Lower Manhattan: Charging Bulls and Defiant Girls
At the very end of Lower Manhattan, NYC, the second last underground train station on the island before the trains turn left at South Ferry and head under the East River is Bowling Green. The name triggered a memory for me of an Everly Brothers’ song from 1967 but alas it was about Kentucky grass rather than a small park at the end of Broadway and New York’s financial district. Bowling Green is the oldest public park in NYC that is a small island of greenery before traffic and tourists reach Battery Park and catch ferries to visit the Statue of Liberty. It also has the cutest entrance to the underground rail line of any in the city! I wanted to visit this small park because it was where the controversial statue of a bronze charging bull eventually found a home.
The Charging Bull was created by an immigrant sculptor, Arturo Di Modica, who wanted to inspire those fighting hard times after the 1987 Market Crash. When finished it was illegally placed outside the New York Stock Exchange but was immediately removed by the police. There was a public debate and outcry over the merits of the bull and it was eventually installed at the pointy end of Bowling Green in December 1989.
The bull is a wonderfully dramatic piece of art and, despite being now a major tourist attraction, it continued to provoke controversy amongst the citizens of New York. In 2017, a small bronze statue called ‘Defiant Girl’ was set up, standing in front of the Charging Bull at the end of Bowling Green. It was meant to be a symbol of female empowerment, ready to promote International Women’s Day for that year. Again, this statue was a piece of great creative art but it had its origin in the workshops of an advertising agency hired by a Wall Street Stock Broker company. Its owners sought a one week permit to stand this statue in front of the Charging Bull and no doubt hoped the juxtaposition of small defiant girl in front of a supposed physical metaphor for out of control capitalism would promote their company’s fortunes. The piece was so popular that their permit was expanded to one year. The ‘Bull Artist’ was offended by the juxtaposition of the two art pieces and went to court arguing that the ‘Defiant Girl’ was exploiting his ‘Charging Bull’ for commercial purposes. Eventually the Council moved the Defiant Girl to vent her ire on masculine financial shenanigans in front of the New York stock exchange where she stood when we passed through the area in 2019. This surprising art controversy illustrates one key question about ‘Art’; whose meaning do we apply to an art piece, the artist’s or the viewers? Whilst Arturo Di Modica won his court battle, the Charging Bull’s symbolism had already escaped Bowling Green and was galloping along Broadway as the poster symbol for the Wall Street Protests of September 2011 illustrates.
Controversial art isn’t the only thing to consider when you visit Lower Manhattan. The small Bowling Green park sits in front of the National Museum of the American Indian and is a great place to visit. However most people heading in this direction have their eyes set on visiting New York’s most famous landmark, the Statue of Liberty. The ferry leaves from Battery Park which is just over the road from Bowling Green Station. Tickets for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty can be bought in the ticket office just inside one of major landmarks of Battery Park, Castle Clinton. If you are not fond of long queues, battery park itself is worth a slow casual stroll around, if only for the gardens and the great views out over New York Harbour.
The Battery as the area is called is a very important site in America’s history. The first inhabitants of the island were Lenape Native Americans who had inhabited the island for thousands of years. The first encounter with European explorers was in 1524 when the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano entered New York Harbour. It is a curious thought that when modern visitors make their way up from Battery Park through the skyscrapers of Broadway, they are following an original Lenape trail. The Dutch arrived in the early 1620s and built a fort here in 1623. It was an ineffective fort and the British took it over in 1664. There were various ‘artillery batteries’ constructed to defend the site and the current Castle Clinton is what is left of the Western Battery after the defences of the area were no longer needed after 1812.
The Battery has had many uses over the last three centuries, particularly being a centre for receiving immigrants to New York in the late 19th century before Ellis Island took over the job. There is a very moving memorial to such immigrants set up on one side of Castle Clinton today.
The other major site in the park is the World War II Coast Guard Memorial (1955) with its huge eagle and its concrete pylons of never-ending names of the casualties suffered in ships fighting in the Atlantic Ocean from the end of 1941 to 1945.
We were staying in an apartment in the Wall Street area so were lucky to be able to pass through Bowling Green and Battery Park at first light on each morning of our stay there. Exploring the pathways that run around the riverine edges of Lower Manhattan was a great way to start the day in New York.