A German zeppelin appears to float above the Woolworth Building in 1928.
A German zeppelin appears to float above the Woolworth Building in 1928.Herbert Orth—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
A German zeppelin appears to float above the Woolworth Building in 1928.
View of the Brooklyn Bridge w. the Manhattan skyline in the bkgrd.
The Downtown Skyport with two amphibious planes readying for take-off, 1937.
An aerial view, from the south, of Lower Manhattan, Governor's Island, the harbor, the Hudson and East Rivers and New York City's surroundings, 1939.
The Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline, 1939.
Aerial view of the Lower West Side of Manhattan, Battery Park and the waterfront, 1939.
Exterior view of the Aquarium in Battery Park.
The old Fulton Fish Market, then the biggest in the world, seen through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, 1941.
View of the Lower Manhattan skyline as seen from the roof of the Hotel Bossert ("the Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn") on Montague Street in Brooklyn, 1943.
Pedestrians walk down Nassau Street past the Federal Reserve Building, 1944. The New York Stock Exchange can be glimpsed at the foot of the image.
Tangled streamers and confetti thrown by people celebrating the end of the war in Europe litter headstones and the grounds of Trinity Church's venerable cemetery at the foot of Wall Street, 1945.
Celebrating the end of the Second World War in Europe, Lower Manhattan, 1945.
Birds-eye view of Lower Manhattan looking southeast towards Battery Park with Ellis Island beyond and the New Jersey waterfront in the distance, 1945.
An aerial view of Battery Park and out across the sunlit waters of New York Harbor, 1946.
Lower Manhattan as seen from across the Hudson River, 1946.
Lower Manhattan and beyond as seen from the rooftop of a building on Staten Island, 1946.
Freighters in the East River, 1946.
The Brooklyn Bridge and, beyond, the skyline of Lower Manhattan, 1948.
The Brooklyn Bridge arches toward Lower Manhattan, 1948.
Men unload coffee at a Brooklyn dock with Lower Manhattan visible in the background, 1949.
Lower Manhattan in the fog, 1950.
Trinity Church, Lower Manhattan, 1962.
Aerial view of Manhattan with the new, nearly completed World Trade Center's Twin Towers dominating the southern rim of the island, 1971.
Aboard the Staten Island Ferry with the Twin Towers rising in the background, 1971.
Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1983 portrait of the Twin Towers, taken from across the East River and beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
World Trade Center's Twin Towers 1973
A German zeppelin appears to float above the Woolworth Building in 1928.
Herbert Orth—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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Lower Manhattan: Where New York Was Born

Updated: Sep 08, 2016 10:19 AM ET | Originally published: Aug 10, 2013

What can anyone say about New York City that has not already been expressed by Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorca, Whitman, Lou Reed, Langston Hughes, Martin Scorsese, Patti Smith, Kurtis Blow and a thousand other writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters and, yes, photographers? Like London, Paris, Rome and a handful of other great cities, Gotham seems to consciously challenge artists of every stripe to somehow convey even a sliver of the ceaseless, panoramic multiverse it contains—while confronting the poet, painter, filmmaker and photographer with a living tableau that, by its nature, defies definition.

And still . . . every day, in every medium, men and women address the world of New York, hoping to somehow witness and share something of its great spirit.

Does the New York that Whitman celebrated in Leaves of Grass ("The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!. . . my city!") bear any resemblance to the melancholic landscape Lou Reed evoked in "Perfect Day" or the intoxicating dystopia Scorsese and Schrader brought to life in Taxi Driver? Of course it does—in that these and countless other visions of New York have forged the complex, contradictory idea of the city that most of us carry around in our minds and our hearts.

[See a LightBox feature on Mohawk ironworkers rebuilding the New York skyline]

Henry Groskinsky—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

For those of us who were in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and for billions more who watched 9/11 unfold on TV and online, that 20th-century idea—of what the city meant to New Yorkers and to the rest of the world—will likely never hold sway again. It has been changed, changed utterly.

Moreover, for some who witnessed the 2001 attacks on New York—and on the Pentagon and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania—the scale of the carnage in Lower Manhattan transformed the entire city, in an instant, from a place they called home to a ruin they had to leave behind forever.

For countless others, the love we always had for New York only grew stronger after seeing it so savagely attacked. Our connection to the city, and to other New Yorkers, now had about it a sense of defiance coupled with a kind of rough tenderness: the metropolis that had always felt so huge and indomitable suddenly seemed painfully vulnerable and in need of protection. Our protection.

Here, LIFE.com pays tribute to New York—specifically, to the storied landscape of Lower Manhattan, where 400 years ago New York was born—in photographs made in the decades before the Twin Towers anchored the foot of the island. Wall Street, Battery Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, Trinity Church, the Statue of Liberty and the vast, shimmering harbor—they're all here: landmarks that, despite everything, retain their place in the collective imagination, captured by some of the finest photographers of the 20th century.

WATCH an audio slideshow of this LIFE.com gallery:

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