Sunday, May 31, 2015

182. The Mystery and History of Place Names

     In a recent post about walking in New York I mentioned Gansevoort Street, the site of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and Horatio Street, where I discovered a whole row of well-preserved Greek Revival houses, two of them dating from 1836.  But what about those names, “Gansevoort” and “Horatio”?  Where did they come from?  “Gansevoort” sounded Dutch to me.  “Horatio” meant nothing at all, unless a soldier of ancient Rome of whom I had a vague recollection – a super macho type who alone defended a bridge against a whole army of enemies -- that seemed irrelevant.  So I started scratching about and came up with a few stray facts.

     Gansevoort Street got its name in 1837 from Fort Gansevoort, a fort built at the Hudson River end of the street between 1808 and 1812.  So where did the fort, long since demolished, get its name from?  From Peter Gansevoort (1749-1812), a colonel in the Continental Army during the Revolution, who is best known for successfully defending Fort Stanwix (near today’s Rome, New York) against a British attack in 1777.  And yes, he was of Dutch extraction, in fact, from an aristocratic Dutch family in Albany.

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Horatio Gates in 1782, looking quite
composed two years after his famous ride.
     And Horatio Street?  It too was named after a Revolutionary War figure, General Horatio Gates, a retired British soldier who at the outbreak of hostilities volunteered his services to George Washington.  Having received  credit for the British defeat at the battle of Saratoga in 1777, even though Benedict Arnold and others did most of the fighting, Gates suffered a disastrous defeat at the battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780. Following this debacle he then heroically covered 170 miles on horseback in a strategic retreat.  Though controversial, Gates was evidently still esteemed enough to have a street in Manhattan named for him, though why his first name was used isn’t clear.  (There were lots of streets to name or rename in the 1790s, and only so many Revolutionary War heroes.)

     I’ve always been a history buff and nosey, and researching these priceless facts determined me to do a post onNew York City place names.  So first of all how about the five boroughs?  Here are the probable origins:

·      Manhattan comes from Mannahatta, which in the language of the Lenape, a native American people once living in the lower Hudson Valley and adjacent regions, means “island of many hills.”
·      The Bronx derives its name from Jonas Bronck, a Swedish emigrant who came to the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1639, acquired land, and became the first settler in what is now the Bronx.  The area became known as Bronck’s land, and a river there became known as Bronck’s River and in time gave its name to the borough.
·      Queens was named for Queen Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II of England, during whose reign the British grabbed New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York.  Queen Catherine must have been a patient woman to have tolerated her husband’s many dalliances.
·      Brooklyn derived its name from the Dutch word breukelen, meaning “broken land.”  A Dutch village in the area was named Breukelen, after a town in Holland, and the English Anglicized this as “Brooklyn.”
·      Staten Island was discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson, who named it Staaten Eylandt after the Staten-Generaal, the Dutch parliament that had financed his voyage to the New World. 

     Now let’s have a look at some other names of places, and a glance too at their history.

     The Battery, the park at the southern tip of Manhattan, gets its name from the battery of cannon that the Dutch once positioned there to defend New Amsterdam.  But when a British fleet showed up in 1664, the good burghers were hopelessly outnumbered and surrendered without firing a shot.  After the thirteen colonies won their independence from Great Britain, the old fort was demolished, but in the early 1800s, in anticipation of another war with Great Britain, a circular fort was built on the site.  In time the new fort was named Fort Clinton after Governor De Witt Clinton, but no British attack materialized, so once again the cannon remained silent.  Subsequently renamed Castle Garden, the fort was transformed into a concert hall where the Swedish coloratura Jenny Lind made her sensational American debut in 1850.  From 1855 to 1890 the building served as the federal immigration center of the East Coast, until superseded by Ellis Island.  Next, from 1896 to 1941 the structure became the New York Aquarium.  Restored to its original fortification appearance, today Castle Clinton – yes, the name too has been restored -- is a national monument housing a database of information about immigrants who came to this country in the nineteenth century.

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The circular fort housing the New York Aquarium, much beloved in its time by New Yorkers.

     Governors Island, a 172-acre island in the harbor off the southern tip of Manhattan, was called Nut Island by the Lenape people, because hickory, oak, and chestnut trees grew there, a name that became Noten Eylant among the Dutch, and Nutten Island when the British took over.  But then the colonial assembly of New York reserved the island for the exclusive use of the royal governors, who employed it at one time or another as a goat farm, a tobacco plantation, and a quarantine station for arriving immigrants.  Officially named Governors Island in 1784 (minus an apostrophe, please note), it served as a U.S. military post until 1966, and as a Coast Guard installation from 1966 to 1996.  For me and for most New Yorkers, who viewed it from the Battery or the Staten Island ferry, it was a bit of a mystery, so near and yet so far, and so unknown.

     Then, in 2003, the federal government transferred most of the island to the city and state of New York for the sum of one dollar, on condition that the site be used for public benefit.  To acquire such a big chunk of land right in the heart of the city – and at such a bargain price – was a rare bit of good luck that at once unleashed a storm of debate about what to do with it.  Nothing ever happens in New York without heated arguments and controversy, and plenty of both ensued. 

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A map of Governors Island today.  Castle Williams is at the very top.

     Now open to the public on summer weekends, the island is being developed to include parkland, an organic farm, a high school, artist studios, and a New York University campus.  Still standing is Castle Williams, a circular fort built in 1807-1811 under the supervision of Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Williams, chief engineer of the Corps of Engineers, to protect the city from a British naval attack that never came.  Looming silently on the northwest point of the island, the fort’s four tiers of casements for cannon are clearly visible from the passing Staten Island ferries.  Having narrowly escaped demolition in the past, the renovated fort is now administered by the National Park Service and retains the name Castle Williams.  And while its cannon, like those of its twin, Castle Garden, never engaged an enemy in wartime, they weren’t a total waste of taxpayers’ money, since word of them and other fortifications surely reached the blockading British fleet and discouraged any plans for attack.  (The Brits visited New Orleans instead.)

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Castle Williams today. 

     Bowling Green, a small teardrop-shaped park just up a short distance on Broadway from the Battery, was used in Dutch times as a cattle market and parade ground.  Under British rule it continued as a cattle and grain market, but in 1733 the Common Council leased the site to three neighboring landlords to create a bowling green and park.  From then on, players rolled balls over its smooth green lawn in the time-honored game of bowls, which dates back to the thirteenth century.  In 1770 the British rulers erected on the site a 4,000-pound gilded lead statue of King George the Third, who was shown heroically in Roman garb, bigger than life, astride a prancing steed.  As tension grew between the colonists and their rulers, the statue became a magnet for protests, so a protective cast-iron fence was built around it to shield it from vandalism. 

     In 1776, soon after the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the local Sons of Liberty, some of them not quite sober, rushed down Broadway to Bowling Green and toppled the statue – a symbolic gesture that George Washington, being moderate by nature, disapproved of, but that has often been commemorated, albeit inaccurstely, in works of art.  Minus the head, the lead statue was then broken up and the pieces shipped off to a foundry in Connecticut to be made into bullets for Washington’s troops.  In grim anticipation of the French Revolution of 1789, patriots planned to parade the statue’s head around the city on a pike, but Loyalists recovered it and sent it off to England.  The fence survived and still rings the park, minus the ornamental royal crowns topping each post, which the patriots sawed off.  What then became of those ornaments is not known.  The head turned up a year later in England in the home of Lord Charles Townshend, a devoted servant and crony of His Majesty, but it has not been seen since.

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Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, Pulling Down the Statue of King george III, ca. 1859.  A romanticized
depiction of the event, with many errors.  No women and children were present, and no Indians. 
And the king was actually shown in Roman garb.

     Today, instead of a heroic equestrian statue, the park is graced by a splashing fountain and, at the tapering end of the teardrop, by another bigger-than-life art work, Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull.  The bronze sculpture, showing a bull on its haunches, head lowered and ready to charge, was transferred there in 1989 after the police removed it from Wall Street, where the artist had installed it without permission.  Having heard it hailed as a symbol of the city and Wall Street, tourists flock. 

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Bowling Green fountain today.

     (Bigger-than-life statues of tyrants seem to beg to be toppled, and the toppling is amply photographed and televised as it happens.  In 2003 a giant statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad ostensibly by Iraqis, but the whole affair was a PR stunt staged for television by the U.S.; Iraqis were shown cheering, but a U.S. armored vehicle actually did the tugging.  In 2013 citizens of Ukraine tore down a huge statue of Lenin in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and in 2014 they tore down another in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv.  And in 1991 Albanians toppled a statue of the late Communist dictator Enver Hoxha in Tirana.  And so on, and so on.  China and North Korea, take heed.)

An artist's rendering of the wall in the time of Peter Stuyvesant, who is shown in the foreground.

     And street names?  Wall Street was laid out on the site of a twelve-foot wall that the Dutch built in the seventeenth century to shield New Amsterdam from possible attacks by the native peoples, who had plenty of reasons to attack.  The British tore down the wall in 1699, but the name “Wall Street” was already in use, designating a road that ran across Manhattan next to the wall.  Merchants and traders began gathering there to buy and sell stocks and bonds, and in 1711 the Common Council made Wall Street the city’s first official slave market for the sale and rental of enslaved Africans and Indians.  In eighteenth-century New York one resident in five was an African American slave, and the city’s slave market, at Wall and Pearl Streets on what was then the East River waterfront, was second in size only to the one in Charleston, South Carolina, and functioned until 1762.  The city profited, since for every transaction in the market – every time a human being was bought or sold – the city collected a tax.  Only in April of this year did New York City finally agree to acknowledge the inconvenient  fact of the slave market’s existence by placing a historical marker near the site of the market.

The Castello plan of New Amsterdam, 1660.  The wall is indicated on the far right.  On the left
is the Dutch fort, at the foot of the broad road that became Broadway.

     Canal Street, a major crosstown artery in Lower Manhattan, occupies the site of a canal that was dug in the early nineteenth century to drain the contaminated waters of the Collect Pond into the Hudson River.  Fed by an underground spring, the Collect Pond had once been the city’s main source of water, but in the eighteenth century the pond was polluted by tanneries, breweries, and slaughterhouses that used the water and dumped waste into it. The pond was filled in in 1811, and Canal Street was completed by 1820, following the path of the canal, but the ground in the area was marshy and foul-smelling, causing middle- and upper-class residents to leave, and the notorious slum known as the Five Points to develop.  In the late nineteenth century the city bought up most of the Five Points tenements and condemned them, and in this way eliminated the slum.  Today Canal Street is a busy commercial district with Chinese jewelry stores, outdoor vendors, and banks, and open storefronts and unlicensed peddlers selling knickknacks and souvenirs, and counterfeit DVDs, watches, sunglasses, perfumes, and designer handbags at low prices.

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The Broadway bridge over the canal, 1811.

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Canal Street today.

     Bleecker Street, which runs right by the building I live in, gets its name from the Bleecker family, who owned a farm in the area and deeded land to the city in 1808.  In the 1830s and 1840s the street was lined with handsome Greek Revival houses and rivaled Bond Street for elegance and affluence, until dentists’ offices and other evidence of neighborhood decline appeared, and the wealthy residents, fearing the taint of commerce and the lower orders, moved farther uptown.  By the 1870s the old houses had become boarding houses, brothels, and cheap restaurants, and the low rents of the area began attracting bohemians. 

     In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian immigrants arrived in the city in large numbers, and many settled in Greenwich Village tenements below Washington Square, giving the whole neighborhood a distinctly Italian flavor.  That flavor is reflected in Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1954 opera The Saint of Bleecker Street, where a young woman living in a Bleecker Street tenement receives the stigmata and is hailed by the whole Italian community as a saint. 

     But change was coming.  In hopes of stemming the flight of middle-class residents to the suburbs, in the 1950s Washington Square Village, a mammoth middle-class housing complex, was built on the north side of Bleecker Street between Mercer Street and La Guardia Place, replacing working-class housing and factories and lofts.  Composed of two huge apartment blocks on stilts, the complex was labeled by the Village Voice “a prettily painted chicken coop enlarged to monstrous size.”  New York University acquired it in 1964 and went on to build another huge complex just opposite, on the south side of Bleecker.  The university’s later efforts to expand further in Greenwich Village have whipped up fiery opposition among the otherwise genteel locals.

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Washington Square Village.  Some village!
Padraic Ryan

     By the 1960s, when I first came to live in the Village, middle-class professionals like myself were moving in, including a significant gay population, and Bleecker Street was full of small shops and reasonably priced restaurants that attracted big weekend crowds.  The street’s re-gentrification, with the influx of designer clothing stores in the early years of this century, was recorded in post #105, “New York Mosaic: The Neighborhoods” (December 22, 2013).  Bleecker Street from Bank Street to West 10th Street is now trendy and (in the real-estate sense) “hot,” with soaring rents that have driven out the shops and restaurants; Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren and the like prevail.  But other stretches of Bleecker Street are still commercial in a less trendy way, with a mix of shops and restaurants.  And high above Bleecker are rent-stabilized holdouts like me, contemptuous of the latest trendy phase of the street, and confident that this phase too will in time yield to another, hopefully with less catastrophic rents.  Meanwhile we can console ourselves with the Magnolia Bakery’s cupcakes, or watch others devouring them on our doorstep.

     There’s no way this post could mention all the interesting place names and their origin in the borough of Manhattan, much less all those in the city of New York.  So I’ll settle for just one more, designating one of only two private parks in the city.

     Gramercy Park is a small fenced-in park located between East 20th and 21st Streets, with Lexington Avenue terminating at its northern boundary, and Irving Place commencing at its southern boundary and running south to 14th Street.  The name “Gramercy” is an Anglicization of the Dutch word crommessie, meaning “crooked little knife,” which designated a brook that meandered along what is now East 21st Street and emptied into the East River at 18th Street.

     In 1831 the developer Samuel Ruggles, a pioneer in urban planning, bought what was known as Gramercy Farm from a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam.  He then drained the swampy ground and laid out the park, deeding its possession to the owners of the residential lots surrounding it.  The Panic of 1837 delayed construction of the houses surrounding the park until the 1840s, but by 1844 the park had been landscaped and its gate was locked, the result being a planned neighborhood unique for its time.  Later attempts to bisect the park so as to connect Lexington Avenue with Irving Place failed, and the park survives today, still elegantly fenced with four locked wrought-iron gates, open only to residents of the buildings surrounding it.  In 1966 part of the neighborhood was designated a historic district, and in 1988 the district’s boundaries were extended.  Today it is a quiet, crime-free neighborhood, predominantly white.

     I have often visited the park, viewing its wide graveled walks and disciplined greenery through the high grilled fence.  Usually no one was in it, but occasionally I would see a solitary stroller, one of the privileged few allowed to savor its charms from within.  Since I am not so privileged, the park qualifies for me as a forbidden garden (see post #57), but I can’t say that I long for the treasures it guards, since it is not a Garden of the Hesperides or Eden, harbors no fruit whose taste confers immortality, no Tree of Knowledge or Life. 

Gramercy Park today, with the Edwin Booth statue looming nobly in the center.

     What Gramercy Park does offer is a statue of the famous Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (whose brother killed Abraham Lincoln), who once resided in a townhouse facing the park.  Other features include the Fantasy Fountain, a work in bronze by the sculptor Greg Wyatt that was installed in 1983, and a commemorative fountain and plaque honoring Samuel Ruggles, the urban visionary who also created Union Square.  Some of the original townhouses surrounding the park still stand, but many are gone, replaced by apartment buildings, a synagogue, and a hotel.  But the residents still get a new key to the park every year, for which they pay $350, and a $1000 fee to replace a key they have lost.  Those admitted to its sacred precincts cannot drink alcohol, smoke, cycle, walk a dog, play ball, toss Frisbees, or feed the birds and squirrels, since birdseed and peanuts attract rats.  Groups of more than six are also forbidden, and one resident was reprimanded for eating a sandwich on the grass.  This may sound like obsessive fussiness, and some residents complain that park rules banish any kind of fun, but the rules and fussiness may also explain why the park looks so tranquil and clean.  I confess that I like the idea of a private park visible to outsiders like myself, a sanctuary that manages, in the midst of this turbulent city, to stay old-fashioned and greenly genteel.

     Do outsiders ever trespass in the park?  I’ve never heard of anyone jumping the fence, but on two occasions in 2000 a member of the National Arts Club, which faces the park and is entitled to keys, brought some minority schoolchildren into the park without prior permission.  On the first occasion Sharon Benenson, the chairwoman of the Gramercy Park Trust, called the police, who refused to expel the intruders; on the second occasion the visitors left when Ms. Benenson ordered them out.  A suit against the park’s administration was then filed in Federal District Court by the parents and teachers involved, alleging racial discrimination; according to the plaintiffs, Ms. Benenson, who is white, said the visitors were “not our kind of kids.”  The park administration denied any discrimination, and Ms. Benenson called the charges “personally insulting,” and described Aldon James, the National Arts Club president and a plaintiff in the case, as “a sort of hairbrained nut.  He’s just determined to run Gramercy Park.”  Which goes to show that tensions can fester behind the seeming quaint tranquility of this most genteel and exclusive of parks.  The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2003, with most of the children getting $36,000 each, and one as much as $50,000: all in all, a rather tidy little profit for a brief intrusion into a forbidden space.  And the administration has loosened up a little: jogging is now permitted in certain graveled areas of the park.

     Coming soon: Landmarks: Saving the Old from the New.  And after that, my belated discovery of architectural cast iron and terra cotta.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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