The Lower Manhattan business district forms the core of the area below Chambers Street. It includes the Financial District (often referred to as Wall Street, after its primary artery) and the former site of the World Trade Center. At the island's southern tip is Battery Park; City Hall is just to the north of the Financial District. Also south of Chambers Street are the planned community of Battery Park City and the South Street Seaport historic area. The neighborhood of TriBeCa straddles Chambers on the west side; at the street's east end is the giant Manhattan Municipal Building. North of Chambers Street and the Brooklyn Bridge and south of Canal Street lies most of New York's oldest Chinatown neighborhood. Many court buildings and other government offices are also located in this area. The Lower East Side neighborhood straddles Canal. North of Canal and south of 14th Street are the neighborhoods of SoHo, the Meatpacking District, the West Village, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Nolita, and the East Village. Between 14th and 23rd streets are lower Chelsea, Union Square, the Flatiron District, Gramercy, and the large residential development Peter Cooper Village—Stuyvesant Town.
The Dutch established the first European settlements in Manhattan, which were located at the lower end of the island. The first fort was built at the Battery to protect New Netherland. In 1771, Bear Market was established along the Hudson shore on land donated by Trinity Church, and replaced by Washington Market in 1813, Washington Market was located between Barclay and Hubert Streets, and from Greenwich to West Street. The area remains one of the few parts of Manhattan where the street grid system is largely irregular. Throughout the early decades of the 1900s, the area experienced a construction boom, with major towers such as 40 Wall Street, the American International Building, Woolworth Building, and 20 Exchange Place being erected.
In the 1950s, a few new buildings were constructed in lower Manhattan, including an 11-story building at 156 William Street in 1955. A 27-story office building at 20 Broad Street, a 12-story building at 80 Pine Street, a 26-story building at 123 William Street, and a few others were built in 1957. By the end of the decade, lower Manhattan had become economically depressed, in comparison with midtown Manhattan, which was booming. David Rockefeller spearheaded widespread urban renewal efforts in lower Manhattan, beginning with construction One Chase Manhattan Plaza, the new headquarters for his bank. He established the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association (DLMA) which drew up plans for broader revitalization of lower Manhattan, with the development of a world trade center at the heart of these plans. The original DLMA plans called for the "world trade center" to be built along the East River, between Old Slip and Fulton Street. After negotiations with New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes, the Port Authority decided to build the World Trade Center on a site along the Hudson River and the West Side Highway, rather than the East River site.
Through much of its history, the area south of Chambers Street was mainly a commercial district, with a small population of residents—in 1960, it was home to about 4,000. Construction of Battery Park City, on landfill from construction of the World Trade Center, brought many new residents to the area. Gateway Plaza, the first Battery Park City development, was finished in 1983. The project's centerpiece, the World Financial Center, consists of four luxury highrise towers. By the turn of the century, Battery Park City was mostly completed, with the exception of some ongoing construction on West Street. Around this time, lower Manhattan reached its highest population of business tenants and full-time residents.
Since the early twentieth century, lower Manhattan has been an important center for the arts and leisure activities. Greenwich Village was a locus of bohemian culture from the first decade of the century through the 1980s. Several of the city's leading jazz clubs are still located in Greenwich Village, which was also one of the primary bases of the American folk music revival of the 1960s. Many art galleries were located in SoHo between the 1970s and early 1990s; today, the downtown Manhattan gallery scene is centered in Chelsea. From the 1960s onward, lower Manhattan has been home to many alternative theater companies, constituting the heart of the Off-Off-Broadway community. Punk rock and its derivatives emerged in the mid-1970s largely at two venues: CBGB on the Bowery, the western edge of the East Village, and Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South. At the same time, the area's surfeit of reappropriated industrial lofts played an integral role in the development and sustenance of the minimalist composition, free jazz, and disco/electronic dance music subcultures. The area's many nightclubs and bars—though mostly shorn of the freewheeling iconoclasm, pioneering spirit, and do-it-yourself mentality that characterized the pregentrification era—still draw patrons from throughout the city and the surrounding region. In the early twenty-first century, the Meatpacking District, once the sparsely populated province of after-hours BDSM clubs and transgendered prostitutes, gained a reputation as New York's trendiest neighborhood.
Among the commercial districts of Lower Manhattan was the now vanished Radio Row, which was located on Cortlandt Street at what became the site of the World Trade Center.