Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reading Notes: Gotham, Part 1

I am fairly certain I mentioned by goal of reading Gotham months ago. I even started reading it months ago. And at one point in 2016, I know had the goal of finishing the entire 1236 page book by the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

Well, now I'm three weeks into the 2016-2017 school year, and I'm still on page 75. Back during our January snow days, I breezed through Part One of the book—"Lenape Country and New Amsterdam to 1664"—and I made notes and tagged pages and then I never got around to writing about them and my continuation of reading has just been held up ever since. I've been breezing through a lot of random books lately, though, and decided that now, with my newfound motivation to read and write, is the time to move along actually get started.

New York City is one of my favorite topics to study. For one, its centuries of transformation are amplified, more magnificently illustrated, because of its small geographic size. Tracking development as it spreads—the buildings as they rise and fall—appears grand and drastic when the area feels so contained and so easy to observe. Secondly, and related to that point, I am a witness of the city's history. I walked its streets and inhabited its buildings for a decade. I know how the traffic flows and how cultures and communities occupy neighborhoods. Knowing what came before is what inspires history nerds like me to keep reading and keep searching for clues from another time.

"The city's well-merited reputation as a perpetual work-in-progress helps explain why 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 Monthly in 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.'"

Because there is so much historical fact in this book that is impossible to record and remember, I think I'll focus my reading and summarizing on the state of things at any given moment in the city's history. Who was in charge? How did people live? What were the talking points, the stressors, the norms? New York is a dynamic city that changes with its population; the people are key to understanding the city's history.

The authors, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, dig way back to the physical emergence of Manhattan's island—geological evolution and such. The native Lenapes had a transient lifestyle, using a network of trails (many of which exist as well-known corridors today) to transverse the land according to season and task—coasts for fishing, woods for hunting, fields for growing. European explorers popped in and out, witnessing peaceful contentment in the Lenapes but bewildered by their classless society.

"Seasonal habitation sites, few tools and personal possessions, the lack of domesticated animals, disorderly planting fields, a classless and stateless social system, matrilineal kinship, indifference to commerce—what all of this added up to, for many Europeans, was a deeply inferior way of life, mired in primitive poverty. It seemed the very antithesis of civilized existence... that the Lenapes lived so contentedly in what looked to Europeans like a setting of wonderful 'natural' abundance made them all the more contemptible."

Furs were a big, profitable part of European trade with the New World (particularly in Canada) in the late 1500s. Further venturing south down the Hudson put the Lenapes in regular contact with Europeans for the first time.

"Slowly at first, then more rapidly after the addition of guns and alcohol as trade goods, even the reluctant cuirosity would give way to habit, and habit to dependency. By the early seventeenth century, the demand for items of European origin among the Lenapes had begun to undermine their way of life."

Of course, native history seems merely blip, simplified to almost a submissive surrender, in the big picture. It's a story seen and heard so many times in this country's history that it's easy to forget these little blips represented the decimation of populations and cultures, all in the name of capitalism.

But none of this was really the settlement of New York, only interactions with. To get into New York's early history, we have to go to the Dutch.

This era was the start of the Dutch Golden Age. The Netherlands were assuming power in international trade. Amsterdam was a tolerant city, established as an international hub. Trade was run by the India Companies (East and West), and, after 1609 when the East India Company commissioned Henry Hudson to find a northeast route to the Orient, a mad rush began to find new, profitable trade routes. In the 1620s, they began sending colonists to establish trade bases on the shores surrounding modern-day Manhattan. At this point, "New Amsterdam" began to develop, basically because the native inhabitants had already been driven away and here, commerce could be supervised. It was never official "colonization," though—not an imperial conquest, nor a transplant of culture. "It was, purely and simply, a place where cheap European manufactured goods would be exchanged for those items of local origin that would fetch a good price back home."

FUN FACT: "The Tyger [an early Dutch explorer's ship] burned and sank on the Hudson shore of Manhattan near what would now be the intersection of Greenwich and Dey streets... In 1916 workmen excavating the site for the IRT subway uncovered the ship's prow and keel. Portions were sawed off and are now preserved by the Museum of the City of New York; the rest is still there, twenty feet below street level."

Further north, New England was growing and developing but with the aim to keep New Netherland and New England separate. Developing as permanent settlements—colonies—had New England growing like wildfire, but New Netherland developed slowly, mostly because the Company was in charge and didn't settle with much purpose in mind. By 1638, New Amsterdam (the hub of New Netherland, now known as New York) was disorganized and dilapidated; a quarter of its buildings were basically beer providers.

"Because the company had shown so little interest in promoting permanent settlement, there were many more men in town than women—and too many of those men were footloose bachelors, down-and-out adventurers, fugitive husbands, runaway servants, and waterfront riffraff who had decided to spend a few years toiling for the company while on their way from wherever to God-only-knows."

That year, a new man in charge, Willem Kieft, started making laws to prevent crazy sinful behavior. He began to build permanent structures to promote large-scale settlement. Inhabitants began to buy, sell, and lease land among themselves. New Amsterdam became more of a "town" with structure and order, but Kieft eventually lost favor in both Dutch and native populations. Native wars gained momentum, and Kieft handed out private land grants to settle land around Manhattan, which created a buffer zone from Indians but also expanded New Netherland's size and holdings.

Jump to 1647 and another new guy shows up, Petrus (Peter) Stuyvesant, who was appointed leader of New Netherland after serving in Caribbean. He entered chaos and immediately began issuing edicts, decrees, orders—basically all kinds of laws and rules that also came with strict punishment if broken. He established reliable property lines and regular streets, imposed speed limits, and paved lanes with cobblestones. He deemed animals must be contained. householders couldn't throw garbage into street (established dump sites), stopped construction of wooden chimneys and required they must be regularly swept, and decreed evening fires must be covered up. He established fire wardens and early firefighting apparatus, the first hospital in 1658, public works, and, responding to requests of people, begrudgingly established an orphanage, programs providing relief for the poor, a higher quality public school with salaried teacher, and a police force. He regulated markets and currency. Essentially, he created a modern, orderly town, unlike anything that had existed in this transient settlement thus far. It was probably seemed like night and day to the inhabitants. (Probably still chaotic by European standards.)

Following Dutch independence from Spain in 1648 (marking the end of the 80 Years' War), the West India Company was losing power to private merchants so they threw their efforts into the Atlantic Slave Trade to make money. They convinced Caribbean land owners to use slave labor and switch from tobacco to sugar which was more profitable. Stuyvesant believed New Amsterdam would be a convenient hub for the slave trade and established it as such. As the city became an established, populated port, a class system began to exist where only "same boat" company employees had existed up to this point.

To me, it seems like Stuyvesant's power eventually went to his head. He did all these great things for the city but then he decided to act a bit totalitarian, despite New Amsterdam still technically being run by the West India Company. His personal beliefs came into play as he increased church presence and essentially decreased tolerance, persecuting all sorts of groups. The West India Company disagreed with his actions, saying that forcing other people's consciences "would almost certainly discourage immigration"—which I guess means by this point they had decided to establish New Amsterdam as a permanent colony, right??

Kind of. In 1653, Stuyvesant launched first municipal government, but there was confusion about who was in charge—the company? Stuyvesant? An assembly of local delegates? Meanwhile, England and Holland were fighting and a threat of New England attacking New Amsterdam was looming. Stuyvesant was still trying to expand the colony by building settlements of different religious/national groups, offering them land and protection, but try throwing together a bunch of people with different belief systems. It caused some caused conflict. Also, Indians were still attacking until a 1656 peace treaty in which they essentially acquiesced to Dutch rule. (So basically, they were totally kicked out of their native land and replaced within a 50-year span of time.)

Trouble in Dutch paradise: In 1660, England went back to Stuart rule which inspired new navigation acts and the decision to finally drive the Dutch out of American colonial trade. The Duke of York established all these merchant enterprises to basically squelch the Dutch, and the English began flooding Long Island, establishing small towns. Stuyvesant tried to unite them all with Dutch towns, but that totally failed. England was forcing themselves in, a move made clear when York gathered troops to solidify his new "estate" of the New England territory, conveniently including New Netherland. Stuyvesant couldn't gather a squad to defend Dutch holdings, mostly because no one was willing to risk their lives and property for him anymore. England offered peace if the Dutch willfully surrendered. Stuyvesant held out—pride, probably—but New Amsterdam's most prominent men petitioned against his resistance in favor of surrendering. Somehow, despite this, a war still began between England and the Dutch which ended in 1) Stuyvesant became a scapegoat for New Amsterdam's "failures" (nevermind the Company's constant uncertainty on what to do with the colony) and 2) peace negotiations which gave England New Amsterdam (now New York) and Holland kept Surinam (which had profitable sugar and slaves).

Thus ends the Dutch's hold on New York.

No comments: