New York City History, Sept 04 | Uncovering Layers of Gotham’s History


On your next visit to the Big Apple, if you have read Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, you’ll walk down Canal Street knowing you’re traversing a filled-in canal, cross Pearl thinking of the piles of oyster shells that produced the name, realize Wall Street used to be the northern boundary wall of Nieuw Amsterdam, imagine the laundry girls of old on Maiden Lane, feel more at ease in the Bowery aware that bouwerie means “small farm” in Dutch, enjoy Broadway even more as Heere Wegh (Broad Way), look at the East River and remember Washington’s miraculous 1776 overnight ferrying of 10,000 to escape the British, and see the Hudson and imagine Washington returning by red-canopied barge eight years later the week before his 1784 presidential inauguration.

Perhaps the greatest book on our greatest city, Gotham saturates the reader with delectable details that make the mesmerizing city even more so. Gotham (“Goat’s Town” in old Anglo-Saxon ), a village near Nottingham in England, is best known for its townspeople faking idiocy to keep King John from confiscating their lands. Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow fame adopted Gotham for New York City in his Salamagundi papers. He also invented Diedrich Knickerbocker to narrate his sarcastic History of New York. NBA fans may also appreciate that the Knicks wear the Dutch royal colors of blue and orange.

Gotham fills in one’s sketchy high school knowledge of New Amsterdam from the original Lenape Indians to the first European sighting by Verrazzano to Henry Hudson’s wampum exchange to the authoritarian Petrus Stuyvesant. The most crucial Dutch legacy may be their inheritance laws, including marital communal property and equal portions to children, male and female, that later became the American norm, instead of English male primogeniture. Anyone who has sold property too soon may take solace in learning that in 1664, the Dutch West India Company traded New Netherland to the Duke of York for Surinam’s rich sugar plantations. Even when the Duke promptly “gave all of the colony between the Hudson and Delaware to two old [British] Civil War cronies” who called it New Jersey, the Brits obviously made the better deal. Anyone who has wished they had bought waterfront property 20 years ago may take some solace in knowing that many New York colonists did 200 years ago: DeLancey—most of the lower East side, Rutgers—100 acres north of De Lancey, Murray—Murray Hill area, Beekman—most of the east 50s, Clement Clarke Moore (author of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”)—Chelsea, Astor—anything and everything, and King’s College (later Columbia)—30 acres west of 5th Avenue (later Rockefeller Center). It is hard today to imagine that Bowling Green was the best address, and later Union Square, but Burrows and Wallace magnificently chronicle society’s northward trend through the decades, as well as the civil concerns of education, police, fire protection, water supply, sanitation, and street-planning.

What really began New York’s wealth was the sugar trade. Caribbean island land was too valuable planted as sugar to waste on other food, so upstate vegetables, dairy, and flour were delivered there more economically than from England. The westerlies made London to New York a tough beat, so much so that colonial FedEx meant a drop-box for transatlantic mail that was picked up every two years, down to 60 days with the invention of the steam engine. New York’s deep harbor soon eclipsed Boston and Philadelphia, and later the Erie Canal made for rapid food and coal delivery from the west. Even though the Revolution disrupted trade, the Napoleonic Wars so distracted Europe that for 15 years till the War of 1812, most international shipping was American. The antebellum years saw city financiers taking 40 cents of every cotton dollar, due both to loans to southern planters and to English preference for trading its goods for cotton at a port with the highest consumer demand. After the Civil War, entrepreneurs like Morgan, Frick, Carnegie, Gould, Vanderbilt, and Harriman made New York the undisputed world king of capital.

New York was almost America’s seat of government as well. Lower Manhattan was being considered for the Federal District, when Thomas Jefferson brokered a deal between the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who wanted America’s war debt nationalized, and Republican James Madison, who wanted a southern location for the nation’s capital, away from the bad influence of New York’s love of luxury and entertainment. So the governmental center of America was separated from her cultural and economic core, unlike the great European capitals of London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin, and Vienna. As Abigail Adams said when the government was moving to Philadelphia for ten years while the then-named Federal City was being built on the Potomac, “When all is said and done, it will not be Broadway.”