Watching the boats bobbing along on the Hudson River under slate-grey skies that sulk and sneer is enough to give you seasickness. And it begs a bigger question too – are they all at sea or are we? Manhattan is an island – you forget that – but in many ways it makes more sense to think of it as a ship slicing south, with Lower Manhattan its proud prow. This is the start of New York geographically and historically, the part where frigates first arrived and still arrive, packed with commuters in their modern incarnation. But from those ships, looking back at dry land, the island itself reminds you of a liner, the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan rising up like decks, populated by the rich and the suave.

Strangeness and contrasts: these are the most intoxicating gifts a city can deliver. New York? No doubt as a seasoned traveller you knew it already – its cup runneth over. But Lower Manhattan is a seething, super-powered barrel of contrasts and contradictions, topped off with some curious sights and intriguing secrets.

From the stairwells inside Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Gallery of Modern American Art to the bright red illuminated ‘W’ atop the eponymous hotel over the Hudson River in Hoboken which is lit up like some kind of call to Batman. The art inside the galleries at the Whitney also hints at the everyday American heroics and weirdness of Batman, such as Robert Bechtle’s surreal and sublime painting, ’61 Pontiac, which depicts an American family huddled in front of a car; it’s a painting but looks like a photograph.

But back to those contrasts: they bring Lower Manhattan to life. One lunchtime I eat fried chicken down in the Whitney’s restaurant (a Danny Meyer joint called Untitled) with friends. As we stuff our faces everything seems on pause, you don’t notice what’s around you, you just live. But just few days later I’m wandering south along the Hudson River seashore and it’s the total opposite. I’m concentrating on everything around me – alone but not quite lost, a lonely face in a crowd. I watch couples hunkering against the cold, dog walkers, kids bouncing basketballs. I notice the posters for DJ sets ripped off walls, the fast-food outlets with their neon lights, the serene apartment blocks where the well-heeled recline.

Lower Manhattan is the elemental essence of New York City, and perhaps of America itself. It’s about life and death. New life, new people – everything has been new here for centuries. Immigrants arrived via Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and then made landfall here if they were allowed into the US. Their memories linger. The Irish Hunger Memorial is a pile-up or rocks and grasses that evoke Ireland. It all speaks of horrible times when the people starved and when New York seemed like a way out of the mire. I’d been before but couldn’t resist another turn round its spooky pathways, but the Memorial was shut for restoration work on my chilly December visit and will re-open around spring 2017– a must-visit for the year ahead.

A bigger memorial stands nearby – the National September 11 Memorial. The World Trade Center dominated Lower Manhattan, but now its two square footprints are black holes. You can’t see the point at which the water tumbles down beyond the horizon – it could fall right to the earth’s core for all you can see. The depth of the memorial evokes the depth of horror the city felt back in 2001. But life goes on, humans are the most resilient of species. We build because we offer ourselves and our ideas to history, we have children because we believe in the future. New York represents new life, a new world, new hope. New buildings are rising up in Lower Manhattan, like the Oculus, Santiago Calatrava’s crazy cathedral of commerce (a shopping centre which doubles up as a subway station) which looks like a bony ribcage of a dinosaur dug up and put on display. But it’s supposed to evoke a clean, concrete future for Lower Manhattan, which has been a building site for more than 15 years – though not through its own choice.

One World Trade Center is the shiny skyscraper which replaced the World Trade Center towers. It probes the sky and is the same colour as the sky on sunny days. It’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere but there are weirder skyscrapers just round the corner. I revisit 33 Thomas Street, a building I’m familiar with because I wrote about it in a book about brutalist architecture in 2015. It’s the strangest skyscraper in New York because it’s 29 stories tall and, unlike the glassy One World Trade Center, has no windows. Inside its buff atomic bomb-proof walls lie telecoms equipment, and possibly some spies listening into phone calls – if recent revelations are true. Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke released a new film about this strange building called Project X which was released just a few days before I went to look at it again.

Down on Wall Street there’s nothing hidden. It’s packed with people who make money from money. There’s a strange feeling in the air – Donald Trump has just been elected. But the men in suits soldier on, drink on, speak loudly on into their mobile phones. Taxis honk, steam genuinely rises from manhole covers, policewomen blow their whistles to tell cars to move, cigarettes and exhaust fumes overwhelm, the sound of loud voices echo around me, shoppers carrying Bloomingdales bags bundle towards subway stations, past hotdog carts which reek of meat and sweat.

It’s time for some calm. I find it at the Conrad Hotel where Sol De Witt’s ten-storey tapestry ‘Loopy Doopy’ adds stillness and refinement to the huge atrium. From my bedroom I look back down on the Irish Hunger Memorial, back out to the Hudson and the bobbing boats. The light is fading, the temperature dropping, the streets thinning. But Lower Manhattan will switch itself back on tomorrow, and every day after that. It’s that kind of place.

Main image courtesy of Westfield.

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