New York Readings – David McCullough

Born out of necessity and engineered by one of the most exceptional architects of his time, the Brooklyn Bridge is more than a means of transport from New York to Brooklyn.  The magnificent structure is a monument. Just as we judge the Egyptians by their Pyramids, our civilization will be recreated by the evaluation of this Great Bridge.  Author, Montgomery Schuyler brilliantly describes it as “one of the greatest and most characteristic” structures, “the work is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a place, but a bridge” (McCullough 549).    A landmark of engineering, technology, industry, passion, sentiment, and utility, the Brooklyn Bridge will forever remind America and all civilizations of her true greatness.

James A. Roebling, a well-educated German immigrant, envisioned for America an architectural wonder that would push economic and industrial goals into a new century.  His vision was of magnitude that many could not conceptualize.  The impact of his creation was even more massive than great structure itself.  Roebling saw a future not only for New York and Brooklyn, but one that would advance America and establish the nation as an international force of power and might, much like the physical structure itself.

Physically, the Brooklyn Bridge surpassed all others before her.  For close to fifty years it reigned as the largest suspension bridge on earth (McCullough 543).  The 825 foot span of the Niagara Bridge was nothing compared to the greatness of Brooklyn.  The impressive Cincinnati Bridge was shadowed by the towers of Brooklyn.  The Brooklyn Bridge required less material than other kinds of bridges, and still provided much more (McCullough 71).  Roebling’s progressive idea to use steel cable as opposed to iron, the material of which all other suspension systems were erected, provided strength unknown to any other suspension bridge before.  Advanced design and steel provided the Brooklyn Bridge the ability to transport pedestrians, carriages, trolleys, and trains, all simultaneously (McCullough 79).  Revolutionary and ingenious, the Brooklyn Bridge had might, size and versatility unlike any other of the 19th century, a true architectural and industrial achievement.

James Roebling was a visionary who dedicated his entire being to the creation of this massive monument to American civilization.  The greatest irony of the Brooklyn Bridge lies in the relationship to the man and the structure.  He would never live to see its beauty.  “His training, all his ambition and ability, his entire life’s work had been building toward this greatest of bridges and he had not lived to do it—that was a tragedy people could readily understand regardless of how little previous interest they may have had in either the man or his work” (McCullough 94).  The work had to be completed under the direction of Roebling’s son Washington.  While disturbing, this irony provides yet another element to the Bridge, it was destined and no one man was going to control that destiny, not even the tough and intimidating Roebling himself.

The bridge provided the city of Brooklyn with every economic opportunity that Roebling and its designers promised.  The connection between New York and Brooklyn created a commerce Mecca not only for America, but for the world.  It became a central hub for exchange of goods and a safe commute for Americans.  Great bridges were erected after the Brooklyn Bridge, but none seemed to have the influence or power of Brooklyn.  Both the Golden Gate Bridge and the George Washington Bridge would eclipse the Brooklyn Bridge, but both of them are forever indebted to Brooklyn, as they were constructed of Roebling wire and inspired by her success (McCullough 552).

The hold that the Brooklyn Bridge has over people is as almost as incredible as its architecture.  While difficult to pinpoint, this fascination that people have and all of the reasons that they have it is yet another testament to its greatness.  Paintings, carvings, etchings, photographs, engravings, writings, and songs have been inspired by its beauty and integrity.  The Brooklyn Bridge has been the center of more paintings, lithographs, and photographs than any other structure in America (McCullough 548).  It has been the scene of many movies and the spot on which countless American couples have fallen in love or become engaged.  The Brooklyn Bridge has been then source of inspiration and sentimental emotion for Americans since its construction.

Designed to move people and goods between New York and Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge became much more than a thoroughfare, it became an icon, a symbol of America.  Inspired out of need and created out of genius, the Brooklyn Bridge has proven her worth.  Today, the New York Public Works Department credits the Brooklyn Bridge as the least troublesome and the engineers who oversee her maintenance explain, “As far as we are concerned, it will last forever” (McCullough 562).  Let’s aspire that it does.

“Shall shine this silvery tie;
The wondering world will gather here,
And gaze, with gleaming eye.
Philosophers will ponder
How, blessed by the hand of Heaven.
The world has another wonder
To add to her ancient seven.
Philanthropists will linger
To view the giant span,
And point, with grateful finger,
To man’s great work for man ;
And all will bless the year
When, in the May-month green,
The King of the Western Hemisphere
Was wed to the Island Queen.”

Will Carleton
Brooklyn, N. Y.


New York Readings – Joseph Mitchell

The New York underclass experienced lives that were uncluttered, male-dominated, traditional, and always seeming to look to the past rather than toward the future.  The sea had great influence on the poor as it provided many of the basics on which they preferred to live.  Oysters and ale were staples and beefsteaks were a treat.  Bad manners and gluttony were common among this meager crowd and the influence of women was cause for angst.  Pollution and progression pulled the disfavored away from the security of their past and toward a future that was of little interest to their present.

Joseph Mitchell captured the essence of the underclass throughout his nostalgic and reminiscent works.  Published in the New Yorker to audiences of all backgrounds, Mitchell unveils the characters of the souls who were considered bums, bohemians, low-class, gypsies, freaks, or the barroom sort.  His history is one of the typical man, not the wealthy, influential, or powerful, but the man on the street easily overlooked and preferably ignored.  One of his most colorful characters, Joe Gould explained the value in what Mitchell’s research uncovered, “What people say is history, what people used to think was history—kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan—is only formal history and largely false” (Mitchell 58).  Mitchell tells of the daily lives seldom recorded and the experiences that created a nation of people who emerged out of poverty and reality.

The underclass of New York were not hailed or envied for their contributions.  They were not regarded in society as worthy of credit but by-in-large, those who lead their lives behind the scenes of popularity and riches knew something that the powerful rarely seemed to discover.  The most disfavored New Yorker knew who he was in the world, not only accepted that role, but strove indignantly to preserve it in an ever-changing world.

Traditional and stern, Mitchell introduces characters that prefer a simpler life.  He tells of a life in which no man was controlled by money or work, but one where a man could be comfortable in his own skin.  In his short story, “The Old House at Home”, Mitchell tells the tale of a New York bar and the people who spent their days there.  The original owner, John McSorley, traditional in every way, changed nothing about his bar or himself for the sake of gain or economic interest.  His desire was simple, to do what he enjoyed and provide a place for men to go and just be, over ale.  His bar was humble as was his life and the men who patroned his establishment desired nothing more.  Like the lot of Mitchell’s characters, McSorley was unimpressed by wealth, was good at what he did, and unchanging.  As his establishment changed hands of ownership, the generations that followed McSorley made changes only out of necessity and shared in the old man’s desire for simplicity and familiarity.  Mitchell portrays a class of people who found comfort in uncomplicated living made pleasant by the conversation, the security in familiar faces, and as always, good ale (Mitchell 22).

Drink was central to the lives of most of the underclass.  Mitchell describes in each of his works the joy and pleasure seemingly unfortunate souls received during their gatherings over spirits and ale.  Drunkenness and overconsumption was common among the meager sort.  Mitchell describes a scene in “The Cave Dwellers” where a couple once so destitute that they were forced to sleep in a cave in Central Park for one year.  They come into a windfall and the first thing that they do is splurge on alcohol and become intoxicated.  They then attack the very man responsible for their windfall, Mitchell himself, by throwing a bottle of liquor at him as he attempted to provide them with both a job and donations.  Thankless, confusing, and blurred by alcohol, the couple from the cave, like much of New York’s underclass, was never confused with the conventional.

The sea was significant to the livelihood of many of the underprivileged.  Many of their lives revolved around the economy that grew in the ocean.  Oysters were mentioned in a number of Mitchell’s works.  Common to the diet of the poor until they became a delicacy for the rich, they were a staple, comforting, and for many, a reminder of home.  Oyster-bedders passed on their professions to their children, like Mitchell’s character Roy, in “The Bottom of the Harbor”.  Roy’s father was one of the greatest oyster-bedders in New York and the skill having been passed from father to son, until pollution killed off the beds or poisoned them.  The market for oysters plummeted after people began getting sick and Roy, his father, and many others were forced to veer from the family trade onto something else.  Roy’s father died of a stroke on the Stanton Island Ferry on his way to work after taking a bookkeeping job on the docks.  Roy was given a position as fish butcher by one of his father’s friends (Mitchell 484).  The pollution that killed the beds was a significant source of distress for many of New York’s underclass as they accused it of taking away their past.  The seas, so familiar and full of life, became only a grim reminder of better days.

Hobbies were common among the lower-class.  Collecting, writing, gardening, music, and storytelling were familiar past-times.  Mitchell tells of a conversation he had with a gentleman, in his work, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”.  Mr. Hunter, who had made a hobby out of the local fauna, began to reminisce about pokeweed, “It’s not that I like them so much—in fact, they give me gas—but they remind me of the days gone by, they remind me of my mother” (Mitchell 513).  The poor found comfort in surrounding themselves with things that reminded them of their history.  Mitchell tells of Mr. McSorely who collected things and displayed them all over his bar in “The Old House at Home”.  He happened upon the mysterious Calypso music of the Islands so enjoyed by the characters in “Houdini’s Picnic” and he reminisced about the stories of times gone by as shared in Mr. Gould’s unconventional and unpredictable oral history in “Joe Gould’s Secret”.  Mitchell exposed a society out of which emerged customs, history, and deep rooted tradition that few found interest to notice.

Mitchell shed light on the lives of those who normally found their way in the shadows.  He discovered a culture that was considered “uncultured” and in doing so, introduced America to a reality that most chose to ignore.  The underclass of New York materialized out of many ethnicities, thoughts, backgrounds, and dreams, but they shared one common thread, their past was very much a part of their present and a deciding factor in their destinies.

New York Readings – Judith L. Van Buskirk

The Revolutionary War was a civil war.  It was a war that pitted families and friends against one another long before the 1860’s.  The Whigs and the Tories both considered themselves equally American.  The Whigs had adoration for their country and saw themselves as patriots just as did those who were fighting for American Independence (Van Buskirk 1).  The political lines that divided brother and neighbor, could not, in the end, destroy those relationships.  By the closing stages of the Revolution, the war-weary population in New York could not be persuaded to tackle the inconspicuous “enemy”.  New Yorkers moved on and friends, business associates, and neighbors were chosen on the basis of personal interest, not political agenda.  The Revolution proved incapable of destroying the bridges that connected Americans to one another.  At the same time, those connections weakened many of the efforts of the war for independence on both sides of the battlefield (Van Buskirk 195).

When the British took possession of the City of New York, Americans fled that summer of 1776 and the political battle lines were drawn.  Away from politics, however, the lines were very blurred and many Americans refused to cut ties to their loved ones and acquaintances in the name of war.  Sarah and Catherine Alexander, wife and daughter of a Major General in the Continental Army were allowed to pay social call to family and friends throughout New York.  It did not occur to them as odd that they were behind enemy lines in loyalist New York, nor did they consider their loyalist acquaintances as enemies (Van Buskirk 44).

Families maintained connection in both discreet and more dangerous public displays.  Women in particular were known for crossing military boundaries to get to loved ones for nurturing, care giving, and support especially to those incarcerated.  Authorities passed laws prohibiting contact with the enemies, but these laws were largely ignored.  Governor William Livingston of New Jersey was astonished when at the same time he and Washington were developing strategies for the enforcement of these new laws, he caught his own family members crossing the lines into New York (Van Buskirk 47).

The family ties went beyond simple correspondence of good will wishes and sentimental support.  Earlier on in the conflict, women were not considered dangerous and given more leeway when it came to crossing military lines.  It was not too long in the war that it became apparent that women and other family members passing into enemy territory was indeed dangerous, for the individuals involved and the war effort.  Female networks emerged that communicated political rumors and military information.  Many men were kept confined and away from public business like prominent New York politician William Smith, Jr.  The women in his family however were not so confined and managed to become his informants and the communication lines were kept open by the unsuspecting women (Van Buskirk 52).  Women were not alone in this type of activity.  Van Buskirk explains, “The warriors themselves formed a lively network in and out of the occupied city.  Under the steady, unperturbed gaze of the sentinels of both sides, enemy officers crisscrossed the lines from 1776-1783” (Van Buskirk 72).

Espionage became a lethal threat and seemingly no soul, family member or high-ranking official, was shielded against the attraction, be it financial or otherwise, of fraternizing with the enemy.  No example of espionage and treason is more pronounced than that of Benedict Arnold.  With the prospect of the King’s ransom, Arnold succumbed to the desire for wealth.  He spent sixteen months corresponding with General Henry Clinton’s chief aide, John Andre in code books and invisible ink, sharing military strategies and inside information that compromised the Continental Army and everything Washington was attempting to accomplish (Van Buskirk 92).  Patriot aversion of the Arnold-Andres plan, while successful, was devastating.   It proved just how blurred the lines between friend and foe furing the American Revolution really were.

The paintings, writings, and songs of the American Revolution tell a story of Patriots and “Red Coats”.  The battle lines were clearly defined and the task at hand, independence from Britain, was obvious to all Americans.  The truth of the matter is much more complicated.  Americans, for the most part, were British.  Loyalists and Patriots looked no different from one another.  They lived in the same neighborhoods, attended the same churches, participated in business with one another, and many shared bloodlines.  The Revolution, just like the Civil War, aligned brother against brother.  The reality of the war was much more clouded than the crisp accounts noted in the history books and the seven-year stand-off in New York is a perfect illustration of that confusion.  Both personal relationships and loyalties to a cause were blurred by the politics of the conflict.  In the end, both Whigs and Tories learned how to preserve their personal relationships while at the same time enduring the demands of war.  Their refusal to deny their long-standing ties made them in truth, “generous enemies” (Van Buskirk 7).

New York Readings – Russell Shorto

The American colonies are generally associated with an English past, but not all of the colonies were English.  Manhattan’s history is multiethnic, commercial, diverse, and Dutch.  Early Manhattan actually bears resemblance to the powerful city that exists today as the influences and diversity that make it unique were inspired by its early Dutch founders.  Largely overlooked, the historical significance of the Dutch contributions to the settlement left a giant chasm in the early history of what became “New England”.  Evolving into English territory by the 1660’s, “New Netherland” was early on only a memory.  While this made it rather painless to minimize, the Dutch settlement was by no means small or lacking in significance.  It was significant as it included parts of not only New York, but Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, covering the whole middle stretch of the East Coast (Shorto 303).  Russell Shorto helped unearth this hidden piece of Dutch history in America and explains, “…it was all here, meticulously maintained, year by year, day by the, the story of America’s first mixed society” (Shorto 300).

The colony established by Peter Stuyvesant, eventually surrendered to England, was one of mixed heritage.  People from all over Europe traveled to settle in the Dutch colony (Shorto 303).   Amsterdam was considered the melting pot of Europe and this tolerant attitude was central to the Dutch colony in America.  In Europe, Amsterdam became a haven for all types of people including, John Locke, exiled English royalty, and peasants from all over Europe.  Manhattan became to encompass the same values and quickly became known for openness to trade and diversity (Shorto 6).  Even after the colony was surrendered to the English, the Dutch society that had been established never left.  Some refused to even refer to the area as New England and insisted that Manhattan was still and would always be, “New Netherlands” (Shorto 303).

Manhattan’s reputation for prosperity, trade, and commerce is seeded in the Dutch past.  Henry Hudson cleared a path for mercantilism that the enterprising Dutch could not ignore.  England was not a threat at the time and the possibilities for commerce were immeasurable with a combination of virtually limitless natural resources and excellent trading routes.  The Dutch revered the economic opportunities of Manhattan and surrounding lands and the ideas of a shortcut to Asia became antiquated, for much greater riches were right at their fingertips (Shorto 36).  Dutch traders moved in on an enterprising opportunity and turned Manhattan from its earliest beginnings into a center of commerce.

Politically, New Netherland began to struggle as tensions grew when English colonies became better established and Indian conflicts intensified.  One man, who had arguably one of the most influential roles in not only the Dutch colony, but also incredible influence toward American ideals of liberty, was Adrien Van der Donk.  Van der Donk realized some things about multiethnic relationships, fair business, and human nature that his own leaders ignored.  New Netherland virtually evolved into a company town with its population treated more like employees than citizens.  Van der Donk took interest in the economic rights of the citizens, he became interested in Indian beliefs and began to understand their philosophies, and he saw New Netherland as more than an economic interest.   His ideas conflicted with Amsterdam’s economic goals but in New Netherland, he had become a hero.  Shorto describes Van der Donk as one, “…who, I think, deserves to be ranked as an early American prophet, a forerunner of the Revolutionary generation” (Shorto 9).  Liberty, economic freedom, diversity, and tolerance were ideals that Van der Donk fought for in America, ideals that Americans today live-by and die to protect.

The Dutch created a society in America that was like no other.  One area within that society emerged into what many consider the greatest city on earth, New York.  Shorto makes a compelling argument regarding the creation of New York, “Because of its population, and the fact that it was under the control of the Dutch, this island city would become the first multiethnic, upwardly mobile society on America’s shores, a prototype of the kind of society that would be duplicated throughout the country and around the world” (Shorto 3).  Openness and tolerance gave America greatness and the birthplace of those concepts was located at the tip of Manhattan Island when the Dutch, not the English, established a tolerant, forward thinking society.