obstinate. St. Paul's, I think, will always watch out for this city.

Another important September 11, of course, was 1609. History nerds will be celebrating the voyage of the Half Moon today, without which New York would never have been colonized and we wouldn't have all those charming Dutch names peppering our streets and lexicons (Bowery, stoop). I'm rather fond of Henry Hudson myself, the strange man who overtaxed his crew in this relentless search for the Northwest Passage until they finally mutinied and dumped him in the freezing waters of Hudson Bay. I have to admire that kind of singlemindedness, and of course the tragic eloquence of all those explorers who searched desperately for passages that were never found, and died before the world was fully mapped. What can I say, I love stories of human failure. But wait -- a kind of posthumous vindication may have finally come to the captain of the Half Moon. Today on the cover of the New York Times I read the following headline: Arctic Shortcut, Long a Dream, Beckons Shippers as Ice Thaws.

See Henry? All you had to do was wait for the ice to melt. Now you know what would be really ironic? All that sea ice washing over our little archipelago and swallowing us whole. But that won't happen for many Septembers, I think.

1 comment:

P.L. Kerpius said...

This is really lovely, Andrea. Thanks for such a sweet history lesson. Let's take a trip to St. Paul's when I'm back home!