Does New York Still Want to Be the Capital of the World?Roundup
tags: New York, development, urban history
Mr. Jackson is professor emeritus of history at Columbia, president emeritus of the New-York Historical Society, president of the New York Academy of History, and editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of New York City. He was a trustee of the South Street Seaport Museum, 1989-2001.
Most Americans are familiar with the great events and places that define our national past—Bunker Hill in Massachusetts, Independence Hall in Pennsylvania, Jamestown in Virginia. The list could go on. But no place in the country has seen more history than the southern tip of Manhattan. There, the Dutch set up a trading post in 1625 and created a tradition of tolerance and a live-and-let-live lifestyle that would endure for centuries.
Lower Manhattan became the strategic focus of both sides in the American Revolution and the headquarters for the British army and navy for the entire conflict. When the redcoats sailed away from the island in 1783, it marked the end of the war—and the beginning of the United States. The nation’s first chamber of commerce started there in 1768, as did the New York Stock Exchange in 1792. By the beginning of the 20th century, lower Manhattan had surpassed Chicago to become the true home of the skyscraper, and by 1917 it had surpassed London as the engine of the world economy.
New York emerged from World War II as the capital of the world, a reality ratified by its selection as the home of the United Nations. Since then it has remained first among equals, with London as its major rival. Along the way New York has demonstrated resilience and an ability to adapt to changing economic and social circumstances. Consider that 70 years ago, two of the three pillars of New York’s economy were manufacturing and waterborne trade. Both essentially disappeared in recent decades, but the city had more and better jobs at the beginning of 2020 than it did in 1950.
Now the city faces new challenges as it works to recover from the pandemic’s devastating effects. Other American cities—notably Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Miami—are challenging New York’s supremacy in communications, legal and financial services, the arts and business. Political and economic leaders in those cities encourage inclusive growth, development and change.
Less so in New York. Consider lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport area. In the 19th century, it was the beating heart of the local economy and the center of the busiest harbor on earth. In the 20th century, it suffered as shipping moved away from the East River toward the Hudson. Today, with many of its businesses and attractions—and the city’s budget—reeling from the fallout from the pandemic, the area stands to benefit from a private developer’s plan to invest nearly a billion dollars to build a 27-story mixed-use building on a site that is now a parking lot with no historic value.
It will surprise no one who follows New York’s real estate scene to learn that the parking lot was made part of the South Street Seaport Historic District in 1977 for a reason having nothing to do with historic preservation: to maintain the views from the windows of neighboring buildings. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will decide the parking lot’s fate at a hearing on April 6.