Friday Book: Where myth meets reality

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GOTHAM BEGINS with a myth of origin: that Manhattan island was purchased by the Dutch from Native Americans in the early 17th century for a mere $24. New Yorkers, it seems, have always loved a bargain. All Americans are familiar with this myth or a similar version of it - my memory is that the land was handed over for a beaded necklace or two.

No matter about the exact details of exchange; the point of the legend remains. New York (or New Amsterdam, as the Dutch called it) has always been a place of opportunism, where individuals with an eye for the main chance could make their fortunes. As the authors of this exceedingly well- researched and definitive history suggest, New York was almost destined to be "a city of deal-makers, a city of commerce, a City of Capital". At least, after the arrival of exploitative Europeans in the age of discovery.

Long before New York became America's most important financial centre, it was a rough-and-tumble company town. Under Dutch rule, the settlement was run by the West India Company, which attracted "the motliest assortment of souls in Christendom". A mostly male group of Dutch, English, Swedish, German, Danish, French and others had come to the bountiful New World, and to this city, to seek their fortunes in trading. Multiculturalism and money were defining elements from the outstart.

Things didn't change when James Stuart, Duke of York, decided that he would quite like a taste of the big apple in the 1660s. York took the city and its vast surrounding wilderness from the Dutch with ease, and established a tremendously tight reign on the colony which filled his coffers. New York (as it was renamed) was important for a number of reasons. It was an already established centre of trade; it was ideally located to keep a check on the French further north in Canada; and, it ensured that Britain controlled virtually all of America's east coast.

Just over a century later, it was money matters, as much as philosophical ideas about liberty, which led Americans to revolt against British rule. Shortly after Evacuation Day in 1783, when the last British redcoats left New York, the city began to re-establish itself as a financial centre which had been corrupted under those "blood-sucking harpies", the occupying British troops. In the early years of the Republic, New York was a magnet for cash- and credit-rich immigrants eager to speculate financially.

It didn't take long for New York to assert its economic power, and overtake other cities (such as Philadelphia and Boston) as the pre-eminent city of the US. When the Erie Canal established a water route into America's heartland in the 1820s-30s, The Times predicted that New York would become the "London of the New World". That acute observer of American life, Fanny Trollope, compared New York to Venice, which rises "from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth".

Even at its lowest points, New York is a city of comebacks - one reason why it has such a special place in the American imagination. Reversals of fortune, as much as rags-to-riches narratives, are central to New York's history. To cope with the great crash of 1837, New Yorkers developed a literature and "lore of bankruptcy". The depression novel was invented to help explain the precariousness of social ties in a boom-and-bust economy.

Largely due to the railroad, clippers and steamships, by the mid-19th century New York's financial muscle could be flexed once more. The gold rush in the West also filled New York's numerous banking institutions with seemingly endless resources. Increased manufacturing followed, and by 1853, New York felt confident enough to build a Crystal Palace to rival that of London's at the Great Exhibition.

By the end of the 19th century, New York was established as America's premier city. Media, manufacturing, banking, culture - virtually every aspect of American life centred there. For Walt Whitman, New York was "the great place of the Western Continent, the heart, the brain, the focus, the main spring, the pinnacle, the extremity, the no more beyond of the new world". For its citizens then (as now), all roads led to New York.

Gotham is a tremendously successful urban history, which weaves together many strands, including slavery and immigration, political economy and cultural history. It focuses on the period from the Revolution to 1898, when New York gradually defined itself in a young, ambitious country. One of the really interesting things about this study is that the history of the city and its personality seems so familiar, well before the advent of the iconic New York (of skyscrapers and great views) we think of today. And for that fascinating history, I eagerly await the next volume.