The origin of many a great city lies swaddled in myth and legend.
In Nepal, so the story goes, there was once a mountain valley filled with a turquoise lake, in the middle of which floated a thousand-petaled lotus flower. From it emanated a radiant blue light—a manifestation of the primordial Buddha—and the devout came from near and far to meditate upon the flower. At first they had to live in caves along the shore, but then the sage Manjushri flew down from the north and sliced through the southern valley wall with his flaming sword of wisdom, draining the lake and allowing the city of Kathmandu to rise upon the valley floor.
In Meso-America, according to another urban origin myth, the Aztecs departed their ancestral home and wandered south for centuries, searching for the sign priests had prophesied would reveal their new homeland. Finally, guided by Huitzilopochtli, the Hummingbird God, they reached Lake Texcoco, where, as foretold, an eagle perched on a cactus was devouring a serpent. There the Aztecs built Tenochtitlán, the precursor of Mexico City.
Many European metropoles also traced their beginnings to wandering and divinely guided heroes. Aeneas, Virgil tells us in the Aeneid, led a group of Trojan War survivors to the mouth of the Tiber. There he founded Lavinium, parent town of Alba Longa, from whence Romulus and Remus—offspring of the war god Mars—would later go forth to found the city of Rome. Londoners, too, long believed their metropolis had been established by a group of exiled Trojans and called their ur-London Trinovantum (New Troy). Lisbon, according to Portuguese tradition, was begun by Ulysses himself. The citizens of Athens were thus unusual in believing themselves autochthonous—sprung, as Homer claimed in the Iliad, from the soil itself. “Other cities, founded on the whim of the dice, are imported from other cities,” the playwright Euripides had one of his characters say pridefully, but Athenians “did not immigrate from some other place; we are born of our earth.”
“THE THRICE RENOWNED AND DELECTABLE CITY OF GOTHAM”
These origin stories celebrated the founding of urban civilizations as epic acts. Each narrative provided its city with a symbolic bedrock, conferring upon the citizenry a sense of legitimacy, purpose, identity. The cities Europeans built in the New World, however, were of too recent a vintage to allow for legendary beginnings, a fact Washington Irving bemoaned when he sat down to write A History of New York (1809). Irving regretted that his town was bereft of the imaginative associations “which live like charms and spells about the cities of the old world, binding the heart of the native inhabitant to his home.” Indeed Irving found New Yorkers sadly disconnected from their past; few of his fellow citizens “cared a straw about their ancient Dutch progenitors” or even knew the town had once been called New Amsterdam.
In the very opacity of Manhattan’s origin, however, Irving discerned a literary opportunity. Its annals were open, “like the early and obscure days of ancient Rome, to all the embellishments of heroic fiction.” Irving decided to portray his native city as “having an antiquity thus extending back into the regions of doubt and fable.” He would piece together a saga out of local memories and written records, supplemented with the workings of his lively imagination, and provide New York an epic pedigree, one that ran “from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.”
In truth, Irving’s History is a cheeky mock-epic, a potpourri of fact and fiction that plays knowingly and ironically with myth and history. Its invented narrator, the pedantic and pompous Diedrich Knickerbocker, envies his predecessors “Dan Homer and Dan Virgil” for being able to summon up “waggish deities” to descend to earth and “play their pranks, upon its wondering inhabitants.” So Knickerbocker spins a foundation story of his own, a takeoff on a tale Virgil tells in the Aeneid of how Queen Dido tricked Libyans out of the land on which she founded Carthage. The Dutch, Knickerbocker says, struck an “adroit bargain” with the local Indians by asking “for just so much land as a man could cover with his nether garments,” then producing Mynheer Ten Broeck (Mr. Ten Breeches) as the man whose underwear would be so deployed. The “simple savages,” Knickerbocker goes on, “whose ideas of a man’s nether garments had never expanded beyond the dimensions of a breech-clout, stared with astonishment and dismay as they beheld this bulbous-bottomed burgher peeled like an onion, and breeches after breeches spread forth over the land until they covered the actual site of this venerable city.”
Irving had begun his efforts at coining a lineage for New York in the Salmagundi papers (1807), a set of sardonic essays, penned with two equally irreverent and youthful colleagues, in which he affixed the name Gotham to his city. Repeatedly Salmagundireferred to Manhattan as the “antient city of Gotham,” or “the wonder loving city of Gotham.” In the context of the pieces—mocking commentaries on the mores of fashionable New Yorkers—the well-known name of Gotham served to underscore their depiction of Manhattan as a city of self-important and foolish people.
Gotham—which in old Anglo-Saxon means “Goats’ Town”—was (and still is) a real village in the English county of Nottinghamshire, not far from Sherwood Forest. But Gotham was also a place of fable, its inhabitants proverbial for their folly. Every era singles out some location as a spawning ground of blockheads—Phrygians were accounted the dimwits of Asia, Thracians the dullards of ancient Greece—and in the Middle Ages Gotham was the butt of jokes about its simpleminded citizens, perhaps because the goat was considered a foolish animal.
The Gothamite canon, which had circulated orally since the twelfth century, was eventually printed up in jest books, the first being Merie Tales of the mad men of Gotam (c. 1565). It included such thigh-slappers as the one about the man who rode to market on horseback carrying two heavy bushels of wheat—upon his own shoulders, in order not to burden his mount. Another tells of the man of Gotham who, late with a rent payment to his landlord, tied his purse to a quick-footed hare, which ran away.
Manhattanites would not likely have taken up a nickname so laden with pejorative connotations—even one bestowed by New York’s most famous writer—unless it had redeeming qualities, and indeed some of the tales cast Gothamites in a far more flattering light. In the early 1200s—went the most famous such story—King John traveled regularly throughout England with a retinue of knights and ladies, and wherever the royal foot touched earth became forever after a public highway (i.e., the King’s). One day, John was heading to Nottingham by way of Gotham, and he dispatched a herald to announce his arrival. The herald reported back that the townspeople had refused the king entry, fearing the loss of their best lands. The enraged monarch sent an armed party to wreak vengeance, but the townsfolk had prepared a scheme to turn aside John’s wrath. When the knights arrived, they found the inhabitants engaged in various forms of idiotic painting green apples red; trying to drown an eel in a pool of water; dragging carts atop barns to shade the wood from the sun; and fencing in a cuckoo. The chortling knights reported back to the monarch that the townsfolk were clearly mad, and John accordingly spared them.
The people of Gotham, according to another of the tales, reasoned that as spring disappears when the cuckoo flies away, capturing the bird would ensure the season’s eternal duration. They therefore corralled a cuckoo—in a roofless fence—and when summer came, it flew away. This image is taken from a 1630 edition of the Merie Tales. (General Research, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
This rival variant—that Gothamites merely acted silly to gain their ends—was reflected in the old English saying “More fools pass through Gotham than remain in it” (and echoed in Shakespeare’s depiction of Edgar in Lear, “this fellow’s wise enough to play the fool”). It was doubtless this more beguiling—if tricksterish—sense of Gotham that Manhattanites assumed as an acceptable nickname.*
THE $24 QUESTION
Irving’s pseudo-classical foundation story never passed into popular lore, but a simpler version did, and it too plays with the notion of New York as a city of tricksters. Encapsulated in a sentence, it asserts: the Dutch bought Manhattan from the Indians for twenty-four dollars. For a century and a half now, this story, like all proper myths, has been transmitted from generation to generation, through all the capillaries of official and popular culture—by schoolteachers and stand-up comics alike—and to this day is well known to New Yorkers young and old, and even to many far from the Hudson’s shore.
On its face, the twenty-four-dollar story is not a legend on the order of, or in the same dramatic league as, that of Kathmandu or Rome. Nor is it mythic in the commonplace sense of being readily proved false. Though no deed of sale exists, the event is generally accepted as having taken place. In a 1626 letter, a Dutch merchant reported he had just heard, from ship passengers newly disembarked from New Netherland, that representatives of the West India Company had “purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.” In 1846, using then-current exchange rates, a New York historian converted this figure into twenty-four U.S. dollars. In 1877, another historian asserted (on the basis of no apparent evidence) that the sum had been paid over in “beads, buttons, and other trinkets.”
What gives the story its legendary quality is the host of meanings attached to the event, starting with the notion—smuggled in via the word “purchased”—that the “Island Manhattes” was a piece of property that could be owned and transferred. This was a European conception, and whatever transpired in 1626 was almost certainly understood by the local side in a profoundly different way.
More to the point, the tale is almost always recounted with glee. What tickles the tellers is that the Dutch conned the Indians into handing over—in exchange for a handful of worthless trinkets—what became the most valuable piece of real estate in the world. There’s racial condescension here, with primitive savages dazzled by baubles of civilization. There’s urban conceit as well: New Yorkers love yarns about city slickers scamming rural suckers. The selling of the Brooklyn Bridge to country bumpkins is another staple of local lore. But the twenty-four-dollar hustle stands alone. It is our Primal Deal.
One can also recognize the tale’s mythic dimension in its invulnerability to carping critics and deconstructionists. It’s possible, for example, to raise an eyebrow at the figure’s imperviousness to inflation. If recalculated in current dollars, with the conversion rate pegged to the quantity of gold in the early-seventeenth-century guilder, the sum would come out—so Amsterdam’s Nederlandsche Bank tells us—to $669.42. Yet, a variable-rate myth being a contradiction in terms, the purchase price remains forever frozen at twenty-four dollars.
Still, even $669.42 is a bargain basement price by today’s standards, and in contemporary Dutch terms, too, sixty guilders was a trifling sum. In 1628, by way of comparison, the capture of a single Spanish treasure fleet netted fifteen million guilders. This fact cannot be gainsaid by indulging in “what if” financial legerdemain, as do those who suggest that if the Indians had invested their twenty-four dollars at 6 percent interest for three and a half centuries they would now have, before adjusting for inflation, somewhere in the vicinity of sixty-two billion dollars, a figure more in line with current Manhattan real estate prices.
A more cogent objection to the “great steal” scenario notes that the values were in fact incommensurable. When the Dutch “bought” Staten Island, we know, they paid for it in axes, hoes, needles, awls, scissors, knives, and kettles. If similar trade goods were involved in the Manhattan arrangement, then the Dutch were engaged in high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness in tasks ranging from clearing land to drilling wampum.
More telling still, it appears from a later repurchase agreement that the people who made the original arrangement didn’t live in Manhattan and so were in no position to offer up even use-rights or visiting privileges. Perhaps it was the credulous Europeans who got skinned.
But once again mere facts are beside the point. The story, like all good myths, has easily resisted such assaults because it ratifies the popular conviction that deal driving and sharp practice and moneymaking and real estate lie somewhere near the core of New York’s genetic material.
The twenty-four-dollar story is also mythically akin to Aztec and Roman fables in bestowing on New York a fundamental legitimacy. It proclaims a city whose acquisition was based not on conquest but on contract. As another local historian put it in 1898: “It was an honest, honorable transaction worthily inaugurating the trade and traffic of America’s mercantile and financial capital; satisfying the instincts of justice and equality in the savage breast.”
Here, quite apart from the underlying implication that history didn’t begin until the Europeans arrived, the myth glosses over uncomfortable realities. It is true and important that in North America the Dutch preferred purchase to pillage. But they were prompted less by ethical niceties than by realistic appraisals of the Indians’ superior strength and their indispensability as trade partners. The Dutch, however, were no shrinking tulips: when their power waxed and their need waned, they would engage in ferocious wars of conquest, and Indian heads would roll—quite literally—down Bowling Green.
Finally, however, as is usually the case with myths and legends, the notion that New York is rooted in a commercial transaction gets at a deeper kind of truth.
New York would not become a warrior city, living by raids on its hinterland. Even when centuries later it emerged as an imperial center, it was never a military stronghold. True, the most prominent building in the Dutch town was a fort. But it was never much of one—pigs rooted at its foundations and cows wandered in and out of its crumbling walls—and the Netherlanders never assembled here the kind of military resources they deployed elsewhere in their empire. For all their occasional bellicosity, the Dutch were a trading people, and their town would ever after bear the imprint of its creators.
Nor would New York become an urban theocracy, a citadel of priests. No shrines or temples were erected to which swarms of pilgrims flocked to pay religious tribute or receive inspiration. Despite the formidable number of churches established here, Mammon ruled, not God.
Nor would New York become a great governmental hub, with grand baroque avenues radiating out from imposing seats of state power. There was no regal court to dispense largesse to all comers or lure peasants to bask in its splendors. No monarch founded seats of learning so preeminent as to attract truth-seekers from the ends of the earth. Its civic chieftains would be merchants, bankers, landlords, lawyers; its mightiest buildings, office towers.
As the twenty-four-dollar saga suggests, New York would become a city of deal-makers, a city of commerce, a City of Capital. This book will trace the nature and consequences of that development.
POINTS OF VIEW
We are going to present New York’s story as a narrative. Our book will journey along through time, taking each moment on its own terms, respecting its uniqueness. We will adopt the perspective of contemporaries as we relate their experiences, remaining mostly in their “now.” Yet, like all histories, Gotham is not the simple reflection of an underlying reality, but a construction. The narrative embodies our selections, our silences. It is organized around patterns we discern amid the swirl of events.
So what’s our take, our angle, our shtick? Do we concentrate on a particular slice of the city’s story? Is this primarily an economic history? Social? Cultural? Intellectual? Political? In truth it’s all of the above, or, more precisely, it’s about making connections between aspects of municipal life that are usually, of necessity, best studied in isolation. This book is only possible because in recent decades a host of scholars has investigated afresh every imaginable aspect of New York’s history: sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime. Our intention is to suture these partial stories together and present a picture of urban life as a rounded whole, something that probably only novelists can really do well but that nevertheless seems a goal worth aspiring to.
Do we then have a central argument that has allowed us to reduce New York’s mammoth story—especially as defined in such an all-encompassing fashion—to manageable (if hefty) proportions? In fact, no overarching plot line or tidy thesis unfolds incrementally throughout this book; the history of New York is not reducible to a sound bite or bumper sticker. Every page, however, does bear the mark of our central conviction: that it is impossible to understand the history of New York City by looking only at the history of New York City, by focusing, that is, exclusively on events that transpired within the boundaries of what are now its five boroughs. It’s hard to understand any place in isolation but utterly hopeless here, because linkages—connections to the wider world—have been key to the city’s development.
We do not believe that municipal history was determined from the outside. Rather our claim is that external events provided the context within which the men and women of New York, in conflict and compromise, repeatedly reshaped their city. It seems useful, however, to summarize at the outset those framing forces we think had the greatest impact on local actors. Those inclined to get on with the narrative can turn immediately to chapter i, which takes up the prehistory of the Primal Deal—recounting Europeans’ expansion into the New York area and chronicling their fateful intersection with local peoples. But for those who would prefer to reconnoiter the vast forest that lies ahead before plunging off into its trees, we offer in the remainder of this introduction a sketch of some of our principal arguments.
EDGE TO CENTER
At our highest level of analysis, we chart the ways New York’s development has been crucially shaped by its shifting position in an evolving global economy.
From its beginnings as a constellation of Indian communities encamped around the mouth of the Hudson River, the area was pulled into the imperial world system Europeans had begun fashioning in the aftermath of Columbus’s voyages. Founded as a trading post on the periphery of a Dutch mercantile empire, New Amsterdam lay at the outermost edge of a nascent web of international relationships. It remained a relatively inconsequential backwater, to which its Dutch masters paid but minimal attention, as they had far greater interest in harvesting the profits available in Asia (spices), Africa (slaves), and South America (sugar).
Once forcibly appended to the rising British Empire, however, New York assumed a more prominent role in the global scheme of things. It became a vital seaport supplying agricultural products to England’s star colonial performers—the Caribbean sugar islands—while also serving the English as a strategic base for hemispheric military operations against the French, the latest entrants in the imperial sweepstakes.
After the American Revolution, New York emerged as the fledgling nation’s premier linkage point between industrializing Europe and its North American agricultural hinterland. The city adroitly positioned itself with respect to three of the most dynamic regions of the nineteenth century global economy—England’s manufacturing midlands, the cotton-producing slave South, and the agricultural Midwest—and it prospered by shipping cotton and wheat east while funneling labor, capital, manufactured and cultural goods west.
After the Civil War, the metropolis became the principal facilitator of America’s own industrialization and imperial (westward) expansion. Capital flowed through and from its great banking houses and stock exchanges to western rails, mines, land, and factories; it became the preeminent portal for immigrant laborers; and it exported the country’s industrial commodities as well as its traditional agricultural ones.
By century’s end, New York had gained the ability to direct, not just channel, America’s industrialization. Financiers like J. P. Morgan established nationwide corporations and housed them in the city, making Manhattan the country’s corporate headquarters. When World War I ended European hegemony, and the United States became a creditor nation, New York began to vie with London as fulcrum of the global economy.
It finally captured that position after World War II when the United States emerged as a superpower. In subsequent decades, when American corporations and banks expanded overseas, New York became headquarters for the new multinational economy; and the arrival of the United Nations made New York a global political capital as well as a financial one. When European and Japanese competitors revived in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the emergence of a more decentered transnational capitalism challenged New York’s former preeminence, but it remained most prominent among the handful of world cities directing the workings of the global capitalist order.
Since its inception, therefore, New York has been a nodal point on the global grid of an international economy, a vital conduit for flows of people, money, commodities, cultures, and information. Its citizens were always well aware of this, and in the intermittent jubilees we call Festivals of Connection, they hailed each development—ratification of the Constitution, opening of the Erie Canal, laying of the Atlantic Cable, Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris—that wove the city tighter into the networks of trade and communication on which its livelihood depended.
More than simply a point of confluence, however, New York was a place of ever-increasing potency in global affairs, and as the United States evolved from colony to empire, the city migrated from the edge to the center of the world.
CITY AND COUNTRY
In its relations with the country, New York traveled a more bell-shaped trajectory.
When still a Dutch town, tiny New Amsterdam was as peripheral to the continent as it was to the planet, and it affected relatively few people beyond the Indians with whom it traded or warred. When integrated into England’s empire, its impact grew as it drew an expanding hinterland into widening networks of regional and international commerce. New York became the political capital of the new nation after the Revolution but soon lost that status, in part because southern gentry were leery of leaving affairs of state in the ambit of northern merchants. Departure of the Federal City meant that New York would never become the urban colossus of the United States, the way London was for England, or Paris was for France.
Though no longer de jure capital, New York emerged as de facto capital over the course of the nineteenth century, its centrality reflected in the accepted custom of identifying points in its landscape with nationwide functions. Wall Street supplied the country with capital. Ellis Island channeled its labor. Fifth Avenue set its social trends. Madison Avenue advertised its products. Broadway (along with Times Square and Coney Island) entertained it. Its City Hall, as befit an unofficial capitol, welcomed heroes and heroines with keys and parades and naval flotillas, and paid farewell respects to national leaders by organizing processions along Manhattan’s black-draped streets. New York, moreover, was the nation’s premier source for news and opinion; like a magnet, it attracted those seeking cosmopolitan freedom; and as the biggest city of the biggest state it exercised extraordinary influence in national politics.
Hegemony generated ambivalence. The country envied and emulated the city, but feared and resented it too. Farmers, planters, and industrialists needed its capital but disliked their indebted and dependent status. New York’s connections to Europe gave it a glamorous sheen but made it seem the agent of imperial powers and host to an “alien” population that spawned political machines, organized crime, labor unions, anarchists, socialists, Communists, and birth controllers. In the 1920s, relations between New York and its national hinterland came to a rancorous boil, and Governor Al Smith’s defeat in 1928 stemmed in part from widespread repudiation of his metropolis.
With Franklin Roosevelt’s accession to the presidency, however, New York’s national influence expanded again. Under his aegis, unionists, settlement workers, professors, and politicians flocked to Washington, winning a tremendous expansion of federal power to deal with the Depression (along lines pioneered in the city). Ironically, the New Dealers’ success undermined their city’s position. Strengthening Washington saved New York from catastrophe but also directed a huge and transforming flow of resources to the West and South, converting former dependencies into regional rivals—a process accelerated by the Second World War.
The power of the federal state was enhanced yet again during the Cold War, in part at the behest of a New York-based foreign policy elite. In terms of U.S. relations with the world, Washington and New York emerged as partners: the city on the Hudson the multinational empire’s commercial center, the city on the Potomac its military core. In domestic matters, however, no such parity existed. Washington commanded the heightened federal taxing power; New York was just another hard-pressed metropolis. Cold War Washington, moreover, speeded the transfer of wealth from Northeast to Sunbelt, from cities to suburbs. The arms economy bypassed the demilitarized city, industrial jobs fled to other states, and other harbors undercut the aging port. Population shifts diminished New York State’s power in federal councils. The consequences for the city became evident in the urban crises of the 1960s, the so-called fiscal crisis of the 1970s (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”), and the 1980s ascendancy to national power of suburban and Sunbelt/Gunbelt constituencies.
As the city shifted position and function in global and national arenas, the ways in which its citizens went about earning their livings and generating wealth for collective endeavors underwent repeated rearrangement.
Indian peoples lived off the bounty of the harbor, fields, and hills—fishing, farming, and hunting. The Dutch supported themselves and developed a rudimentary infrastructure chiefly by trading with the Indians for beavers (a rodent duly honored in the city’s seal). The English-era merchants who oversaw New York’s transformation into a significant seaport accumulated their profits from the West Indian trade—as supplemented by privateering, slaving, fencing pirate loot, and provisioning British forays against the French. These enterprises in turn spawned a subsidiary artisanal sector, which manufactured the tools of trade (ships, barrels) and processed raw materials (sugar, hides).
From the Revolution to the Civil War, New York remained preeminently a seaport, as did the adjacent city of Brooklyn, but a host of associated enterprises sprang up to accommodate and enhance the city’s mercantile outreach. New Yorkers built canals and railroads; established banks, insurance companies, and a stock market; developed means of communication (newspapers, telegraph); fostered new forms of wholesale and retail merchandising (auction houses, department stores); and augmented their capacity for hosting and entertaining (hotels, restaurants, theaters). Manufacturing capacity surged as entrepreneurs and workers churned out consumer goods for the new markets tapped and created by an expanding commercial network, and New York became the nation’s largest manufacturing center. An ever-widening stream of immigrants provided the labor power for all these activities and, in swelling the internal market, further increased demand for clothing, food, housing, and popular amusements.
Between the 1870s and the 1940s, New York’s mercantile sector underwent relative decline. The financial sector, meanwhile, expanded to underwrite continental industrialization and western expansion. A business services sector emerged to manage the new corporate economy and merchandise its products. The industrial sector burgeoned, fueled by new immigrants. And the entertainment industry emerged as an independent powerhouse, with New Yorkers hawking plays, vaudeville acts, books, magazines, newspapers, sheet music, records, movies, and radio shows to the nation.
V-E Day ushered in a brief Augustan age when New York was simultaneously major port, largest manufactory, financial center, headquarters of a corporate sector rapidly expanding to multinational dimensions, and vortex of cultural production. But World War IPs convoys proved the seaport’s last hurrah, and though its loss was partially counterbalanced by expanded air traffic, the growth of alternative hubs—notably West Coast ports attuned to Pacific Rim trade—undermined its gateway status. Manufacturing, which had begun to slip away into the national hinterland, now scattered across the globe, its departure offset only in part by the expansion of local government services. The culture industry remained potent, though regional competitors (and federal funding) continued to undermine its former predominance. Pieces of the corporate command post were dismantled and reassembled in outer suburbs, leaving finance, once an inconsequential component of the city’s economy, as its central and precarious prop.
These large-scale municipal remakings provide our book its macrostructure, its division into parts. There are five such parts in this volume, the first two of which—“Lenape Country and New Amsterdam to 1664” and “British New York (1664-1783)”—hinge on the establishment or loss of imperial power. The remaining parts encompass eras marked by relatively coherent and stable macroeconomies, with transitions between them marked, provoked, or accelerated by war, economic crisis, and/or internal conflict. These eras include “Mercantile Town (1783-1843),” “Emporium and Manufacturing City (1844-1879),” and “Industrial Center and Corporate Command Post (1880-1898).” The last of these closes out this volume with an account of the consolidation of once separate cities and townships into Greater New York, whose hundredth anniversary we marked in 1998.
When blocking out the city’s centuries-long story as a whole, it is these grand epochs of municipal development that command our attention. But when telling New York’s story on a year-by-year basis, a more sinuous rhythm demands consideration: the alternation of peaks of prosperity with troughs of hard times that dominated the experience of everyday life.
When the city was still subordinate to the interests of either Holland or Great Britain, the pattern of ups and downs was shaped primarily by imperial decisions. Irving’s brief Dutch “dynasty” had time for only one such cycle. In the twenty years preceding the mid-1640s, while the Dutch empire prospered, New Netherland’s fortunes ebbed; in the twenty subsequent years, when the empire declined, the town’s situation improved. Under the subsequent century of English rule, imperial dynamics of war and trade sustained an undulating cadence of abundance and adversity.
It was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, when imbricated in the U.S. nation-state and the world capitalist economy, that New York commenced its characteristic roller-coaster ride in earnest, now surging to heights of affluence, now plunging into sloughs of depression. The city first rose to national preeminence in the wartime trade boom of the Napoleonic nineties; then its ascent was punctured by embargo and peace. The canal era boom of the 1820s and 1830s raced to culmination and crisis in 1837, then tumbled into a seven-year depression. The rail-spurred prosperity of 1844-57 was interrupted by the Panic of 1857, reignited by the Gvil War, then snuffed out by the Panic of 1873, which inaugurated a lengthy period of hard times.
Industrialization-based resurgence in the 1880s gave way to depression in the 1890s. Corporate consolidation and war with Spain ushered in prosperity in the 1900s, which subsided after the Panic of 1907. World War I and a consumer goods revolution led to the 1920s boom, which collapsed into the 1930s depression. Lifted again by the Second World War, the city flourished during the long postwar boom, until laid low by the mid-1970s recession. A 1980s quasi-boom buckled in 1987, making way for the stagnant early 1990s and the brisker but still problematic fin de siècle.
These cycles created characteristic and remarkably similar cultures of boom and bust. The jaunty and expansive 1830s, 1850s, 1900s, 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s (times of comparably frenetic construction and high living in the city) gave way to the depressed 1840s, 1870s, 1890s, 1930s, and 1970s (periods marked by unemployment, homelessness, and contentious protest movements).
This pattern inscribed itself in the city’s skyline and streetscape. In boom times, speculative capital cascaded into real estate, generating frenzied building sprees. When the fever broke, office and housing construction halted abruptly. By the time the economy regathered its energies, a new generation of promoters and architects had come along, new cultural fashions were in vogue, new technologies and construction practices had materialized, and the latest spurt of building bore little resemblance to its predecessor. This spasmodic evolution of New York’s spatial geography allows us to “read” the cityscape, rather as archaeologists decipher stacked layers of earth, each of which holds artifacts of successive eras. Here, remnants of built environment offer clues to New York’s periodization.
Working from the bottom up, we find traces of New Amsterdam’s prosperous upswing in the archaeological remains of the gabled Stadt Huys (the Dutch City Hall) uncovered beneath Pearl Street, visible now through a Plexiglassed hole in the ground. Nearby Fraunces Tavern, a conjectural reconstruction of the De Lancey family’s urban town house, recalls a heyday of England’s mid-eighteenth-century empire. Federal mansions betoken 1790s affluence. The upsurge of the 1830s is immortalized in Wall Street Greek temples like the Merchants’ Exchange and Federal Hall, and that of the 1850s lives on in Italianate mansions like the Salmagundi Club and Litchfield Villa. Turn-of-the-century flush times are traceable in neo-Roman artifacts like the New York Stock Exchange, and remains of the 1920s boom include exuberant art deco skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building. The post-Second World War surge is invoked in modernist glass boxes, from modest Miesian beginnings to berserk apotheosis at the World Trade Center, built just before the crash of the mid-1970s. And the totems bequeathed by the economic upsurge of the 1980s are postmodernist structures ranging from the World Financial Center to AT&T’s (now Sony’s) jocular pink Chippendale tower.
PAST AS PROLOGUE
It is indeed remarkable that so many tangible traces of earlier eras remain, given that few structures in New York were ever hallowed by mere age. As the city’s economy shifted from commercial to industrial to corporate, older buildings were exuberantly torn down to make way for newer ones—higher, more fashionable, more convenient, more profitable—and these ruthless remakings gave the cityscape a chameleon-like, quicksilver quality that matched the mutability of its economy, its populace, and its position on the planet.
The city’s well-merited reputation as a perpetual work-in-progress helps explain why from Washington Irving’s day New Yorkers were famous for being uninterested in their own past. “New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities,” wrote Harper’s Monthlyin 1856. “Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.”
One of our ongoing avenues of inquiry follows New Yorkers as they slowly developed the conviction that their past was worth knowing, even worth preserving. Indeed we believe there is a greater degree of interest in Gotham’s history today than was ever the case before. We hope to nourish this ripening historical sensibility by telling the city’s story in a spirited way—a relatively easy task given that it’s intrinsically dazzling, a claim we think transcends both the fond boasting of all historians for their subject and the legendary conceitedness of New Yorkers (we notorious braggarts).
More difficult, perhaps, because it goes against the American ahistorical grain, we also hope to show that temporal analysis can be as useful as it is entertaining, that it can be helpful for New Yorkers (and Americans) to better situate themselves in time. This does not mean adopting the narrow presentism that runs through some of the narratives advanced by present-day commentators—sagas of rise and dirges of decline aimed at providing a pedigree for their purveyors’ optimistic or pessimistic takes on the state of the contemporary city.
Optimists portray New York as a magnificent and never-better metropolis. They point to the inrush of new immigrants, no longer streaming past the Statue in the harbor but airlifting their way into Kennedy, as evidence that much of the world sees New York as a place of opportunity, a mecca for the talented and ambitious. The newcomers’ belief that they can survive and prosper (say the optimists) rests on solid foundations. Wall Street’s enormous corporate and financial sector churns out professional and business services jobs. New York hosts the nation’s publishing, advertising, fashion, design, and network television industries. Its museums, concert halls, playhouses, nightclubs, and festivals draw vast numbers of tourists, who in turn help sustain an enormous array of restaurants and hotels. Some see a high-tech, Silicon Alley, bio-medical future lying just around the corner.
New housing blooms amid the outer borough ruins, these boosters note, and new capital improvements head toward completion. Refurbished subways are cleaner and swifter. Crime is down dramatically. The City University of New York, though under attack, provides opportunities for the newly arrived and the less advantaged, while the city’s tradition of social caring sustains a network of public support services, albeit one in parlous condition. Despite cultural antagonisms, moreover, the city remains a model of rough-hewn cosmopolitanism and multicultural tolerance, with an astonishing mix of peoples living side by side in reasonable harmony. Indeed the incessant interplay among its heterogeneous citizens makes New York a font of creative human energy, an unsurpassed site for personal development, a stupendous collective human accomplishment, and the glorious, glamorous, greatest city in the world.
Pessimists reject this cheery portrait and fashion from the shards of morning headlines and nightly newscasts a grim mosaic of urban decay. They point to the homeless who line up at soup kitchens, camp out in parks or under bridges until driven off by police, or burrow into subterranean warrens: subway tunnels, abandoned railway shafts, the roots of skyscrapers. A vast army of the unemployed poor subsists on welfare, living in squalid ex-hotels, rat-ridden tenements, bleak housing projects. Infant mortality rates in parts of the city match, even surpass, those of “underdeveloped” countries. And its vaunted opportunities are, as they long have been, largely limited to those with the means to seize them. “You can live as many lives in New York as you have money to pay for,” ran a contemporary judgment in The Destruction of Gotham, an apocalyptic novel of 1886, which also recorded the maxim that the “very first of the Ten Commandments of New York [is]: ‘THOU SHALT NOT BE POOR!’”
Perched one precarious step above these nether ranks are millions more working poor—the sporadically or marginally employed who cobble together a living from minimum-wage jobs that might vanish in an instant—for jobs, the city’s lifeblood, have been draining away for decades. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing slots, many of them unionized and decently paid, have vanished since the 1960s (though it is true that a new sweatshop sector is busy being reborn, with immigrants once again serving as entrepreneurs and exploited workforce, a dubious achievement). Many corporate headquarters have departed, downsized, or dispatched their back offices elsewhere, and the financial sector remains all too vulnerable to the next downturn. Giant department stores have gone bankrupt, and while mailed superstores replenish some retail positions they (together with soaring commercial rents) knock out mom-and-pop shops. The seaport is long gone to Jersey—only rotted wharves and tombstone pilings recall the once flourishing waterfront—and rusted railyards have been converted to high-priced condos, with airport and truck traffic picking up only some of the slack.
Despite recent improvements, pessimists note, a once magnificent infrastructure continues to crumble. Ancient water tunnels explode, flooding brownstones, drowning avenues, shorting out decrepit subway lines. Tired bridges and eroded highways close repeatedly for repairs. Pitted streets clog with traffic. JFK has been voted the world’s worst airport. Garbage has piled to mountainous heights in Staten Island. More oil lies beneath the streets of Brooklyn than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. For all the brave new housing efforts, block after Bronx block remains lined with shuttered factories and abandoned apartment houses, while the tendrils of a long-stymied nature creep through the rubble of burned-out buildings.
Those who present such stark readings of New York’s present and future often supply matching versions of the past. Those convinced of New York’s decline recall its glory days, the better to indulge in rueful nostalgia or stoke a bitter anger at what has come to pass. They see the past as a reverse Guinness Book of Records—a catalog of fabulous accomplishments now, alas, never to be surpassed. Those more sanguine about New York’s future assemble an indictment of the bad old days. They seize on catastrophes past: the British invasion and torching of the town; the great fever and cholera plagues, when coffin carts rattled through the streets and rats swam across the East River to gnaw the corpses piled high on Blackwell’s Island; the horrific draft riots when African-American New Yorkers were lynched from lamp poles and armies bivouacked in Gramercy Park; the tenement squalor and sweatshop misery; the horrors of the Great Depression and myriad littler ones. Such a legacy, they argue, renders contemporary misfortunes modest by comparison.
We strongly endorse the idea of New Yorkers’ turning to the past for perspective on their present—comparing different eras can bring balance to contemporary judgments—but Gotham is not about ransacking the past for evidence of Spenglerian decline or Panglossian progress. Straight-line scenarios, whether optimistic or pessimistic, usually pose false questions and offer false alternatives. Our hope, rather, is that a history that respects the complexity and contingency of human affairs can offer well-grounded insights into our current situation.
We believe that the world we’ve inherited has an immense momentum; that actions taken in the past have bequeathed us the mix of constraints and possibilities within which we act today; that the stage onto which each generation walks has already been set, key characters introduced, major plots set in motion, and that while the next act has not been written, it’s likely to follow on, in undetermined ways, from the previous action. This is not to say that history repeats itself. Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared. Rather we see the past as flowing powerfully through the present and think that charting historical currents can enhance our ability to navigate them.
We are historians, not mythmakers, but like Washington Irving we appreciate the power of the past and its centrality to the life of a place, and our choice of title represents a tip of the hat to his endeavor. Our Gotham is not Irving’s, but like Diedrich Knickerbocker we think that the more we know about the city’s past the more we will care about its future. We therefore dedicate this book to the citizens of New York City and to the many historians who have labored to tell its story.
Now, on with the show.