The Encyclopedia of New York City
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.