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A Short History of the Big Apple

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 2, 2023 3:01 am

A Short History of the Big Apple

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 2, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Writer Bill Bryk briefly recounts how New York City became the city it is today, as well as his love for its past.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

I love mornings, which is a good thing since the Today Show starts early. Those first hours set the tone for the day ahead. We're here to give you the best start. You get the news, learn something new, and even get a little boost. You start the day off with a clean slate and we hope you'll start it with us. We begin our day so you can take on yours because every day meets today.

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So grab your headphones, raise your tray table, and relax with I Heart Radio and Southwest Airlines. This is our American stories and we love telling you stories about our history because we think it's one of the most important things we can share. Because of this, we love people who love history. Today, one of our regular contributors tells us about the history of New York City in a way you've probably never heard. Manhattan, Manahatta, the Algonquin's Island of Hills is twelve and a half miles long and two and a half miles wide at its broadest point. Every day, 1.5 million people ride its buses and 3.5 million its subways.

Each fare was 275 when my wife and I left the city for New Hampshire. But 59,000 commuters now ride free on the Staten Island Ferry. Vince Sweeney, a Staten Island historian, defines a ferry as a function rather than a boat. Waterborne transportation regularly crossing some body of navigable water for the convenience of persons, vehicles, and animals. The first Staten Island Ferry of which we know started in 1708. It ran between William Street in Manhattan and the watering place, now Tompkinsville, on the east shore of Staten Island. Orsman powered the first ferries.

Later, someone devised a horse-driven treadmill to propel the boats. In 1810, Cornelius Vanderbilt, a handsome, profane Staten Islander borrowed $100 from his mother to run a ferry from Stapleton, another east shore town, and the foot of Whitehall Street. Seven years later, he launched the first steam ferry, the Nautilus, and charged an extortionate 25-cent fare.

Children have price. By contrast, the nickel fare was sacrosanct for most of the 20th century, rising to 25 cents and then 50 cents only under pressure of the city's fiscal crises. Then, on July 4th, 1997, Mayor Giuliani decreed there would be no more fare.

Just in time for that year's mayoral elections. For five years, five mornings a week, I walked to the ferry terminal in St. George, Staten Island to catch a ferry boat. From its bow, Manhattan's towers gleamed on the horizon like the fabled city of El Dorado, or like a vision of the city of God. The boat rumbled from its slip past the great bronze statue on Bedloe's Island. My paternal grandfather saw the same statue from an immigrant ship in 1906. He was then an 18-year-old adventurer who had escaped conscription into the armies of the Tsar by crossing the border into Austrian Poland beneath the load in a manure wagon. He then made his way through Austria, Germany, and Belgium, where he quickly picked up a sound idiomatic French, which he could speak well into his ninth decade, and then to England, whence he sailed from Southampton. Within a century of his arrival, his experience of a long sea passage, closing with the vision of a mighty woman, her lamp, the imprisoned lightning, has become uncommon, if not unknown.

Men and women no longer come here in steerage. They land from airplanes, something of which my grandfather probably had no knowledge in 1906, a practical technology even now barely a century old. So, too, we have changed how we carry freight across the seas. Now the great container ships glide past St. George to Elizabeth Port and the Bay of Newark, where the containers stand stacked for transfer to train and truck. Of the hundreds of ships that once daily lined Manhattan's shores with a forest of masts, only a few cruise liners now swing at anchor. At Whitehall in lower Manhattan, swift currents and contrary winds bumped my boat into its slip.

Nearby, a pile driver alternated puffs of steam with hammer blows as it drives a wooden pile into the harbor floor. It was probably the last working steam-powered machine in Manhattan, if not the city. Nothing more surely measures progress than the obsolescence of steam, the driving force of the industrial revolution. The city's last steam locomotives, the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal's oil-burning switchers serving the waterfront north of the Navy Yard, dropped their fires in 1962.

The last steam ferryboat, the Verrazano, stopped all engines in 1981. New York is older than Philadelphia or Boston, yet only a handful of pre-revolutionary buildings have survived. St. Paul's Chapel on Lower Broadway is the only one in Manhattan. Walking uptown, I often unfairly contrasted the city with John D. Rockefeller's colonial Williamsburg. Manhattan's past exists side by side with the present, and though fragmented, often remains oddly alive. Williamsburg was barely a ghost town when Rockefeller began restoring what had been Virginia's colonial capital.

Today, the hamlet is beautifully restored and maintained. It presents a careful, corporate, and inoffensive vision of colonial history. Downtown's tortuous, irregular streets are those laid out by the Dutch and the English, except Broadway, which was an Indian trail running north from the Battery before the white men came. Some street names have changed, usually for political reasons. Crown Street was renamed Liberty, but most remain the same. The indispensable AIA Guide to New York City notes that Pearl Street was once the edge of the island where Mother of Pearl oyster shells littered the beach. Wall Street, the most famous, was the site of the northern boundary of New Amsterdam, where a wall was erected against the English and the Indians.

Of course, there have been no beavers on Beaver Street for nearly 300 years. In 1771, the royal government erected a gilt bronze equestrian statue of King George III and a black iron fence with ornamental crowns. After the first reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9th, 1776, up at the Commons, just south of today's City Hall, a mob of patriots came downtown, toppled the statue, and broke off the crowns. The statue was broken up and carried away and melted for shot. A fountain has taken its place.

The fence remains. Downtown's tangled streets contrast with the grid of right angles and straight lines imposed on most of Manhattan by a board of street commissioners in 1807. Their plan was memorialized on the Randall Map, named after John Randall Jr., the engineer and surveyor who created it and drew it by hand. Nearly 25 years ago, Harry Kleiderman pulled me into the Manhattan Borough President's Topographical Bureau. Harry worked there. He was tough, profane, and worldly, and I liked him a lot. His romanticism escaped only in kindness to his friends, love of history, and fidelity to the memory of Tammany Hall. The hall had gotten him his jobs. He had been a pick and shovel man for the Borough Department of Works, now part of the Department of Transportation, a confidential secretary to a municipal court justice, and then a clerk in the Topographical Bureau.

We gossiped about politics. Then Harry asked whether I wanted to see the Randall Map. He opened the cabinet with the reverence one might reserve for the Ark of the Covenant. The map had been made in several parts and was mounted on rollers so cracks wouldn't form along fold lines.

Harry unrolled part of it. Randall had drawn and named the streets with India ink and watercolored the landforms. There was the Collect Pond in Mineta Brook and Kipps Bay and the rolling hills of Chelsea that would all soon vanish beneath the pavements and landfills of the city. The map was perfect and exquisite. The Topographical Bureau and its predecessors maintained it as if it were the Holy of Holies because in a worldly way it is.

It's the root of all land use in Manhattan. I lightly touched its edge for a moment. It's made of a heavy parchment to endure for the ages. The Randall Map is one of the few objects I've touched that is so rare and unusual as to be literally priceless.

Then Harry rolled it up again and closed the drawer. And you've been listening to Bill Bright give a short history lesson of New York, his own personal history lesson of New York, and it is a city with many bridges, many tunnels and a whole lot of interesting dimensions and we want your stories about your town and send them to Bill Bright short history lesson of New York City here on Our American Story. Our American Story is brought to you by Undercover Tourist, an authorized seller. Plus book your hotel and rental car at and save even more.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-02 04:40:23 / 2023-06-02 04:45:21 / 5

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