Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Even Old New York Was Once New Amsterdam

After reading Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, I CAN say why they changed it, and also state that it's open for debate whether people really liked it better that way at the time.

Telling an epic story, like that of the Dutch colony on Manhattan (c.1620 - 1664) is a difficult task. Imagine it today. I have three close friends living in the general vicinity. One is in his early 50s, and came to the city several years ago with $400 and no other prospects other than the promise of a free month's rent and the possibility of getting back with an ex-girlfriend, and in a modern-day Horatio Alger tale, is now happy and has a successful and lucrative career. Another friend is a scientist who, despite being intelligent, well-spoken and passionate about life and her field, has not managed to land a job in her field and lives at the edge of poverty. A third friend lives not on Manhattan but in Brooklyn. She holds a BA in English and is pursuing her master's in education while working at a group home. She is the only child of a single mom, and they live together. So whose New York is it? Probably most of you were drawn to one of the first two stories, but there are probably more people living like my third friend. Or does the story of New York in the beginning of the 21st century belong to any of them? Does it really belong to Guiliani and Bloomberg, to plummeting crime rates, skyrocketing real estate values, terrorist attacks and rebuilding?

Russell Shorto manages, in only 325 pages, to weave all of these types of stories together in presenting the true origins of America as we think of it. It takes an unusual sort of person to leave everything they knew and make a new life in a region which is essentially unknown. You'd have to be either terribly brave and noble, or terribly foolish with nothing to lose. There are plenty of both peopling Shorto's book. I laughed out loud to read about Griet Reyniers, the prostitute with a knack for self-promotion and a penchant for measuring her customer's penises on a broomstick, and her husband, pirate Anthony "The Turk" van Salee, described as a "one-man criminal class...even his dog was trouble."

But I came to admire a man who deserves his own paragraph (and more). Adrien van der Donck was poised to have it all. He was from a good family and a lawyer, recently graduated from the best university in Europe, yet he chose to come to the Manhattan colony. Once there, he proved himself to be both a shrewd politician and clever manipulator, but also an advocate for freedom and representative government. He was imprisoned and nearly lost his life to the cause, but one can see in his struggle the prototype for the American revolution.

Another hero, to me anyway, is Dr. Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Project. In a move that must have had his parents tearing their hair out, he earned his PhD in 17th Century Dutch Language. By fortunate coincidence, the New York State Library was looking for someone to translate a cache of 12,000 pages of documents from the New Amsterdam colony as he was searching for a job. This was 26 years ago, and Gehring has been there ever since. If you want to visit him in his office, you cannot just go in. The elevator doesn't stop there. You have to go up a floor, state your business, and be escorted downstairs to see him. I've just left a job that I found increasingly isolating, and his ability to keep going in the fact of that is remarkable to me.

The central thesis of the book is that the Dutch, through their tolerance, created the "melting pot" one can find in New York City today, also that their influence has been more pervasive than has been thought in the past. Wall Street was the site of a fortification they built to keep the English out (you can tell just by the name change how that worked out). If you came to the colonies as an apprentice, you'd work for a master, or baas. So if you've ever bitched about your "boss", that's where the word came from. The Manhattan Dutch also invented a dish called koosla, cabbage chopped and tossed with vinegar and melted butter. We call it cole slaw today. The book contains several other wonderful nuggets like this, both mundane and profound, to show the true influence of this often-forgotten colony.

This is starting to change. There has been more scholarship in the field, as well as general interest. I did my internship at a Dutch homestead, built shortly after the end of the Manhattan colony, and during my summer there, we received visits from the New Netherlands Project, and also from several people at the Met, who had recently acquired a Dutch homestead to exhibit and were researching the architecture and furnishings of Dutch homesteads that were still extant. It was there that I first heard about this book, and I'm glad I read it. I highly recommend it. I've also included a link to the New Netherlands Project should you want to know more...just click on the title to this post.

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