Ain’t no uddah place like it, brudda
New York, N.Y. – Gotham, the Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps.
And it never has, not even on its darkest day.
Other cities may be more exotic (Istanbul, New Orleans), more beautiful and romantic (Paris, San Francisco), more historically significant (Jerusalem, Rome, London). But few cities have New York’s gift for embracing the gritty and the glamorous, its terrifying, wondrous capacity for reinvention.
Biology, Freud said, is destiny. But geography and history have their influences, too. Much has been made of how the 17th-century Dutch virtues of industriousness and religious toleration have shaped the commercial cosmopolis that is New York today. Yet long before Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would ultimately bear his name in September of 1609, the place that would become New York was already a melting pot. Here more than 1,000 years ago was Eden, a land of wild roses and blue plums where indigenous peoples speaking various languages would congregate. They were tall, straight-limbed and handsome, with none of the diseases the white men would bring. They fed on a nutritious diet of oysters fished from teeming riverbeds, along with the beans, corn and squash they planted, the so-called “Three Sisters.”
It was the harbor that drew them, perhaps the finest in the world. It was the harbor that drew the Europeans, too. The Dutch were the ones who settled the area first and established what would become the New York credo: You are what you do. Africans, Germans, Jews, Native Americans, Roman Catholics, Swedes: Your color, sex or religion didn’t matter. If you could put in a day’s labor, you could work for the Dutch West India Co. in New Amsterdam, as New York City was then known.
Let’s not get all misty-eyed. It wasn’t a campfire with everyone sitting around making s’mores and singing “Kumbaya” as they swayed shoulder-to-shoulder. The work of clearing, planting, building, fishing, trapping, defending and staying alive was exhausting and endless. Many Europeans were little more than indentured servants. The Africans who built much of New York were slaves, although the Dutch allowed for something called half-slavery whereby a freeman could work to buy his family out of slavery. The Dutch West India Co., headquartered in Amsterdam, wasn’t always an attentive, competent employer. The history of the time is filled with figures – law-and-order director-general Peter Stuyvesant, workers’ rights lawyer Adriaen van der Donck, for whom Yonkers was named – who would foreshadow the Giulianis and the Sharptons. Past is indeed prologue.
After using New Amsterdam to play political football with the British for 10 years, the Dutch gave up the trading post for good in 1674. The new masters were not big on toleration. They were more rules guys. But by then the image of the rechristened New York (after the Duke of York, later James II of England) was well-established – tough, rowdy, entrepreneurial, exciting.
And moneyed. New York’s godfathers would make sure of that. In 1790, New Yorker Alexander Hamilton and Virginian Thomas Jefferson – two sophisticated ladies’ men with little use for each other – brokered the deal over Revolutionary War debt that cemented the city’s destiny. The nation’s capital would move to a spot on the Potomac near Virginia, while New York, once the capital, would be free to follow its path as the country’s financial center. At the dawn of the next century, the city would have its own bard – Tarrytown’s Washington Irving, the man who put the “Got” in Gotham and gave New York its first mythology. He foreshadowed the many media types adding to the lore and the lure.
Events took care of the rest. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 connected the port of New York to the Midwest – the breadbasket of the nascent United States – spurring the city’s growth and power. The unification of the five boroughs in 1898 cemented Greater New York’s identity as America’s bellwether. Post-World War II, New York would be not merely the cultural cosmopolis (thank you, Abstract Expressionists) but, with the country’s rise to superpower status and the location of the United Nations here, the capital of the world.
As the U.S.’ media and financial center, New York garnered another reputation – for coldness, arrogance and immorality. Even the name “Manhattan” – which, let’s face it, is in some quarters synonymous with New York – comes from a Dutch corruption of the Lenape words for “island” and “hill,’’ suggesting an isolated, arduous clime.
A city of islands – one that rose from a bedrock of schist so strong that its creators would have to blast it with dynamite and reach into its bowels to build phallic towers rivaling starlight – became a metaphor for the proud, the lonely, the alienated.
“I am a rock,” native sons Simon and Garfunkel sang. “I am an island.”
It didn’t help that historically, New York City always seemed to be acting in its own self-interest, turning itself into Tory town during the American Revolution and talking about seceding during the Civil War. It didn’t help that its primary sports team always seemed to be playing in the World Series. (See related story on the Yankees.) And it didn’t help that portrayals by Hollywood – part of Los Angeles, New York’s fascinated but teensy-bit-jealous younger sib – have veered from the picturesque (“Home Alone 2”) to the noirish (“The French Connection”). This past summer alone, Hollywood gave us three blockbusters that each enhanced New York’s iconic skyline only to threaten or destroy it (“The Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.”) (See sidebar.)
New York’s toughness is, of course, something of a self-protective act. From its beginnings, the city has been burned, occupied (you go, England), bombed, looted, plotted against and once even famously told in effect to drop dead. (We forgive you, Gerald Ford.) Hey, when you’re a star player, sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team.
The resilient city
Never was that truer than on 9/11. Although we can’t forget those lost at the Pentagon and the heroes of Shanksville, Pa., we remember New York City was the primary civilian target. Whenever people elsewhere ask me about the city – must be that Noo Yawk accent – I always say that on a very bad day that exhibited the worst of humanity, New York displayed the best. Its citizens acted with courage, with purpose and without self-pity.
But then, they have long since absorbed the lessons of the New Yorkers who came before: Do your job and look for opportunity in adversity. Indeed, two of the city’s glories – Central Park and the Empire State Building – came out of the crash of 1857 and the Great Depression respectively, just as One World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum have risen from the ashes of what was Ground Zero.
When the going gets tough, the tough reimagine themselves.
And that’s why the city will always survive and thrive, beckoning those looking for a chance or a fresh start. As the song says, “If I can make it there….”
Well, you know the rest.
But it’s really up to you, kiddo.
Circa 1000 – The future New York City is a beacon for native peoples.
1609 – Henry Hudson encounters one of the world’s great natural harbors.
1664 – The British take over from the Dutch and rename New Amsterdam New York.
1776 – More than 100 British warships arrive as the Continental Army loses the battle for New York.
1790 – In a deal to resolve war debt, Washington, D.C. becomes the new capital while New York City becomes the nation’s financial center.
1809 – Tarrytown’s Washington Irving writes his fabulist history of Gotham, coining that name. The mythmaking begins.
1811 – De Witt Clinton, at various times the city’s mayor and the state’s governor, proposes Manhattan’s lucent street grid.
1825 – The Erie Canal opens, connecting New York to the Midwest, America’s breadbasket
1857 – The stock market crashes and Central Park is begun.
1860 – A relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln gives an anti-slavery speech at Cooper Union that will catapult him into the White House.
1863—The Draft Riot engulfs the city as more than 15,000 men, mostly poor Irish immigrants, protest the burdens of the Civil War.
1883 – The Brooklyn Bridge opens.
1886 – The Statue of Liberty is unveiled.
1898 – The five boroughs are united to become Greater New York, the nation’s largest city.
1904 – The extensive subway system is launched.
1929 – The Chrysler Building is topped and the stock market crashes.
1931 – The Empire State Building, a symbol of hope in the Great Depression, is completed.
1952 – The new United Nations’ headquarters makes New York the capital of the world.
1966 – John V. Lindsay becomes mayor of “Fun City” in the midst of economic decline and social upheaval.
1975 – President Gerald Ford initially refuses to bail out New York City, prompting the Daily News’ “Drop Dead” headline.
2000 – New York City’s population hits 8 million, thanks to an immigration wave sparked by the ’90s’ economic boom.
2001 – A terrorist attack destroys the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, killing close to 3,000 people.
2007 – The Dow hits 14,000, its zenith to date.
2008 – The markets tumble, ushering in a persistent recession.
2011 – The National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center is dedicated on Sept. 11, the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
New York City has had a long, ambivalent, yet still profitable relationship with the film and TV industries as both a location and/or inspiration. Here are just a few of the movies and series that have called the Big Apple muse:
- “Escape From New York” (1981) – Manhattan has always been Hollywood’s favorite dystopia – jealous much, Tinseltown? – perhaps never more so than in this cult classic about a criminal, wonderfully named Snake Plissken (an eye-patched Kurt Russell), who must rescue a downed American president from the maximum security prison that the isle has become.
- “42nd Street” (1933) – The quintessential “show must go on” musical crystallizes the magic and louche heartache of the Great White Way, even if Ruby Keeler is pretty lousy as the mousy ingénue, subbing for the ailing diva, who must go out a youngster and come back a star.
- “The French Connection” (1971) – Perhaps no film has done more to tap the city’s peculiar blend of grime and crime than this William Friedkin flick, with Oscar winner Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as narcs inspired by real-life coppers Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. Don’t miss the heart-stopping car chase under the Els.
- “King Kong” (1933) – Part of the appeal of New York for Hollywood, architect James Sanders has said, is the city’s verticality. This classic emphasizes that, with the climactic battle between man and beast atop the Empire State Building.
- “Law and Order” (1990-2010) – Few TV series have used the city and its suburbs more effectively than this “ripped from the headlines” procedural, helmed by Dick Wolf. Each year, a seamlessly evolving A-list cast, often culled from Broadway, investigated, arrested and prosecuted criminals all over town, with sideswipes at places like Scarsdale and Greenwich. Hey, the rich, dysfunctional perps had to come from some place.
- “Manhattan” (1978) – Gotham has been the setting for virtually all of Woody Allen’s early films. But never has it been more romantic than in this film, which features the iconic shot of Allen and Diane Keaton chatting on a park bench in the shadow of a fog-swathed 59th Street Bridge. And dig that thrilling opening, with the skyline’s distinctive power underscored by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
- “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) – New York City and Christmas go together like PB and J. The tree in Rockefeller Center, the shopping, the potential for Wall Street Scrooges to melt like snowflakes. If you had to pick one Big Apple Christmas film, it would be this charmer with Edmund Gwenn as the twinkliest Santa ever. (The 1994 remake’s not bad either.)
- “New York, New York” (1977) – Better known for his exploration of the city’s “Mean Streets,” Martin Scorsese offers fans a change of pace with this edgy take on the Big Band era, featuring regular collaborator Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli and a swell Kander-Ebb soundtrack that includes the signature title tune.
- “Seinfeld” (1989-98) – Though shot primarily in Los Angeles, this superb postmodern comedy of manners captured the peculiar rhythms and peccadilloes of New York, from Yankee owner George Steinbrenner’s alleged love of Italian food (“The Calzone,” Episode 130) to the tension between Manhattan and the outer boroughs (“The Maid,” Episode 175, in which Elaine regrets losing her prestigious 212 Manhattan area code). More important, the show captured the stereotypical amorality associated with single Manhattanites.
- 10.“West Side Story” (1961) – Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein celebrate the city’s inimitable noir combo of grit and glamour in this balletic turn on the Bard’s star-crossed lovers. The brilliant opening sequence wordlessly establishes the asphalt wasteland of the West Side as the ever-expanding stage for the poetic gangs of New York, foreshadowing its transformation into Lincoln Center.
Sources: “Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies” by James Sanders (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) and “Scenes From the City: Filmmaking in New York 1966-2006,” edited by James Sanders (Rizzoli, 2006).
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