The Big Apple turns 400: celebrating New York’s diverse roots

by Marzia Parmigiani
10 minutes read
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Today, we know it as the iconic New York City – a bustling metropolis that serves as the financial capital of the world and a melting pot of cultures. However, the city’s origins trace back to a small Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam, founded nearly four centuries ago. As New York commemorates its 400th anniversary, it’s an opportune time to delve into the rich arras of its past and unravel the stories that have shaped this extraordinary city.

“New York City goes beyond words. It’s a feeling, a state of mind. It’s an extraordinary sense of belonging and inspiration.”

Louise Bay, Hopeful (2017)

The Big Apple turns 400: The Dutch foundations of New Amsterdam

In May 1624, the Dutch founded New Amsterdam. On August 24, 1664, the British arrived in New Amsterdam harbor and seized control of the settlement. Renamed New York, the city was thus established.

In the heart of present-day Manhattan, where skyscrapers now soar and the New York Stock Exchange stands as a symbol of global finance, the streets once bore a distinctly different character. On the southern tip of the island, Broad Street, now home to the iconic Wall Street address, was once a canal known as Heere Gracht, constructed by the early Dutch settlers mirroring the waterways of their homeland. The New-York Historical Society Museum’s exhibition, “New York Before New York: The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam,” running from March 15 to July 14, sheds light on the city’s formative years as a Dutch colony. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Castello Plan, the only known map depicting New Amsterdam at its peak around 1660, when it had nearly 2,000 inhabitants and thrived as a commercial outpost with religious freedom and a multitude of languages spoken.

A glimpse into the past: the Castello Plan

The Castello Plan, the oldest surviving copy of an original map drawn by a surveyor employed by the Dutch West India Company, provides a captivating glimpse into the colony’s early days. Crafted in 1665 and bound in an atlas sold to Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1667, this invaluable document resurfaced in 1900 at Villa di Castello, lending its name to the map. The plan meticulously depicts the city’s layout, including canals, docks, gardens, a windmill, and approximately 300 houses. Alongside this invaluable map, the exhibition showcases artifacts unearthed during excavations in the 1980s, believed to have belonged to enslaved Africans serving the colony’s Dutch settlers. Additionally, precious documents, such as the letter informing the Dutch authorities of the famous purchase of Manhattan Island from Native Americans, are on display.

The Big Apple turns 400: Exploring the lives of early settlers and indigenous connections

Through a thoughtfully curated collection of objects, documents, and an interactive digital version of the Castello Plan, the exhibition delves into the lives of the Dutch colonists, their relationships with indigenous communities, and the harsh realities of African enslavement. It draws poignant connections between these early experiences and the modern-day metropolis, inviting visitors to ponder the city’s multifaceted heritage.

The Big Apple turns 400: Remnants of New Amsterdam in the modern city

As one wanders through the streets of present-day New York, traces of the ancient Dutch settlement have become increasingly elusive, obscured by the layered histories that have unfolded on this narrow island nestled between waterways. However, a few remnants have managed to withstand the test of time, offering glimpses into the city’s storied past. In the 1970s, during the construction of a skyscraper at 85 Broad Street, the remains of a 1670 building, the Lovelace Tavern, were uncovered. This tavern once stood adjacent to the city’s first municipal building, the Stadt Huys, initially constructed as a tavern during the Dutch colonial era. Today, a trail of yellow bricks marks the location of this historic structure, while glass panels along the sidewalk offer a view of the Lovelace Tavern’s original foundations. Nearby, an 18th-century cistern has also been discovered and preserved. During what was New York City’s first large-scale archaeological excavation in the downtown area, archaeologists unearthed over 70,000 artifacts, some dating back to the Dutch period. These priceless finds now form part of the New York City Archaeological Repository’s collection.

Enduring marks of Dutch influence

While physical remnants of New Amsterdam are few and far between, the city’s street grid bears enduring marks of its Dutch origins. Many of the thoroughfares depicted in the Castello Plan can still be traversed today, including Broadway, a Native American trail predating European settlement, and Wall Street, named after the protective palisade that once marked the city’s northern boundary. Echoes of the Dutch language can be heard throughout the city’s neighborhoods, from The Bowery (derived from “bouwerij,” meaning farm) in the south to Harlem (from Haarlem, a Dutch city) in the North, extending beyond the boundaries of Manhattan Island. Three of New York City’s five boroughs bear Dutch names: Brooklyn (formerly Breukelen, after a town northeast of Utrecht), Staten Island (originally Staaten Eylandt, honoring the Staten Generaal, the Dutch Parliament), and The Bronx (named after the Dutchman Jonas Bronck). In various boroughs, traces of Dutch presence can be found in historic farmhouses constructed during the outskirts of New Amsterdam. However, some argue that the most enduring Dutch influences lie elsewhere. Historian and journalist Russell Shorto, in his book “The Island at the Center of the World,” based on extensive research by Charles T. Gehring of the New York State Library on the colony’s surviving documents, posits that New York’s entrepreneurial spirit and tolerance for diversity can be attributed to its Dutch roots – qualities that have transformed the city into a mobile, multicultural society capable of attracting hopes and aspirations from around the globe.

The Big Apple turns 400: New York’s indelible spirit of diversity and resilience

As New York City celebrates its 400th anniversary, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the city’s remarkable journey from a humble Dutch settlement to a global metropolis. The exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Museum serves as a poignant reminder of the diverse roots that have nourished the city’s enduring spirit of diversity, resilience, and innovation. Through the lens of New Amsterdam’s history, we gain a deeper appreciation for the multiculturalism that has become woven into the fabric of New York City. From the religious freedom and linguistic diversity of the Dutch colony to the contributions of indigenous communities and enslaved Africans, the city’s foundations were built upon a rich tapestry of cultures and experiences. As we marvel at the towering skyscrapers and bustling streets of modern-day New York, let us pause and remember the stories etched into its very foundations – stories that speak of courage, perseverance, and a steadfast embrace of humanity in all its forms. For it is this spirit, forged over four centuries, that has made New York City an enduring beacon of hope and a true crossroads of the world.

Final Thoughts

So, The Big Apple turns 400. As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of New York City, we cannot help but reflect on the extraordinary resilience and ability to reinvent itself that this city has demonstrated. From its humble beginnings as a small Dutch settlement to the heights of modern grandeur, New York has weathered centuries of challenges and transformations, emerging stronger and more vibrant with each step. The streets we walk today are silent witnesses to a multicultural heritage that has sedimented over the centuries. Every corner, every alleyway, every building tells a story of people from all corners of the world who have contributed to weaving the unique tapestry of this metropolis. From Dutch colonists to African slaves, from indigenous populations to immigrants of every era, New York has been forged by a melting pot of cultures, traditions, and dreams.

Yet, beyond its diverse origins, what truly makes New York exceptional is its indomitable spirit and its ability to embrace change. This city has not been a passive observer of history but a leading actor, shaping the course of events with its unstoppable energy and openness to new ideas.

As we look to the future, we must embrace the same spirit that has made New York a symbol of hope and opportunity for millions of people. In a world of constant evolution, this city reminds us of the importance of adapting, embracing diversity, and confronting challenges with courage and determination.

New York is not just a physical place but an idea, an ideal that transcends geographical boundaries. It is a beacon of inspiration for anyone seeking to realize their dreams, a constant reminder that nothing is impossible when we open ourselves to the infinite possibilities offered by the intersection of diverse cultures.

As we celebrate this historic milestone, let us commit to preserving and perpetuating the spirit of New York, so that future generations may continue to draw inspiration from this extraordinary city, a crossroads of dreams and hopes for all of humanity.

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