Thursday, July 4, 2013

Books: New York - The Novel, by Edward Rutherfurd

(Drivebycuriosity) - I like New York and I like to read history books. Hence I purchased a Kindle edition of "New York - The Novel", by Edward Rutherfurd (amazon). The author delivers a mixture of a fiction and non-fiction book. He tells the history of New York City in the shape of episodes about fictional characters living in different time periods since the founding of the metropolis.

This combination didn`t really work for me. I didn´t learn much about the advance of New York City or how she got shaped. The book is more a collection of short stories than a history book.

The narrative structure leads to large chronological leaps - and corresponding gaps - that conceal the big historical picture. It seems that the author was more interested in his fictional characters than in the development of the metropolis. Some of the episodes are well written, but others didn´t interest me.

For those, who don`t want to bother to read this book but are interested in New York´s development over time, here is a short sketch:

The nucleus of New York City was a settlement on Manhattan, one of the countless islands at the north east coast of today´s USA (wikipedia).  This place belonged originally to the American natives, who are ignorantly and falsely called "Indians" (the same word is used for citizens of the state India thousands of miles away). Dutch settlers coerced the local tribe Lenape to sell them Manhattan for cheap and started there a trading colony on the behalf of the "Dutch West Indies Company", a kind of an early hedge fund.

The colony, called New Amsterdam, flourished thanks to the trade of beaver furs that the settlers bought cheap from the natives and sold them expensively to Europe were they were high in fashion.  In 1664 the English overtook Manhattan and the nearby islands, that became later Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Islands (5 Burroughs), and renamed the island group New York.

New York City benefitted from the harbor - protected by a 118 miles long island (today: Long Island) - and the huge Hudson River that allowed shipping right into the almost virginal Northern American continent. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which connected the Atlantic port to the vast agricultural markets of the North American interior, gave the place another boost.

The fledging city also gained from the libertarian and capitalistic spirit inherited from the early Dutch traders and English entrepreneurs including a reliable & efficient legal framework. "The city's cosmopolitan attitude and tolerance of many different cultures encouraged many different types of immigrant groups to settle in the city", reports Wikipedia (wikipedia).

The city´s wealth grew with the booming trade between the fledging colony and Europe: Fur, tobacco, sugar, manufactured goods and - shame on then - slaves from Africa. In the 18th New York City made a lot of money as a leading slave exchange.

New York City benefitted as a major trading place from the American revolution, the civil war and the industrialization of the U.S. because all these events created an enormous hunger for goods.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the city became a world center for industry, finance, commerce and communication. This lead to a huge accumulation of wealth and the rise of gigantic banks and Wall Street. Entrepreneur families like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Guggenheims, Carnegies, J.P. Morgans collected vast amounts of capital and ruled almost their world.

But they also gave most of the reaped profits back. While European public institutions like museums, opera houses and libraries are built with tax money, in New York those places are financed by donations. Today`s New York displays the beauty of the greed: Jewels like Guggenheim Museum, Carnegie Hall, Morgan Library & Museum are just examples for public institutions gifted by donors.

New York city might be seen as one of the most capitalistic places of the world, but the metropolis also got shaped by politicians. Legislators gave most of the city (north of the historic part) a pattern like a chess board with avenues travelling north to south and numbered streets from east to west. Intersections of important traffic arteries became buzzling places like Union Square (5th Avenue and 14th Street), Time Square (Broadway, 7th Av, 42nd Str). Ambitious connections like Brooklyn Bridge (completed 1882), Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Holland and Lincoln Tunnel also shaped the face of the metropolis.

In the 19th century the city development, especially construction of tenant buildings, got influenced by Tammany Hall, an alliance of unions and the Democratic Party, and in the early 20th century by the so-called power broker Robert Moses who controlled urban planning, including building the majority of the city parks. Fiorello La Guardia, and other mayors, had a large part in the story of New York City of course.

Today NYC is recovering from 2 recessions, super-storm Sandy and 9/11 and is flourishing again as a buzzing and beautiful global center.

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