At night, from the dark waters around the island, the winking lights and the black geometric shapes make modern Manhattan look like a city of the future, a giant computer big enough to control the world rather than a historic city.
Manhattan is where the old Dutch wanderers founded a settlement nearly 350 years ago. Today, New York has 10 million people from all quarters of the globe, a huge incoming tide of humanity seeking sanctuary or fame and fortune.
But in 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president, there were only 30,000 people in New York. The ceremony took place at the old Federal Hall, where the Sub-Treasury building now stands on Wall Street, and was followed by a year-long spell of glory when New York was the capital of the newly formed United States. It deserved the honour. During the War of Independence it had been occupied and nearly destroyed.
The best way to taste the flavour of New York today is from the water, and a dinner cruise, with everyone crowding the sides of the graceful yacht as we passed the floodlit Statue of Liberty, made a fine end to a hectic day tracing the city’s past.
It had started with a diner breakfast — a vast plate of bacon, eggs, hash browns, muffins and unlimited coffee for only $4.99. Then I had set out to look at both the present and the past of this overflowing city which, in Manhattan at least, is still a series of urban villages.
The 17 th-century city was born on what is now Battery Park at the southern end of Manhattan island. Even before that, the English navigator Henry Hudson, who gave his name to the river, had founded a trading post during a vain attempt to find a passage to India. Hudson’s reports inspired the Dutch to settle on the farming land along the river’s banks.
In 1626 the Dutch paid 60 guilders’ worth of trinkets to the local Indians and got Manhattan — “hilly islands” in the Algonquin language — in exchange. A tour on foot, often the best way in New York, will confirm that name. A New Yorker I spoke to on 8th Street looked stunned to hear I was planning to walk as far north as 11Oth. A good alternative is one of the Double Decker tours (on a red London bus) which allow you to get on and off at will and do your own thing.
Apart from the restored Dutch fort, Castle Clinton, which once guarded the harbour and is now a national monument, little of the old Dutch presence can still be seen today. Even the old name, New Amsterdam, was lost in 1664 when the city fell to a British fleet despatched by the Duke of York and was re-named in his honour. But in this old district below 4th Street (the numbers rise from south to north) most streets still have names rather than numbers. They are rarely straight, either, because they once followed Dutch farm roads rather than the grid system which Manhattan adopted later.
Today, the Battery Park area is one of the most modern in New York, thanks to the World Trade Center. The builders had the bright idea of using the earth displaced by the construction work to fill in a part of the Hudson River. On it rose the World Financial Center and some of the most prestigious apartment blocks in New York for the 30,000 or so people who work there. At its heart is the Winter Garden, whose vaulted roof soars 120 feet and houses palm trees, gatherings and entertainment. Its closeness to Wall Street and the Financial Center, the luxury of its apartments with their panoramic views of the harbour and the Statue of Liberty, have made Battery Park City a smart place. Enticing notices invite would-be buyers to “look at Harbor Lights, not Headlights”
From Battery Park, a short boat-ride lets you skip two centuries to 1892, when Ellis Island opened its doors to the 12 million immigrants (80% of all US immigration) who over the next 50 years waited there for entry to the new world. The red-brick buildings are a memorial to the immigrants who helped build America; a block away is a museum to their hopes and determination.
And they needed determination. From the Great Hall, the would-be citizens climbed the staircases to the Registry Room under the keen eyes of immigration officers trained to spot and reject any infirmity. Then they waited in the old blocks for the welcoming words on the Statue of Liberty to come true.
In the last two centuries, New York has been swept by waves of people from different lands. First the Irish, then more Irish, then Italians, then Jews from many countries, then people from Africa and the Caribbean, Puerto Ricans and many more. Alongside these bigger waves was a steady influx from Europe and Asia. New immigrants sought out relatives and friends already there, so that whole areas as well as many small districts became the home of people from the same countries.
Few stayed long in their first homes, so that the neighbourhoods and the languages spoken there changed with astonishing speed. Two exceptions are Chinatown (though it now has several synagogues) and Little Italy, side by side around the Canal Street and Center Street areas, which have kept their character. Further east, Lower East Side and the Bowery have also retained something of the atmosphere of the immigrants’ city, with their crammed apartment blocks, sidewalk sales and street markets full of shrill bargaining in many languages, their restaurants and cafés with names from every part of the world.
In Chinatown the Chinese New Year is celebrated with vigour and with brilliantly coloured parades when it falls in January or February. There are guided walking tours to historic sites and out-of-the-way places that a visitor might easily miss on his own. Little Italy is always festive, and celebrates the Feast of Genaro for 10 days in September; exiles long gone from New York come back for the occasion. Here are some of the best Italian restaurants and delis.
To the north-west is SoHo (SOuth of HOuston Street), not named after Soho in London, though it too is full of galleries, workshops, restaurants and small shops. Greenwich Village, its sister neighbourhood, is based around Washington’s Arch and Washington Square; long ago it held the summer houses and lands of the early settlers, who fled there when one of the worst of the periodic epidemics swept over their settlements. In this century Greenwich Village became the city’s Bohemian quarter, and its gracious houses became home to many artists and writers. There are dozens of craft and curio shops, and artists and intellectuals still make forays into what they call “the Village.”
SoHo and the Flat Iron district (named after the city’s first skyscraper, which gained that mocking title from its shape) were the heart of New York’s old manufacturing and commercial district. With cast iron imported from Britain, the SoHo companies built factories and warehouses; until the 1960s it was illegal to live here, though many immigrants worked in the area
SoHo might well have been ripped down, but a quickly- formed group, the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture, persuaded the city that it was worth converting. So the artists moved in, and in a characteristic New York change moved out again when rents rose too high, though restaurants, galleries and boutiques remain. Now, thanks to the activists, SoHo retains many old buildings with those characteristic iron fire escapes so beloved of old movies.
You have to be up early to beat health-conscious New Yorkers jogging and walking in Central Park. North of there, from around 125th Street, Harlem is the black capital of New York, with its vibrant street and sporting life. It is more than tall apartment blocks and black politics. Among its businesses and churches are African-American boutiques and good music and art, particularly during the Harlem Jazz Festival and the Black Theater Festival.
Here you find the Hispanic Museum and the Museum of the American Indian on Audubon Street, the Black Fashion Museum on West 126th, and the Schomberg Centre for Research in Black Culture. On the west coast, Riverside Drive has the marble tomb of General Ulysses S. Grant, who led the north in the Civil War. Many of the Puerto Ricans, who form the largest Spanish-speaking group in New York, first settled here in the 1950s, mostly in East Harlem.
But the race that has had the biggest influence on New York must be the Irish. Today their influence is everywhere: Irish pubs, Irish restaurants, Irish music and dancing, Irish bookshops. On the northern tip of the island, where the Inwood neighbourhood jumps over the river a few blocks into the Bronx, Irish people in one or two of the recreation parks still play the national games of hurling and Gaelic football. On St Patrick’s Day, the Irish take over the city and the whole place turns green; the famous St Patrick’s Day Parade makes an impassable moving barrier along Fifth Avenue. To reach the other side, you have to be born there.
They say that New York has drawn in as many nations as the United Nations itself, and today it is also the UN’s home, on international ground donated by the Rockefeller family on the eastern side of Manhattan, with its own postage system and special stamps. The Delegates’ Dining Room is open to the public and serves good, reasonably-priced food; there are guided tours in English, and special tickets for open sessions of the General Assembly and the Security Council.
Once inside, the myriad races and colours from countries and continents across the globe raise this thought: what better place could the UN have chosen for its headquarters than the fascinating mix of multi-cultural New York?