06 Feb 2006
Washington, D.C., may be the nation’s capital, but New York City is the nation’s soul. That’s not a debatable conclusion. New York simply is. You can break the five boroughs and its millions of inhabitants down into its components and grade them separately. You can even point out that it has lost a number of major corporations, that as a money center its has competitors its equal and that Los Angeles and Hollywood has been the center of the nation’s popular culture for decades.
These arguments won’t work. It’s a futile exercise in blind boosterism. The fact that we use it as a standard of measurement indicates what we think. We compare are art, our politics, and the size of our cities to it. We tell jokes about it. Glance at a map, and its place names (Coney Island! Brighton Beach! Bedford-Stuyvesant!) pop out, impressed on our collective memory from movies, plays, literature, television shows.
New York City rides high on the national landscape, like the New Yorker cover of years past that redrew the map of the United States with Manhattan in great detail, the rest of the United States as a compressed monochrome band, and Russia and Japan as lumps on the horizon. It’s New York City’s world, and we’re just paying rent to it.
Two books recently published go a long way toward explaining New York City. “Gotham” is a massive yet readable history of the city, from the days when the Lenape Indians roamed its fertile lands to the close of the 19th century when the five boroughs voted to bind themselves together. In between is a kaleidoscope of characters, incidents, good times and bad times, and Burrows and Wallace succeeded in crafting a history where you can dip into it at random and find your way.
New York City was the nexus of several fortunate incidents that, in retrospect, could foretell its success as a major city. Its earliest European discoverers lavished praise on its deep harbors and bountiful lands. Its air was commended as “dry, sweet, and healthy” by explorer Adraen van der Donck, and “sweet and fresh” by missionary Jaspar Danckaerts. A wide variety of animals and plants astonished those who came upon it: waist-high meadows of grass, vast stands of hardwood forests, orchards bearing apples and pears as big as a man’s fist and great flocks of birds whose crises deafened the men. Off Manhattan Island, fisherman could harvest foot-long oysters and six-foot lobsters, and fish could be gathered by hand in the many streams.
It’s the story you’ve heard before. The Europeans came, forced out the wandering Lenape Indians, creating a chain-reaction as they moved into lands occupied by the Raritans, the Hackensacks, the Tappans and a dozen other tribes, introduced the fur trade that completely upset the region’s economic balance by encouraging the Indians to strip the forests of beavers, and drawing them into conflict — made deadlier with the introduction of alcohol and firearms as trade goods — with neighboring tribes.
But that sequence of events would take decades to play itself out. The original Dutch settlers were not interested in colonizing but trade. New Amsterdam — founded on the end of Manhattan Island — was a company town owned by the West India Company, and for its first dozen years consisted only of about 80 buildings and 400 or so inhabitants. It wasn’t until the British took over in 1664 that the city began to expand.
From then on, its course was set, fueled by a combination of money and ambition. New York City served as a gateway to Europe, and through it flowed money, immigrants and culture. This, in turn, made change a constant, and unlike some cities which oppose change, this constant on-rush keeps New York City fresh and up-to-date. That this also creates an enormous amount of stress in its inhabitants also contains a key to its character. To survive living in New York City is considered a badge of merit by its inhabitants, and a source of pride.
The city, the authors point out, has had its good times and bad. It experienced booms in the 1830s, 1850s, 1900s, 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, and depressions in 1840s, 1870s, 1890s, 1930s and 1970s (remember the memorable headline: “Ford to NYC: Drop Dead”?). But through it all, as “Gotham” reminds us, the city survives and thrives.
“Writing New York” makes an ideal companion to “Gotham” as it parallels the book in so many places. Its order is chronological as well, and the interlinkings between the books are as precise as a dovetail join.
The Washington Irving essay that kicks off the book — the sometime spurious “History of New York” that established the knickerbocker name — also makes up the introduction to “Gotham.”
From there onward, the selections of fiction and non-fiction pieces offer as vivid a picture of New York City life and attitudes as any history book. Open the book at random, and there is something always worth reading: George Templeton Strong wondering in his diary (in 1852!): “Is it the doom of all men in this century to be weighed down with the incumbrance of a desire to make money and save money, all their days?”; Stephen Crane writing of a man’s moral dilemma over the false arrest of a possible prostitute; Ralph Ellison noting in “New York, 1936” that: “in the hustle and bustle of that most theatrical of American cities, one was accepted on the basis of what one appeared to be.”
Then there’s the fiction and the anthropological excerpts which offer pleasures of their own. One of Damon Runyon’s stories about the “Guys and Dolls” of Broadway is here, a tougher story than one would expect. A selection from Oscar Hijuelos’ “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” is here as well. Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel,” an observation piece written for The New Yorker; Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Story in Harlem Slang.” The only exception seems to be anything from the Algonquin circle of wits. Didn’t any of them write anything about the New York scene they dominated during the ’20s and ’30s?
Writing New York” is a convivial convention, probably the only gathering of New York wits and writers and reporters we’re likely to see this side of heaven. Reading it in conjunction with “Gotham” reveals a portrait of a great city that may be down at times, but can never really be counted out.