So, I’ve given a bit of background in “What I’ve Been Up To,” but here’s a draft I’m working on for the creative portion of my project, a piece called “Five Points.” There are so many elements of the urban pastoral mode, but history and nostalgia are perhaps the core. Keep that in mind if you’re wondering how the hell this all relates. I promise, it does. Why? Because I said so.
Maybe you don’t walk down the south end of Mulberry Street and imagine gunslingers, gritty butcher shops, and prostitutes in petticoats, but I do. Maybe you’ve stopped seeing the ironic and now clichéd signs in all the Irish bars that declare my kind “need not apply” but I always see them and smile. Maybe lower Manhattan makes you think of the Village, knock-off Fendi bags on Canal Street, or the Financial District. You might think of the revitalized and increasingly trendy Lower East Side or new luxury apartment buildings, in places that once housed tenancies of fifteen people per room, popping up in unexpected areas—the new New York. But I see the old. I see the port of New York, gangs of immigrants, and market stalls. I see the birthplace of New York City and imagine all the way back to Henry Hudson happening upon Mannahatta in 1609 with its hills and vales, its ponds and thriving wildlife. I think of the Lenape and idealize how beautiful this island must have been flanked by water. Green and lush, not even yet bucolic in the way we might imagine.
Going back in history to understand how we as a society got to where we are now is kind of like two hung-over friends trying to piece together their pervious night of alternating blackouts; things are inevitably going to get a bit skewed. But just for fun, let’s go back, way back, and try to piece together how we all got here, shall we?
If you don’t believe in serendipity, consider this: When Henry Hudson was brought on by the Dutch West India Company to find a northwesterly route to Asia, many would say he failed, that he proved as useless for the Dutch as he was for the English. His Renaissance contemporaries would probably be surprised to know that the stubborn Henry Hudson who somewhat accidentally “discovered” the river that bears his name remains a household name some 400 years hence. And that massive body of water, Hudson Bay, where a ship of mutineers left Henry and his son to freeze to death does more for the American tradition than it ever did for the Dutch or the English. It exemplifies how Henry Hudson, if he stayed in New Amsterdam, would have not only been one of the first true Americans, he would have been a real New Yorker, the first one of us.
It doesn’t seem that Hudson ever truly fit as a Londoner; if anything, the Dutch culture suited him better. They were among the first society to value the merit of a self-made man than one who simply inherited a title of nobility. Those walking the streets in Renaissance Amsterdam were, much to the horror of the haughty English culture, casually dressed; their ambition was directed towards work and innovation, not privilege and custom. Hudson’s fellow sailors might have shared his aspirations in theory back at the dockyard, but the icy waters of Hudson Bay can quickly stunt the will of a man with frostbite, no food, and no promise of relief. Unless you are Henry Hudson.
The Dutch settlers that did end up returning to the present day Hudson River Valley and the island of Manhattan were steadfast enough to establish their Dutch roots, their principles of hard work, of tolerance, and perhaps maintain even a glimmer of the blind optimism they left the Netherlands with; it was these people that would became our first New Yorkers. This period of time is often glossed over in history books that seem to only validate New York after its possession by the English crown. But I can’t help but think it was those first men and women who braved the three or four month voyage across the Atlantic that both literally and metaphorically established roots of what New Yorkers may or may not even subconsciously realize they are made of. Such, I would say, is the stuff of determination, of forbearance, of tenacity. This small island we share, even with its hills and vales long gone, is a place where nothing became everything. For millions it remains a place of dreams, of opportunity, of ambition, but never of ease. Nothing here comes free; not even freedom itself.
What a lovely piece of our history, isn’t it? As long as we blackout the part where the Native Americans were slaughtered, dislocated, and diseased by Europeans; the early exploitation of animal life by trappers; and the introduction of slavery, it sounds kind of nice.
(I’m so glad there are beavers back in the Bronx, by the way. A bunch of school children got to name the popular returnee. His name? Jose.)
Historiography, or the writing of history, is shaped by a continuously changing set forces that are often dictated by various media. Archives, amateur video, advertisements, scrapbooks, and the exponential growth of social media are just a few of the myriad examples of non-traditional histories and hybrid forms that have a profound effect on cultural memory and our understanding of history. But these various forms of miscellany are not necessarily in opposition to one, dominant master-narrative history; rather, these forms often work reflexively and/or in dialogue with the accepted comprehension of the past that is perpetually re-contextualized. History is no longer just what we read in our middle school textbooks. And we didn’t just get here because of Henry, although I do give him a lot of credit.
While new media technology and miscellany provide fascinating means to study history, they can only be useful as long as we self-consciously bear in mind the ways we tend to obscure the facts in such forms that are often more representative about the nature of a desired reality and reception thereof rather than a mirror image of actual life. Cultural memory, which has an enormous effect on how we understand historical events can be broken down into social memory versus individual memory, two forces that when combined form the dynamism that exists within ideas of history. A simplified way to imagine social versus individual memory is to think of this breakdown as the idealized and the actual. Idealization often comes as the result of idealized stock images that are forever burned into our consciousness. This translates to a shared cultural memory about events that we may not even have been alive for, but nonetheless accept the narrative as truth.
But for all of these mixed stock images that any one of us may have of the historical New York City, let’s fast forward a couple hundred years to an unpleasant time in the nineteenth century when New York’s infamy could definitively be placed in the Five Points–the notorious neighborhood of crime, disease, political rioting, and general squalor written about from the likes of Abraham Lincoln to Charles Dickens. It may seem odd that the heyday of that truly wretched area was a popular place to visit for the aforementioned, but I imagine it to be akin to staring at a car wreck or a freak show, something that in theory you wish didn’t exist but can’t look away from all the same. But unlike the aftermath of an accident or a spectacle separated from its audience behind bars, the Five Points was a quite dangerous place to be in the nineteenth century. I imagine it to be something like the Wild West, which is probably why it interests me. Isn’t there something alluring about a place of such outright lawlessness? But there were laws. And two police forces. But there was also a whole lot of corruption and when the police are fighting the other police, I imagine there’s a lot of opportunity for some back door deals.
The fight for survival can make people do some pretty horrendous things. For most of us living in New York today, that type of ruthlessness is simply not a part of reality. Even when we’re so broke we can’t even afford free, we’re much better off than the majority of people on this planet. And that must have been the driving force for people like the Irish and the Germans who were pouring into the city in hopes of a better life. I wonder if their sense of hope diminished when they got to the Five Points, stood on that triangular parcel and saw what must have looked like the mouth of hell open before their eyes. Maybe their will to survive brought them closer to the primitive. Maybe New York felt like a wilderness then, too.
To stand in the center of the Five Points back then was literally to stand in the center of the city. And New York City, some would argue, is like being at the center of the world. For others, still, the center of the universe. The streets once physically created an intersection of five points, like a web spanning out in each direction. So much for two roads diverged. None of those streets was the road less traveled and none better than the next. It must have been an entirely different experience, even in the nineteenth century to be on the periphery of such a place where you might get pick-pocketed, but prefer it still to standing right in the thick of it with the possibility of bullets whizzing by and no buildings to use as armor. As the key members of gangs and political organizations battled it out on the streets, I wonder if they ever stopped to see things from all five angles, or if they just fought on one front.
It took a long time for social reform to reach the Five Points. Most sources I’ve read say the place was the worst slum in the Western world (rivaling East London) for something like 70 years. So for nearly a century, New Yorkers living outside the earthly manifestation of Dante’s Inferno must have been living in constant trepidation over crossing the boundaries into the area in the same way that today Upper East Siders are careful not to cross over the border into East Harlem. Aside from fearing crime and violence, one would also have to be guarded against the spread of disease–no easy feat considering the sanitation methods of the time, or lack thereof. It is hard to imagine surviving in such a place let alone raising a family in such conditions, and yet New York somehow survived and grew as it continues to grow, if only vertically.
New York City is full of paradoxes. It has always been a place of extreme individuality as it is a place of unbreakable community, even if these so-called communities were often a euphemism for less reputable networks. When I think of how New York was born and raised I think of the people, both individuals and groups, and also the physicality of the land. All parties mentioned were nearly leveled before they rose up again and the cycle keeps repeating. A quote by Raymond Williams is perhaps best when imagining the city, to think of New York as “red in tooth and claw; a ruthlessly competitive struggle for existence; an extraordinary interlocking system of mutual advantage; a paradigm of interdependence and cooperation.” In New York City you are never really alone, but then again I’ve never been to a place where there is a greater capacity for loneliness.
As I come to my fifth point, I think it has become clear that whatever time in history we’re talking about, it is best to look in from as many perspectives as possible. But we can also circle relentlessly around the island of Manhattan at any time in history and still miss what drives the core of it. It is not just about what lies on the surface of Mannahatta, the land of many hills, but it is this terrain, this same playing field, this arena, or battleground that has provided the context of history since the Native Americans laid claim to it. There are so many critics of urban life, so many people that come to New York City and see chaos without stopping to question how we all got here and why the city looks this way, feels this way. But peel back the layers of history, look for the subtext and you will find a wealth of understanding. The heyday of the Five Points was a grim part of our city’s history, but a critical one if only for the birth of the city as a political hot seat and the neighborhood’s devastation a catalyst for change, which, as is the nature of things, came both in the formula of riot and reform.
New York City, for all its past ills and present ones, is still, to me, the center of the universe. “That’s such a New York thing to say,” I can hear my ex-boyfriend from rural Virginia complaining in his slow, southern drawl. But my New York attitude will not back down. I still want to go to the top of the Empire State Building and quote Shakespeare when I look down at my island and exclaim into the wind “This bless’d plot! This earth! This realm!”
(Pretty casual for a thesis project, huh? Gotta love the freedom of creative non-fiction.)