As the rocker Alice Cooper once put it, I’ve been “Big Apple dreamin’.” For me and anyone else who’s beguiled by New York City’s grandeur and charms, only a few months — a couple of years at most — can pass before the itch to visit again needs scratching.
You, too, may have put big, brash New York on your list of dream destinations. So I thought I’d tell you about the place in two blogs: Today, Manhattan, the little island that you’d think would sink from the sheer weight of its skyscrapers. Next time, the city’s four other boroughs, or administrative divisions, where 78 percent of its 8.3 million people live.
New York City wanted badly to be the capital of the new United States, and it was just that for five years beginning in January 1785. Four years later, George Washington took his oath of office as the nation’s new president on the balcony of the old city hall that had been reworked to house the federal government. But when Congress decided to create the entirely new city of Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital in 1790, then moved operations to Philadelphia while Washington was made ready, Manhattan Island set about becoming the capital of the world instead.
In order to rival London and Paris and other great cities, New York eventually gobbled up Brooklyn, all of Staten Island, much of Queens County on Long Island, and a foothold on the mainland in a place called “the Bronx.” The annexation was completed in 1898 as part of a “Greater New York” initiative in which citizens of those pastoral boroughs were assured that they’d getter better streets, city services, and clout in the state capital of Albany by helping to form the nation’s first mega-city.
What instantly became the planet’s second-largest city (behind London) of 3.4 million people soon took on the world in manufacturing, finance, communications, and the arts. The other boroughs kicked in shipyards, factories, and the like. But most folks elsewhere, and some New Yorkers themselves, came to think of little Manhattan Island, just 20 kilometers long and 4 kilometers across at its widest point, as New York City.
No one can say with certainty where the name “Manhattan” came from. The branch of Algonquin Indians from whom the Dutch West India Company bought the forested island in 1626 for 60 guilders’ worth of baubles — about $1,000 at today’s value — had a word for “island of the hills” that sounded to the Dutch like “Manhattan.”
Or perhaps the name stuck after an unknown Englishman sailed up the Hudson River in 1607 and left behind a map that labeled the island “Manhattan.” He may have met those same Indians.
Almost a century after Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sailing in French employ, discovered but did not explore New York Bay , Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the service of Dutch merchants, started off from Amsterdam to find a shortcut to the Orient in 1609. His ship, the Half Moon, sailed around the top of Norway and into the Arctic Ocean. But conditions proved so miserable that Hudson reversed course and headed west instead.
Six months out, he was zipping along America’s east coast when he came upon the bay leading to what is now the Hudson River. Proceeding up it, he met and traded with various Indian tribes. When he reached home in Holland, his patrons were intrigued. Perhaps there were riches and a niche for the Dutch in this land to the south of French Canada and north of English Virginia. One thing led to another, as one says while skipping over a lot of history, and a new mercantile consortium called the Dutch West India Company was founding and colonizing “New Netherland,” beginning with the settlement of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of this intriguing New World island.
By 1630, New Amsterdam was a prosperous, cosmopolitan town — too cosmopolitan to suit New Netherland’s new governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who was aghast to find its 1,000 or so residents speaking 18 languages. He expelled many of the non-Dutch speakers and made life miserable for the rest. But he came to regret it when English colonel Richard Nicholls, alerted to the plight of English settlers, showed up in 1644 and demanded that Stuyvesant surrender the entire New Netherland colony, which, on maps at least, had spread to all of what is now parts of four states.
Since most of the Dutch were farmers, not fighters, the peg-legged Stuyvesant could only sputter and acquiesce without firing a shot. Nicholls immediately raised the Union Jack and changed the colony’s name to “New York,” after the Duke of York, who had sent him.
The Dutch influence would linger, however, notably when novelist Washington Irving’s fictitious narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, detailed a history of the colony. “Knickerbocker,” originally a derisive term for the first Dutch settlers — mocking their baggy knicker pants — came to mean any New Yorker.
Come to think of it, the players on the New York Knickerbockers basketball team wear longish, puffy pants to this day.
Irving also borrowed the term “Gotham” from an obscure Dutch story and applied it to teeming Manhattan in a series of sarcastic essays. A couple of centuries later, Gotham would be home to two of history’s most daring comic-book heroes: Batman and Superman.
Little did Colonel Nicholls know what a strategic place the English had acquired on Manhattan Island. Only later, when exploration moved inland, did they realize that both the burgeoning nation’s heartland and Europe could be reached more easily from there than from any other New World port.
With trade came banks, insurance companies, investment houses, wharves, factories and — eventually — skyscrapers that became the symbol of braggadocious American capitalism.
And all this commerce required a lot of people. Millions of them. And they needed places to live. In two years alone — 1847, when a terrible potato famine struck Ireland; and 1848, when revolutions resounded across Europe — the call for laborers was answered with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. By the time Frédéric Bartholdi’s 225-ton Statue of Liberty rose to welcome other “huddled masses” in New York Harbor in 1866, Lower Manhattan was a crowded industrial and tenement district. And an even greater surge of humanity would soon follow as millions of Italians and Russian Jews debarked at the Ellis Island immigration station. New York was not the Big Apple then but what I liken to a Big Onion, with distinct societal layers and simmering ethnic tension.
Beginning in 1811, city commissioners laid out the mostly empty Upper Manhattan in a logical grid of long north-south avenues and orderly east-west cross streets. As a result, to this day people who can hardly find their way around middlin’ cities elsewhere navigate teeming New York with ease. Multi-unit “walk-up” buildings rose along these arteries. Their apartments were eagerly rented by young couples, large immigrant families, and single “bohemians” such as Calvert Vaux, who, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, had just laid out Central Park.
Fancier-schmancier apartment buildings soon followed on Fifth Avenue, the city’s most fashionable boulevard, where promenading in the “Easter Parade” was a highlight of the social calendar. Buildings like the 1884 Dakota on 72nd Street were veritable palaces with great iron gates, grand courtyards, hydraulic elevators, and staffs of managers and servants. The Dakota — destined for infamy decades later as the home of Beatle John Lennon when he was shot and killed by a deranged fan — took its name from the very remoteness of its setting on what at the time seemed like the eastern equivalent of the vast Great Plains.
When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, its torch, reaching 46 meters (151 feet) into the sky, was taller than any structure on Manhattan, save for the 83-meter-high western tower of the new Brooklyn Bridge. But a year later, the face of the island changed forever when architect Bradford Gilbert erected the city’s first steel-skeleton skyscraper, the 13-story Tower Building on Broadway, on a plot that was barely six meters wide.
Within 20 years, no church steeples, no factory buildings, and almost no tenement apartments could be seen in a panoramic view of the city shot from Brooklyn. They were all obscured by soaring office buildings.
As Manhattan became, in writer Robert Alden’s words, “the cockpit of commercial interchange,” one after another corporate tower became the world’s tallest structure. Eventually the city housing commission had to pass “setback laws” that forced developers to move their skyscrapers back from the street in order to preserve a modicum of light, air circulation, and human scale.
Who among the Americans who rode a bus or train through a tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan for the first time and alighted to behold these canyons of steel will ever forget craning their necks till they hurt, looking upward in awe.
I was one of the first-time gawkers at the great Empire State and Woolworth buildings after the bus that brought us from Ohio on our senior-class trip unloaded one day in 1960.
A triumph of Manhattan architecture and prestige, completed in 1953, was the world’s diplomatic headquarters, the United Nations. John D. Rockefeller personally donated $8.5 million to acquire the site, which replaced six blocks of slaughterhouses along the East River.
Nine years later the city modified its setback law to permit extra floors high above the skyline, provided the owners would add “public plazas” at street level. This, and the growing fascination with glass as a façade element, led to still more cloud-tickling buildings, many of them undistinguished vertical boxes of glass and steel.
In the early 1970s, the skyline was pierced by the latest “world’s tallest” structure, the Port of New York Authority’s twin, 110-story World Trade Center Towers. Their 929,000 square meters (10 million square feet) of office space were seven times that of the Empire State Building.
The 1972 book, The Mid-Atlantic States of America, quotes Anthony Lewis, then the London bureau chief of the New York Times, as remarking when he first beheld the World Trade Center, “It was a sight that cried out: money! power! technology!” The Twin Towers so symbolized capitalism that, as Americans will long remember, they twice became the target of international terrorism: A truck-bomb exploded in a basement garage in 1993, killing 6 people and injuring more than 1,000. And in a double murder-suicide mission, Islamic terrorists piloted hijacked passenger jets straight into the towers on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Much of the world watched the Twin Towers crumple into a pyre of steel, glass, and concrete in which 2,752 workers, rescuers, and bystanders perished. You may or may not know that a 550-meter (1,776-foot)-tall memorial, Freedom Tower, is beginning to rise where the Twin Towers stood.
Well before our new century, Manhattan had reached the crest of the nation’s economic mountain, and its cultural pinnacle as well. Stage actors can be favorably reviewed and well paid, but they are not stars until they make it on Broadway’s “Great White Way” in the only city with the population, refined tastes, and money to support more than 30 Broadway theaters, Off-Broadway testing grounds, and Off-Off-Broadway amateur (often experimental) houses.
Even New York’s subway is often copied. The subway’s ingenious system of local and “skip-stop” express trains, running past the same stations on parallel tracks, has been emulated in many cities. The packed, lurching trains carried waves of ethnic succession up the island and into other boroughs. Hell’s Kitchen, long a West Side Irish settlement, for instance, is now primarily Hispanic; and “Little Italy” keeps shrinking as Chinatown expands.
Harlem, up toward the top of the island, was settled by Dutch farmers and took its name from the industrial city of Haarlem in Holland. But Harlem, New York, eventually became the intellectual, cultural, and symbolic capital of Black America.
Manhattanites take pride — and respites — in the 341-hectare (843-acre) Central Park, one of the most important landscaped green spaces ever created. During the 1850s, the city had gradually bought up a tract of swampland that one report called a “pestilential spot where rank vegetation and miasmic odors taint every breath of air.” Over a 20-year period, architect Vaux and landscape architect Olmsted transformed the enormous bog into a playland of lawns, gardens, rock outcroppings, skating rinks, castles — even a zoo.
Along the “Museum Mile” on Fifth Avenue, the city boasts a profusion of Upper East Side cultural institutions anchored by “the Met” — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Western Hemisphere’s largest art museum. The building is owned and maintained by the city, but its artwork is paid for by endowments, membership fees, and admission revenue.
Even the grand New York Public Library, the 1911 flagship of a system of 82 branches, has become a tourist attraction. People come not just to peruse its 125 million books, but also to gape at its architecture, artwork, and main reading room, which is as long as a football field.
Above all — just ask a New Yorker — Manhattan is a collection of eclectic neighborhoods. You may have heard of Greenwich Village, long a bohemian enclave and the cradle of folk music; SoHo and the TriBeCa triangle, where grungy tenements have been turned into cozy loft apartments and art galleries; apartment clusters that ooze wealth on the Upper East Side; and Times Square, which is actually triangular. Sometimes called “the Crossroads of the World,” it’s home to pulsating billboards and the famous flagpole down which a 91-kilo (200-pound) lighted ball slides just before midnight each December 31st as throngs below count down the seconds to a new year.
Except for a few sanctums of relaxation like Central Park or the coffeehouses where you might bump into our VOA New York Bureau buddy Adam Phillips, Manhattan is an urban dervish in perpetual motion, always on some sort of deadline. New Yorkers do not exaggerate when they say Manhattan never sleeps, as anyone who has peered out a hotel window there at three in the morning can attest.
I’ll vouch for it; more than once, honking taxicabs kept me awake in a tiny Manhattan hotel room whose beds were, I swear, as hard and narrow as ironing boards.
New Yorkers don’t even notice the din. They walk faster, talk faster and — in order to survive in the toughest town in the land — often think faster than everyone else. There’s never a lack of something to do or see on this island of 1.5 million residents, a million more workers, and a half-million weekly visitors. Manhattan, purchased for those 60 guilders’ worth of trinkets four centuries ago, is today a world capital of finance, culture, diplomacy, communications, and sheer excitement, if you’re up to it.
Acquiesce. To give in, concede to another’s point of view.
Braggadocious. Describing the behavior of one who boasts or shows off to excess.
Ginormous. A modern, made-up word melding “giant” and “enormous” into something really, really big.
Miasmic. More properly “miasmal,” a description of a noxious atmosphere, say near a foul-smelling bog or open sewer.
Modicum. A moderate or token amount, as in “a modicum of truth.”
Sanctum. A sanctuary or place of quiet privacy.