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Metropolitan Life

The Encyclopedia of New York City

edited by Kenneth T. Jackson
Yale University Press/The New-York Historical Society, 1350 pp., $60.00

When I was a child of ten or so and while my classmates were still struggling to fathom the language of the gutter, a bookish friend and I pieced together in a single afternoon the secrets of human reproduction from the unabridged dictionary in Miss Brown’s sixth-grade classroom. In this way I formed the lifelong habit of using dictionaries and encyclopedias not simply to look up facts but to penetrate the outskirts of great mysteries. For me an encyclopedia is a treasure map, a spur to conjecture, a set of linked clues. This is why I have lately been reading The Encyclopedia of New York City edited by Kenneth Jackson, seeking answers to a puzzle that has gripped me ever since my friend Jane Jacobs posed it some twenty-five years ago in The Economy of Cities, her classic attempt to explain why some cities grow and others don’t.

Why did New York become the world’s great metropolis? Why New York and not Boston or Philadelphia or Charleston, South Carolina? Philadelphia had been the second largest English-speaking city in the world when New York was still a minor and somewhat disreputable entrepôt, and all three cities were busier ports than New York before the Revolution, only to fall behind soon after. As late as 1790 even Sag Harbor, an obscure village at the eastern end of Long Island, cleared more square-rigged shipping than New York City and became, for that reason among others, the state’s first port of entry. But by 1812 New York had surpassed them all as the country’s unchallenged metropolis. Why?

The conventional explanation for New York’s success is its location at the mouth of the Hudson, especially after the Erie Canal linked the Hudson to the Great Lakes. But long before the Canal was built, New York was already America’s premier port. The Canal, which was proposed by Governor Clinton in 1810, commissioned by the city in 1815, and completed in 1825, was the result of New York’s prosperity, not its cause. A less prosperous and ambitious settlement could hardly have conceived such a project much less financed it. Five years later New York “handled 40 percent of the country’s foreign trade,” but the process had been set in motion decades earlier. What impelled it? On this question the Encyclopedia’s entry for the Port of New York is not helpful. “Upper New York Bay was…developed as a port by colonists because it was large and close to the open sea and had deep channels,…shelter,…” etc. But these conditions are typical of many ports along the Atlantic coast, including Sag Harbor. “The port [of New York] was the third- or fourth-largest…at the time of the…Revolution and grew rapidly afterward.” But why?

If the Canal is not the answer, what is? The Encyclopedia entry on New York’s economy suggests that New York “thrived” at the expense of other cities during the British occupation and that “further disruptions in trade during the War of 1812 left New York City the country’s dominant port” (page 361). But this is a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. If New York’s success arose from the misery of its neighbors, why did New York outgrow them even more rapidly when that misery abated?

One of Jane Jacobs’s themes is that for cities to grow they should not be tightly held to a single function but should be free to improvise, through trial and error, an unpredictable variety of economic uses. They should be loose and opportunistic, not dominated by a particular group or interest as the commerce of Boston and Philadelphia, for example, was dominated by the projects of fellow Congregationalists and Quakers or that of Charleston by its plantation culture. On the theory that human creativity left to itself will usually produce better results than a master plan or a ruling clique, Manhattan’s unique advantage may not have been its geography at all, but its polyglot origins. Without in any way endorsing such a hypothesis, The Encyclopedia of New York supplies much evidence to support it.

Of all the major English settlements in North America New York was the only one in which English culture did not prevail. New York was, of course, originally Dutch, and even after the English seized the colony in 1664 “Dutch culture and institutions remained dominant” for at least a century. By 1730 “Dutch settlers accounted for 39.4 percent of the population and probably still outnumbered the English….” During the Revolution the leading Dutch families—the Freylinghuysens, the Rutgerses, the Van Cortlandts, the Schuylers—supported the patriots, perhaps mindful of the high-handed seizure of their settlement by the British a century earlier. Washington “referred to New York and New Jersey as his ‘loyal Dutch Belt,’ ” and to this day the city’s loyal Dutch are remembered in the names of countless streets and waterways and, of course, by New York’s professional basketball team, whose blunderbuss style amply suits its name. By 1790 the British population of New York was “74.2 percent of the total,” but the appearance of British dominance may be deceiving. “From 1834 to 1858 English immigrants accounted for a disproportionate share of the residents in Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary and City Prison, Bellevue Hospital, the almshouse, and the lunatic asylum, sometimes twice as high as in the city as a whole.”

The original Dutch settlement at New Amsterdam included besides the Dutch themselves Huguenots, English, Germans, and, of course, African slaves as well as Jews. “New Amsterdam soon became the most culturally diverse European colony in North America.” In 1643 a French Jesuit identified eighteen languages spoken by a population of about five hundred, and forty years later the governor noted that there were “religions of all sorts, one church of England, several Presbiterians and Independents, Quakers and Anabaptists of Severall sects, [and] some Jews.” Inevitably New York became the port of entry for the large immigrations of the nineteenth century.

New York in other words has always been a city of outsiders and this may help to explain the odd fact that at the end of the seventeenth century New York City opened its port to pirates, the ultimate misfits. New York never became a pirate haven to equal Port Royale in Jamaica, but under the odious Governor Fletcher it came close. Though the Encyclopedia omits entries for pirates or for their protector, Fletcher, the entry on New York’s economy refers to “Fletcher’s well-known collaboration with pirate traders…” and to “the colony’s notorious experience with piracy in the East Indies and Madagascar in the 1680s and 1690s,” and adds that New York’s merchants “actively smuggled in the West Indies, and many traded with forbidden areas or evaded payment of duties.” According to Robert C. Ritchie’s excellent biography of Captain Kidd,* Fletcher was an “impecunious, morally bankrupt soldier…[who] never refused a bribe.” Elsewhere he is described as a corsair. More temperately, the Encyclopedia says only that “his well-known collaboration with pirate traders tarnished his credibility.” Here the Encyclopedia is too kind. In fact he had no credibility left to tarnish and would soon be recalled to London.

Fletcher’s successors, Richard Coote, Henry Hyde, and Robert Hunter, “discouraged smuggling,” but here too the entry understates the case, for it fails to mention Coote’s notorious protégé, Captain William Kidd (page 636), who owned a pew in Trinity Church (where Governor Fletcher also worshipped), and resided with his wife, the wealthy widow Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, at 119–121 Pearl Street until the unhappy events that landed him before an admiralty court on charges of murder and piracy, whence he was sent to the gallows.

Kidd, a native Scot, had served as a privateer in the war between England and France that broke out in 1688 as a consequence of the Glorious Revolution, when the Catholic James II was exiled to France while William of Orange and his wife Mary ascended the English throne. In the resulting turbulence, Jacob Leisler, a German militia captain, seized the government of New York ostensibly on behalf of William but soon proved himself a divisive leader. King William ordered Leisler deposed and a struggle ensued between Leisler’s anti-Catholic followers—mainly small tradesmen and artisans—and the city’s more substantial citizens, including Robert Livingston (no entry), a Scottish immigrant who had made his way from Boston by way of Albany to New York, where he greatly enlarged his fortune and founded a dynasty. It was at this moment that the boisterous Kidd came ashore and joined the anti-Leisler forces who soon prevailed, sending Leisler to the gallows. Thus Kidd ingratiated himself with Livingston, a fellow Scot, and the recently arrived Fletcher, made his alliance with the widow Oort, and was elevated to the higher reaches of New York society, whose ranks were as open to successful rowdies as its markets were to contraband.

Given its cultural diversity, its political chaos, and its openness to criminal dealings, New York at this time seems not to have attracted the better sort of colonial administrators. Fletcher was succeeded by the equally impecunious Coote (Lord Bellomont), who, desperate for money, had conspired in London against Fletcher, whose lucrative post Coote wanted for himself. Coote soon formed an alliance with Livingston, Kidd, and various Whig supporters of King William to outfit a ship under Kidd’s command. The aim was to highjack pirate cargoes on the high seas and bring them to New York where they could be sold for the benefit of Coote’s syndicate. King William himself is said to have invested £3,000 in the venture and the penniless Coote probably borrowed his share from a London merchant named Harrison, who was so confident of success that he seems to have backed several other participants in the syndicate as well.

Kidd set sail for the Indian Ocean, but instead of attacking pirates—a dangerous enterprise—he turned to piracy himself, “capturing five ships off the coast of India before heading for Madagascar.” These depredations infuriated the Great Moghul who threatened the interests of the British East India Company, which prevailed upon the admiralty to bring Kidd to trial. The embarrassment of his illustrious backers was proportionate to their dignity. They abandoned Kidd to a court eager to play its part in the suppression of piracy and the furtherance of trade. He was found guilty and hanged at Execution Dock in Wapping, a trophy for the Moghul and a warning to his would-be tormentors.

Coote himself soon died of natural causes and was succeeded as governor by Henry Hyde, Lord Cornbury, the transvestite first cousin of Queen Anne, remembered for his irascibility and his determination to appear in public dressed as his illustrious relative. Cornbury was arrested for debt and eventually recalled but not before contributing to New York’s reputation as an oddly run place indeed. The point seems to be not simply that New York was an ill-administered colony during these years but that it welcomed adventurers who might not have found equal scope for their eccentricities elsewhere.

In any case, New York has remained a favored destination for unconventional spirits ever since. Soon after the Revolution John Jacob Astor, a German-born fur trader arrived from the Pacific Northwest, made his fortune in real estate and by 1840 had become the country’s richest man (page 62). A year later P.T. Barnum (page 78), a native of Bethel, Connecticut, opened his first theater—a freak show—on Ann Street, from which he launched the American entertainment industry. In 1857 J.P. Morgan, born in Hartford and educated in Boston and in Europe (page 796), arrived by way of London to do the same for American capitalism. John D. Rockefeller (page 1014) turned up two years later, from Cleveland, to open the offices of Standard Oil and by 1884 moved here himself, and so on and on. Even readers of the Encyclopedia who will already have assumed as much may be astonished at the number of biographical entries whose illustrious subjects were born elsewhere: William Paley in Chicago, Felix Rohatyn in Vienna, Damon Runyon in (Manhattan!) Kansas, Harold Ross in Colorado, Mark Rothko in Latvia, Cass Gilbert in Ohio, Reginald Marsh in Paris, Malcolm X in Omaha, Charles Dana Gibson in Boston, Mary McCarthy in Seattle, Horace Greeley in New Hampshire. It is striking to find that the composer Edward MacDowell and the tenor Jan Peerce were actually native New Yorkers.

The point is not, of course, that these innovators are spiritual descendants of Kidd and Fletcher and Cornbury, but that the same openness that may have attracted these early freebooters to Manhattan seems to have become a permanent feature of New York’s culture and attracted their energetic successors as well. Surely it is hard to imagine that Astor, Ross, Paley, Greeley, and others could have fared as well on Beacon Hill or Independence Square, and a few hours spent with The Encyclopedia of New York suggests why this might be.

On other matters, the Encyclopedia is not so helpful. On the origins of SoHo, for example, the neighborhood where I happen to live, the entry states simply that “between 1960 and 1970 artists seeking low rents and space for large works defied zoning laws and converted vacant warehouses into studios, galleries, and living quarters,” and that in 1973 “the area was designated a Historic District” (page 1088). But why had the warehouses been vacated in the first place and why was it important for the Landmarks Commission to preserve the area from further change? The clue will be found half-hidden in the entry for that Count Dracula of city planners, Robert Moses, but the path from SoHo to Moses will not be obvious to browsers not already aware of the link: “…In early 1946 [Moses] set out to rebuild the city for the modern automobile: he built the Brooklyn—Queens Expressway…as well as highway loops, parking garages, and a civic center in downtown Brooklyn. He proposed similar improvements [sic!] for lower Manhattan, including a crosstown artery at Broome Street.” What the entry omits is either the origin of this lunatic scheme for a Broome Street Expressway, which would have destroyed the glorious cast-iron buildings that now constitute SoHo as well as Little Italy—now a thriving Chinese neighborhood—or any indication that the scheme was defeated after a prolonged struggle by a neighborhood coalition.

The Expressway was first proposed in the so-called Regional Plan of New York and its Environs, completed in 1929 and sponsored thereafter by the Regional Plan Association of New York. But the Encyclopedia includes no entry for the Plan itself, a serious and puzzling omission. The Regional Plan shaped and misshaped the city in countless ways and became the basis for much of Moses’s agenda. It was exactly the kind of master plan, promoting the interests of a particular group, that Jacobs warned against in her Economy of Cities. Yet the Regional Plan is mentioned only in passing in the entry for city planning, which also mentions in passing “community activists, who protested the destruction of their neighborhoods….” Among these activists the entry names Jane Jacobs but fails to indicate that she successfully helped to lead the ten-year struggle against Moses’s Broome Street scheme and is thus responsible, in large part, for the existence of SoHo, whose lofts had been abandoned when the specialized manufacturers and wholesalers who occupied them closed their businesses, or moved away, fully expecting the Expressway to be built. It was to prevent renewed efforts to build the Expressway that the neighborhood was soon thereafter landmarked.

Alas, the encyclopedia includes no entry for Jacobs herself, though The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which she wrote while she lived on Hudson Street in lower Manhattan, has profoundly affected the idea of city life ever since.

There are of course, other omissions, errors, and dubious allocations of space inevitable in a work of this sort which subsequent editions will undoubtedly correct. There are no entries, for example, for S.I., Jr., and Donald Newhouse, who own among other businesses Condé Nast Publications, Random House, and The New Yorker, nor are there entries for Pete Hamill, Roger Straus, Murray Kempton, and Igor Stravinsky. Bennett Cerf was not the publisher of Kafka. Prince Street is not in Greenwich Village. Though Victoria Woodhull wrote that she was “broken in mind and body” she was not insane. Paul Whiteman, a bandleader of the 1920s, William F. Buckley, Jr., and William Cullen Bryant are given as much space respectively as Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. Six columns are devoted to lesbians but only three to gays. The Irish get thirteen columns, African-Americans get nine, the Jews eight, the Italians five. Restaurants are disposed of in just under three. J.P. Morgan gets one. So does Adam Clay-ton Powell, Jr. The entry for Jails might have mentioned that the city jail known as the Tombs took its name from the Egyptian Revival style of the original jailhouse built to resemble the temple at Karnak.

None of this much matters. To wander through the Encyclopedia is as frustrating and enlightening, as surprising and as irritating as the city itself. As for myself, I’m happy to own it and expect that long before the second edition appears my own copy will have worn out from overuse.

  1. *

    Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Harvard University Press, 1986).

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