The enduring symbols of Wall Street's fabled, turbulent history are inescapable on this walk through the epicenter of American capitalism.
Over there, at 23 Wall, is the former headquarters of J.P. Morgan's banking dynasty, its granite facade still scarred by pockmarks from a terrorist bomb that killed 33 people in 1920. A block away, a skyscraper at 48 Wall occupies the site of the city's first bank, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1784. Names like Rockefeller, Roosevelt and Goldman Sachs are invoked at almost every turn.
The past, as outlined during a recent three-hour Great Wall Street Crashes Walking Tour, takes on greater meaning in the current economic crisis — an ongoing story of boom and bust, bull markets and bailouts, recessions and recoveries. You're too late for the tour this year — they only offer it in October, historically the cruelest month on Wall Street. The October 1929 stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression and a decade of Dickensian deprivation for many Americans ended only with World War II.
However, put it on your calendar for 2009 if you're going to be in New York. Visitors to the museum Web site (www.moaf.org) can take a self-guided virtual tour.
"If we've learned anything from history, it is that history repeats itself," says Richard Warshauer, a real estate executive who founded the tour 20 years ago after the crash of 1987. His partner, James Kaplan, puts a more optimistic twist on that lesson: "Wall Street always comes back — every time there's been a crash, there's been a rebound. In order to have a rise, you have to have a fall."
On a rainy Saturday last month, Warshauer and Kaplan led some 30 people on the tour, beginning at the Museum of American Finance, itself an engrossing presentation of history from the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam to the modern Wall Street of glass and steel towers.
From the museum — which, appropriately, occupies the former banking hall of Hamilton's Bank of New York — the tour moves to various points of historical interest.
That includes the New York Stock Exchange, with its huge American flag over the facade; the statue of George Washington fronting the rebuilt Federal Hall where he took the first presidential oath in 1799; and the bomb-pocked House of Morgan. It's condos now.
As for the popular tales of ruined Wall Street investors leaping to their deaths in the Crash of 1929, Warshauer says he has "no definite evidence of people jumping out of windows — I suspect it has been exaggerated over the years."
That historical collapse was followed by a slight rise in the market, but by 1932 the economy had "really begun to deteriorate, and by 1933, one-fourth of all U.S. banks had failed," Kaplan said.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became president just as the Depression took hold, was a former Wall Street lawyer who Kaplan says "had never accomplished much," and "flailed around" before settling on actions to reinflate the economy — closing banks, setting up agencies to create jobs and taking bold steps to boost farm prices.
Other tour stops touch on the first Jewish immigrants to America in 1654 and the literal rags-to-riches tale of Marcus Goldman, a fabrics peddler who began dabbling in personal finance to help other small entrepreneurs, and with son-in-law Samuel Sachs and other relatives created what would become the investment powerhouse Goldman Sachs.