I’m an Alien, I’m a Legal Alien, I’m An Early Modernist in New York

New York - looking south to the main area of early modern settlement

Did you miss me? I return from a brief  hiatus on the blogging front after a trip to New York. On the surface of it New York is not the place to go when your mind is mostly bent on early modern European history, certainly in the week I was there the closest I got to actual physical evidence of early modern was in the European artefacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But for a historian in general and an admirer of modern architecture, in particular art deco and art nouveau, it is an absolute haven and place of sheer wonder. I spent an inordinate amount of time staring into the skies, slightly slack-jawed in awe, at these behemoths of 20th Century imagination. While they are well rehearsed spots on the NY tourist trail you really cannot take anything away from the Chrysler Building, The Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Centre:

The Chrysler building detail

The Empire State Building from the Rockefeller Centre

Detail from the Rockefeller Centre

All three of these are still working, functional buildings whilst at the same time being markers of a historical period and artefacts a peak time in modern culture. New York has continued to grow and thrive, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the physical city had its cultural moment over sixty years ago and that everything since is partly a reflection and reaction to those key decades of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Of course that is probably utter nonsense and born of my own ignorance, but that was the feeling I got from my brief tramp around the city streets.

While the city’s early modern heritage might not be as immediately obvious as in european cities, New York does have a rich 17th century heritage. By 1660 the area had already been colonised by the Dutch for 36 years and was known as New Amsterdam. It was a growing town if not yet fully exploiting its geographical potential as a trading hub for the expanding colonies in the Americas. In common with many of the American colonies it had started to become a refuge for those seeking religious tolerance with puritan separatists as well as Jewish communities already having settled by 1660.

Nicholaes Visscher: Novi Belgii Novæque Angliæ, Amsterdam 1685

During the 1660s the ownership of New Amsterdam passed back and forth between the British and Dutch as it became a pawn in the Anglo-Dutch Wars. The British took control in 1664 and eventually claimed final legal ownership in 1674. It is from this period of ownership that the name was changed to New York, in honour of Charles II’s brother and heir James, Duke of York. I rather naively expected there to be some sort of tribute to King James somewhere in the city, a statue perhaps, and scoured the guide books for one, untill I remembered that this was unlikely given the subsequent War of Independence ( or ‘revolutionary war’ as it seems to be called stateside). I then came across what happened to King George’s statue:

Take that Saddam, oh wait... hey that's our king.

Next time I visit I want to dig a little deeper into this history and visit some places like the Museum of the City of New York as I’m sure there is an enormous amount that I entirely missed, what with all the staring at shiny, art deco skyscrapers and walking around in the snow.


One relevant place I did visit was the exhibition at the “Mapping New York’s Shoreline” exhibit in the New York Public Library, which has some of the original 17th Century maps of New York and the New England area, is well worth a visit.


Finally, while New Yorkers may not be keen on statues of English kings they don’t seem to mind this chap (though he looked a little cold):

William Shakespeare in the Snow in Central Park


One thought on “I’m an Alien, I’m a Legal Alien, I’m An Early Modernist in New York

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