For nearly eight years, I lived only an hour’s train ride to New York City. Yet I seldom visited there, and developed a true love/hate relationship with the place. The names associated with the place now don’t ring with the same sweet tones as the ones that came before them. There are no Gershwins, Cohens, Mailers – Dorothy Parker isn’t spilling her wit all over and under the tables of the Algonquin Hotel – even Woody Allen is increasingly abandoning the place for new inspiration.
There’s no doubt in my mind that New York is the most egotistical town in the world. Whereas Paris might consider itself the center of the art world, Milan might consider itself the center of the fashion world, New York skips the modifier and is the only city I know that calls itself the center of the world. Come to think of it, New York would try to lay claims to both those titles as well.
About a year or so ago I read a fascinating book, The Island At the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto on the founding of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, and how it shaped the history of what would eventually become known as New York. It turns out that American qualities such as religious freedom and tolerance of ethnic groups other than your own got their start in this country in the original Dutch colony. As well as more tawdry aspects of society such as getting loaded on strong drink and falling into the company of women of ill-repute. While their English brethren at the time living north in Massachusetts were practicing a strict, puritan form of government, the Dutch colony was allowing people to live according to their conscience, or lack thereof, and a fairly lax set of laws.
Keep this in mind the next time Christmas rolls around and people are harping about how Christmas is losing its importance and how the pilgrims who came to this country to worship as they saw fit would be appalled. Those same Christians did not tolerate any deviance from their laws, and the celebration of Christmas was outright banned. That we celebrate Christmas in this country today is a relic of the Dutch colony, whose concept of religious tolerance lives on. This is doubly curious when you consider that Holland was the country the pilgrims sailed from in order to found a new nation based on religious freedom. In other words, that Christmas exists in this country today is because of that heathen bastion now known as New York City.
Anyway, this article isn’t about religious freedom and tolerance, it’s about New York City, and where to see the history of the place, as well as historical attractions there today. It’s not as easy as you think. The original Dutch colony is almost completely gone. In fact, there are more signs of the Viking period in Dublin than there are of the Dutch in New York. When the Dutch occupied Manhattan, there were over 21 fresh water ponds and 66 miles of streams. There was a sandy beach at the southern tip of the island, and the landscape was one of gently rolling hills. The growth of Manhattan has obliterated the very landscape that the Dutch settlers found. There are the occasional discoveries of a piece of road, the foundation of a house or well, and nearly all of it is then covered over with new construction. The best place to see New Netherlands is by looking at a map, where the street layout of lower Manhattan is much the same.
The colonial period doesn’t fare much better. Even the balcony where George Washington was sworn in as our first president, outside the building where the Bill of Rights was enacted, is now remembered by a single stone tucked away in a museum. In New York, history usually plays second fiddle to real estate values.
Walking the streets of Manhattan today isn’t much different than walking the streets of any major city. You have the same chain stores – the high costs of doing business there has pushed out all but the largest retailers. There are restaurants of course, as New Yorkers increasingly define themselves by choices of eateries, few of which reflect any ethnic origins native to a particular neighborhood. The city is still a melting pot of course, but the people you see walking the streets are more than likely living elsewhere in the city or beyond, or tourists, as the cost of living has grown beyond the reach of most mere mortals.
So where do you find history in New York? Look up. Once your gaze rises above the first or second floor, the architectural history of the city comes alive. Get off the train at Penn Station and make your way to the Flatiron Building and head down Broadway for some of the best historical architecture the city has to offer. Pass the temple to one man’s retail dreams, the Woolworth Building – as intricate as a child’s dollhouse, past the looming bulk of the Municipal Building complex and wander the archetypical canyons of the financial district in lower Manhattan. Swing by Saint Mark’s Church of the Bowery, a remnant of the days when this land was owned by New Amsterdam’s last governor, Peter Stuyvesant, and the Stuyvesant-Fish house nearby which he had built as a wedding present for his daughter. Say hello to Alexander Hamilton in his final resting place outside of Trinity Church, a structure itself hoary with history. Dine at Delmonico’s which fed such figures as Mark Twain, or at Fraunces Tavern where Washington said goodbye to his officers at the end of the revolution. Or choose any of the outdoor restaurants on Stone Street which has a fairly medieval air, and get casually fed and watered before staggering your way back up the island.
Head up Fifth Avenue and see what used to be the center of the shopping world. Look up at the Empire State Building’s shorter, Art Deco sister the Chrysler Building for a peek at what skyscrapers could be when people actually gave a damn about such things as aesthetics. Stroll into the Plaza in the footstep of the stars of long ago and hold your head high as they kick your ass back out on the pavement. Stroll along Central Park West where notables still live in buildings that might as well be temples. As for Central Park itself – eh, it’s a park. It’s trees and grass and sure, it’s notable for being in the midst of one of the largest cities on earth, but in the end, it’s a park. It’s a living space for those who live here, who’ll you see in expensive recreational uniforms, or just sitting dazed knowing they’re supposed to get sun, but not entirely sure what they should do when the sunshine hits them. And of course a place for buskers to sell their wares and incredibly high priced bottles of water and soft drinks to tourists. It’s a simulation of nature, and for me, I prefer the real thing.
In short, history is still in abundance, but you have to know where to look. And you have to realize it’s not going to be coherent, nor even make sense in the modern sprawl of the city.
Perhaps New York City is best experienced in small doses. Get there in the afternoon and wander the streets into the night. Try seeing it from the top of a tour bus and avoid the lower stories altogether. See it bleary eyed from drink when emotions might be more likely to take over, and the people might seem a bit less irritating. Yes, the fabled rude New Yorker. There are certainly as many assholes per square foot in NYC as Paris. But just as I found most Parisians to be quite charming, the true New Yorker is really quite friendly as well, eager to chat or to help you find your way.
So it’s late in the night, my last trip there, days before fleeing the east coast and New York for good and I had been walking the streets for hours, my pockets full of cash that was a going away present from the office where I worked, feeling like an emigrant in reverse, fleeing west from the city instead of eastward across the ocean. I always felt like an emigrant here, fleeing my home and poverty for a chance at a better life in the promised land. I was looking to say goodbye to the Chrysler Building when a man came stumbling onto the sidewalk in front of me, mussed-up hair and dressed in his P.J.’s, cursing each step he took, as though he was sent out by a shrew wife on some trivial errand. And yet when stopped by some tourists who had lost their way, he was as friendly and courteous as anyone I’ve met anyplace. I dined in the building which inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, and spent more on it than I would a week’s worth of groceries. A black man outside of Penn Station bummed a cigarette from me and in exchange we walked down Broadway and smoked his marijuana. Waiting for the train I fell in with a group of strangers, ranging in age from 21 to 71 in a small bar and drank toast after toast, as I prepared to leave a place I could never feel a part of, but would certainly never forget. I lived in the shadow of that city for almost eight years, and never felt a part of it. But for a few hours, I was a New Yorker. I missed that train and the next, and as the little group who met as strangers and parted as friends drifted apart and I found myself slouched in a seat on the Long Island Railroad, an old song by the Pogues drifting through my fractured mind …
In Manhattan’s desert twilight
In the death of afternoon
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first man on the moon
And “The Blackbird” broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet
And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps
I danced up and down the street
Then we said goodnight to Broadway
Giving it our best regards
Tipped our hats to Mister Cohan
Dear old Times Square’s favorite bard
Then we raised a glass to JFK
And a dozen more besides
When I got back to my empty room
I suppose I must have cried
Lyrics from Thousands are Sailing, by Philip Chevron, recorded by the Pogues.
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