National Park Units of Lower Manhattan: Castle Clinton National Monument

On Sunday, March 1, 2020, Sean and I spent the day eating, drinking, seeing old friends, and going to the theater again. We also visited one more National Park Unit, Castle Clinton National Monument at the lower tip of Manhattan. Of course we could not have known then that this would be the last unit we’d visit before a global pandemic set in, making it also the last unit we’d visit in 2020 or the foreseeable future.

But that day, we didn’t know what was to come.

Sean curates our dining when we travel, and he was keen to visit Balthasar for brunch, particularly after it was featured on Bon Appetit. We had been feeling lazy after a busy previous day, so we were slow to leave the hotel and were running about ten minutes late for our reservation.

But soon we were seated in a cozy corner looking out at the din and glow of the restaurant’s large, mirrored dining room.

Our brunch was an extravaganza of cinnamon buns, eggs Florentine, puff pastry, crème brûlée, and cocktails.

Image: Sean M. Santos

After brunch, we briefly considered visiting the Tenement Museum, but decided that we’d be giving it short shrift since we already had afternoon plans with Jay, Tara, and the girls. So instead we hopped on the subway and headed up to the TKTS booth at Times Square so see if we could score tickets to a show for that evening.

Not having done the half price booth in many years, I’d forgotten that they’d still be focusing on the matinee performances, not the evening. So there we were in Times Square (on March 1, 2020…yikes) with a bit of time to kill but not enough time to check out a museum or anything. Since the day was warm and sunny and lovely, we decided to walk back down to Lower Manhattan and enjoy the day.

And so we did, walking four miles down Broadway to Stone Street Tavern.

White-Throated Sparrow

On the way, we stumbled upon a delightful shop called Evolution, which felt like an old timey laboratory.

We were running a bit late and warm from our walk when we arrived at Stone Street.

Image: Tara Czechowski Savage

Tucked into a large booth at the rear of Stone Street Tavern, we found Jay, Tara, Vivien, and Cora. Jay and I had gone to school together at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where we’d both been in the honors program and worked as consultants at the campus writing center.

We’d not seen them since they were in Chicago for our wedding in 2015 so we had a lot of lovely catching up to do.

We didn’t know it then, but the afternoon turned out to be something of a prelude to being more regularly in touch during the pandemic, which has been delightful and much needed.

After lunch (second brunch?), we strolled to Battery Park, a personal favorite of Jay, with the goal of checking out Castle Clinton National Monument.

But first, we needed to take a ride on the odd and charming indoor psychedelic fish carousel.

Image: Tara Czechowski Savage

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Tara Czechowski Savage

Video: Sean M. Santos and Brandon Hayes

Image: Tara Czechowski Savage

Castle Clinton National Monument protects a fort that was one of five built to protect New York Harbor from the British during the War of 1812.

As the fort protecting Manhattan Island—thereby further from the Atlantic from the other four—it did not see action during the war.

After the war, it began a 150-year history of extremely varied uses. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was reconfigured as Castle Garden, a popular theater/concert hall in Battery Park.

From 1855-1890, Castle Garden served as the major port of entry for immigrants on the east coast of the United States, a use it would ultimately relinquish to Ellis Island as the nineteenth century drew to a close.

Next, the structure was renovated to become the New York City Aquarium.

After the aquarium moved to Coney Island in 1941, New York’s city council voted no fewer than six times to demolish the structure. Two of those votes to demolish happened after Congress passed legislation, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946, to establish Castle Clinton National Monument. In 1950, the federal government acquired Castle Clinton from New York City and began a major restoration project to revert the structure back to its original appearance as a fort.

Now Castle Clinton serves as the gateway (literally) to visits to much more famous National Park sites in the harbor, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

It wasn’t immediately obvious where the passport stamp was located, so we asked a surly Park Ranger. We ended up going into a little office, and the girls got to see Sean and me stamp our passports.

Part of the original retaining wall that marked the end of Manhattan.

Having read all the interpretive signs, we strolled back out through gates that had been the entryway to America for two generations of immigrants.

Someone had had quite enough of history, thank you.

We wandered back across Battery Park in the late winter late afternoon.

Of course a group of six cradle Catholics strolling about in Lower Manhattan is drawn to a shrine…

We said goodbye to our friends at just about 5pm and then hopped on the one train back towards Times Square. We noted a distracted mother not noticing her toddler literally licking the subway pole. We’d use it as a “haha better watch out for viruses” joke back in Chicago for about a week and a half before brutal reality made it stale.

At the TKTS booth, we scored wonderful (seventh row orchestra) seats to To Kill a Mockingbird. Then we headed off into midtown to kill some time, find a restroom, have a snack before curtain.

We ended up at Rockefeller Center and watched the last gasp of ice skating for a bit.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Video: Sean M. Santos

We split a cheese plate and had a couple glasses of wine at Morrell Wine Bar. Then we walked over to the Shubert Theatre.

We were seeing a new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, penned by Aaron Sorkin. The production, which opened in December 2018, was already a huge hit and the highest-grossing straight play in Broadway history.

We went in and took our seats. The woman to Sean’s right was wearing a fabulous church hat for her night out.

The original cast, led by Jeff Daniels and Tony-winner Celia Keenan Bolger, had departed the run in November. The current cast was led by Ed Harris as a Atticus Finch. The vast majority of the cast had taken over their roles together. They had even rehearsed the show with director Bartlett Sher to truly make the performances their own before taking over in November 2019.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Harper Lee’s pulitzer prize-winning novel is beloved and widely read in America’s high schools. The film starring Gregory Peck is justly famous. But Sorkin’s adaptation argues persuasively for the durability of To Kill a Mockingbird, giving the text a read with a specific point of view for our time. Unsurprisingly Sorkin relishes the court case that serves as the story’s centerpiece. Everything in his script revolves around the murder trial of obviously innocent Tom Robinson.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The choice to focus so squarely on the trial keeps the action of the play tight and the pacing brisk. Sorkin declines to present a portrait of Maycomb, Alabama, so that the many neighbor characters of the novel, particularly the women and their social world that motherless Scout navigates trepidatiously, are notably absent. The only time we see one of the neighborhood ladies is when Jem has his run-in with the deeply bigoted Mrs. Dubose.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Focusing on the trial rather than the texture of the neighborhood (even the children’s fascination with Boo Radley feels like an afterthought) foregrounds the male characters in a story written by a woman from a young girl’s point of view. This shift shifts the attention of audience to Jem Finch, rather than Scout. Scout here is also no longer the narrator as all three children, Dill Harris joining the Finch siblings, take turn declaiming exposition or commenting on the action to the audience.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

While the shift in gender perspective works in the context of the play, it ensures that Sorkin’s is not a definitive stage version and leaves room for future adaptation and interpretation, preferably by women.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The lack of any nostalgia for depression-era small town Alabama sharpens the dispute between Atticus and Calpurnia, which the script purposefully underscores. In Sorkin’s version, Atticus’s faith in his neighbors is naive. Calpurnia gives voice to what we can see from a vantage point sixty years after the novel and eighty-five years after the events it depicts: the good white people of Maycomb are not going to change of their own volition from being violent racists no matter how much Atticus believes in their inherent goodness and persuadability.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Ed Harris’s Atticus is deeply human, clearly in over his head as a widower raising two small children. His friendship with and deep reliance on LisaGay Hamilton’s Calpurnia only increases the tension of their disagreement. Where Gregory Peck’s Atticus on film was a bulwark of resigned decency, Harris is more doubtful, the Judge’s request that he defend Tom Robinson is a weight and a strain. Harris is a wiry and physical actor, which is also a refreshing take on Atticus. Both he and his antithesis, Ewell, thrum with energy, which highlights the similarities of men in ways that resonate. Harris is not a tall man, another departure from Peck and even from Jeff Daniels, his predecessor in the role, both of whom stood 6’3″ and could command the courtroom through stature alone. Even Nick Robinson, the adult actor who plays Jem, has some four inches on Harris. Harris instead commands the courtroom and the stage with a rich and dynamic physicality. His is a flawed Atticus at human scale and the performance is richer for it.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The adult actors who play the children are excellent. Matching Harris, each uses their physical performances to embody their characters without veering into overplaying their childishness.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Taylor Trensch’s Dill is the standout. Trensch, whose previous broadway appearances have included Dear Evan Hansen and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, is well experienced at playing awkward juvenile characters. His Dill is wholly different than I’d ever pictured the character, shabbier and more affecting.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Ultimately, everything in this production works. It makes the persuasive case that Atticus Finch is wrong in his conviction that human decency is all that is needed to move the world forward into tolerance and freedom. It sharpens Lee’s critique. And it reminds us that the law and the bravery of one individual—particularly one white man—are not nearly enough.

Production Photo: Julieta Cervantes

We were lucky to see this marvelous, cohesive cast. Ed Harris’s short run in the show was already set to end on April 19 before it was cut even shorter by the closure of Broadway eleven days after we stood with the rest of the audience to deliver a much-deserved standing ovation.

We lingered in the theater after it was over along with some other audience members who were as moved as we’d been. Then we headed back down once more to our hotel.

Next morning, Monday, March 2, we slept in. We’d purposely booked a return flight for the afternoon, and we’d asked for late checkout, so we had time to be leisurely about packing up and wandering through the neighborhood to find some coffee shop breakfast sandwiches before heading back to LGA.

The airport was a bit of a mess. Some sort of power outage had caused all of American Airlines’ computers to crash, so instead of standing in an epically long line to check our bags, we carried them on instead. The gate agents were working the flight by hand, and it’s to their credit that they got us out on time.

Photo: Sean M. Santos

But we did run into our friend Milton, a pilot with American Eagle, who was taking our flight to get home to Chicago.

We gazed down on a city that likely already had 10,000 cases of COVID-19 and was about to explode into a grisly early wave of the ongoing horror we still live in.

We returned to a Chicago oblivious that it would face lockdown in nineteen days.

But when we got home, Elsa was pleased to see us.

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