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The Life and Times of Gotham, the City by the Sea

11:00 PM, Feb 7, 1999 • By FRED SIEGEL
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New York, the open city, the city created by its harbor, has always been both invigorated and imperiled by disorder.

As the offspring of the Dutch Republic, the most advanced economy of the seventeenth century, the great port drew commerce in eighteen languages -- together with "servants, slaves, sailors, and soldiers" whose brawls made the burghers anxious and a police force an early necessity. Three and a half centuries before Mayor Rudy Giuliani preached civility to the unbelieving, Peter Stuyvesant described his city by the sea as "slovenly, drunken, disobedient." Determined to establish discipline in New Amsterdam, Mayor Stuyvesant imposed fines on townsfolk who allowed pigs, goats, and sheep to wander. He also -- George Lankevich relates in his compact new study, American Metropolis: A History of New York City -- ordered taverns to close at nine and forbade residents from throwing "rubbish, filth, ashes, oyster-shells, dead animals, or anything like it" into the street. New Amsterdam became the new "Gotham": the legendary "goat town" of wise fools who, as one eighteenth-century observer noted, were "infatuated with trade" and energized the economy even as they left the streets strewn with litter.

In 1664 -- when the Dutch, defeated by the English, passed the torch of economic leadership -- New Amsterdam became New York, a prominent port in the British global economy. Its extraordinary harbor was and remains a "divine gift," as the modern commentator Roger Starr once described it. Protected from the wind in all direction, it was free of fog, ice, and sharply shifting tides. The Long Island Sound funneled in commerce from the east, the Hudson River brought down traffic from the north, and New Jersey's Raritan River carried in trade from the west.

New Yorkers had the ingenuity to shape the port to their commercial advantage -- and the port in turn shaped them. The city's adventurous eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century Whig entrepreneurs, well aware of competition from Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, operated with an energy and acumen unknown to the dynastic firms of their rivals. Even before the Erie Canal opened in 1825, they pioneered the auction system for selling arriving goods. "The truth," explained Abraham Thompson, one of the auctioneers, "was that in Boston and Philadelphia, the free and absolute sale of goods is not encouraged," in fact not even "understood." In 1817, New York established the first regularly scheduled packet-ship service to and from England, enhancing the city's position as the center of information for the financial markets that were, in turn, underwritten with the profits from trade. This virtuous circle, reinforced by the success of the Erie Canal in 1825, would carry the city to greatness.

This is the New York that Herman Melville knew when he composed his famous 1851 description of a city fascinated by its port at the beginning of Moby Dick. But the city that once lived with its face toward the sea has now become a metropolis whose back is turned on its own harbor. The worlds of finance and trade, once intimately intertwined, have been severed. There is today -- as Kevin Bone's brilliantly illustrated collection of essays on the architectural history of the harbor, The New York Waterfront, shows -- no longer any Port of New York to speak of. It's all been transferred to the shallow waters of New Jersey while New York is now almost entirely an inner-borough white-collar community joined to outer boroughs nearly stripped of blue-collar work. Even in these boom times and under the leadership of a great mayor, New York is a city whose economy consists primarily of using Wall Street revenues to pay for social-service jobs in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

One new version of the great New York saga, and a significant publishing event, is Gotham by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, an astonishingly readable 1,383-page account of the city from its origins to 1898, when the five boroughs were consolidated into "Greater New York." While the authors claim that they have no "overarching thesis," there is in fact an ongoing theme in their witty, well-written narrative. Drawing, as Burrows and Wallace readily acknowledge, on the last thirty years of scholarship in new labor and social history, Gotham is at its core the story of the struggles of the working class and new immigrants against commercial capitalism.