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Dr Sarah Henry

Sarah is the Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of the City of New York. You can listen to our conversation with Sarah in two podcast episodes on The DNA of New York.

Photo credit: NASA via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

Sarah, what is the DNA of New York?

Sarah Henry

So at the Museum of the City of New York, we thought a lot about what the DNA of New York City is, and we've boiled it down to just four words: money, diversity, density and creativity. And for us, the connection among those words is as important as the words themselves. So within each of them, they also each hold within them some complexity and tension.

So starting with money, New York was founded as a for-profit enterprise of the Dutch West India Company. It has money in its DNA from the get-go, and that money and the supercharged economy of New York has been what's both driven its growth and also created the tremendous tensions and history of inequality. But the response to those tensions and inequality has also been a tremendous amount of creativity about how to mitigate the inherent tensions in the economic life of New York.

So you have the profit-driven nature of New York from its beginning also helps explain why diversity became part of its DNA from the very beginning. So New York wasn't founded as a city on a hill, as a model of a perfect society the way Massachusetts Bay Colony started, definitely is not the city of brotherly love like Philadelphia. It was a place where goods were traded and money was to be made, and that's one of the things that drove the diversity even under the Dutch days when New York was New Amsterdam. And that diversity was sometimes begrudging.  So the Dutch, although they were famed for toleration, also wanted to exclude people and maintain cultural and religious authority but in order to make a go of it as a for-profit place that pressured the powers that were at the time, to welcome in anybody who would be able to add to the money-making. Of course, it also meant importing enslaved people captured in Africa and that was very much driven by the profit motive as well.

And so you see the diversity of the city growing from the very, very beginning of the European colonisation. That has given New York a tremendous amount of cosmopolitan quality, and it's been famous as a melting pot or a mosaic. It's also been a place which has, in some ways, been a model of toleration and coexistence, but there have also been tremendous moments of tension and exploitation, so that tension exists within there as well.

These huge number of people, striving people from all over the world squeezed into the city of islands is what helps to explain the third part of the DNA which is the density of the city. And at the Museum of the City of New York, we're very interested in exploring the nature of that density and getting people to understand density in a way that they don't always think about it. I think urbanists are used to thinking of density as an asset. A lot of people in common parlance associate density with overcrowding, and there has definitely been that in New York City's history. And there are tremendous ills that come with too many people compressed into too small of a space, but we also want people to understand that density is an urban asset and something that gives vitality, sustainability and drive to a place.

So then, in a way, we have an equation. Money drives diversity, money and diversity together drive density, and the three of them together spur the creativity that we associate as the kind of animating quality of New York life. And when we say creativity, we mean, of course, the arts and culture, and New York has been famous as a place for that. But it goes beyond that. All these striving people from all over the world bumping up against each other in this very crowded place leads to a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization of ideas and traditions and the creation of new things. And those can be new things in arts and culture, it can be in urban issues and urban affairs, urban design, the physical city, it can be in business, in media. So that's the formula that has created the DNA of the place we know now as New York City.

Caitlin Morrissey

Brilliant. And I know that one of the questions that you ask at the museum is what makes New York, New York. And what makes New York in your perspective?

Sarah Henry

Well, we love to ask the question, what makes New York, New York? And a big part of our answer is the formula of the DNA of New York: money plus diversity plus density equals creativity. To me, when you think about a city, a city is a place, and it's the people in the place. And that's true of any city.

And New York has its own particular alchemy of the place: the built and natural environment of the city and the people who have inhabited it and have changed it. And I think one of the things that's interesting about New York is that it's a place that's very much grown over time as a municipality and that has encompassed within it a lot of variation and diversity. So when one thinks about New York as a global citizen or as, potentially, a tourist or thinks about the media, there's a lot of attention on Manhattan and on the iconic skyscrapers and the world-famous sites to be seen.

But New York is also a city not only of grand scale but of neighbourhoods and of tremendous variety across the five boroughs. And the fact that in 1898, the cities of New York and Brooklyn combined together to make the city of Greater New York, incorporating the surrounding villages in the adjacent counties - and that's how we got the five-borough city - means that New York has encompassed within its municipal borders, in a way, its own 19th-century suburbs, and that consolidation has given the very varied character of New York.

And there is extraordinary borough identity to be from the Bronx, to be from Brooklyn, to be from Staten Island, to be from Queens. All of these things have tremendous cultural resonance and continue to change and be debated over time. So in a way, there are many New York's, and that is built into the evolution of the city, not only because waves of newcomers have arrived over generations and continue to do so and added to the churn and constant reinvention of New York, but also because the actual physical city itself has changed over time.

Caitlin Morrissey

And what about the elements of New York that are innate and geographical like the Hudson river? How have they influenced the way that the city has evolved?

Sarah Henry

Sure. Well, I'm not a big believer in geographical determinism. Though I do say, sometimes, if you shook me awake in the middle of the night and asked me what made New York, New York, and I had to answer really quickly, I would say the harbour. So although I don't think that was that determined, the direction of New York was a key element, so a necessary but not sufficient factor in making New York-- in setting New York off on its trajectory of development.

So New York sits on one of the world's great natural harbours, and the European colonisers saw that advantage. And, of course, the native people who had lived here for thousands of years understood the richness of the geography that they occupied as well. And that's one of the reasons that it became a key strategic point both economically and politically and militarily. 

So there's a reason why New York was so strategic in the American Revolution. And when the British wanted to put down the revolution, they went not to Boston to invade, where the opening sparks of the revolution had begun, but to New York. But the harbour itself is not the only feature, and it was activated by the creation of the Erie Canal. So there's a political decision and a series of human choices and efforts that go behind activating the potential that exists in the natural features that are there.

And so the creation of the Erie Canal that connects New York via the Hudson River in the early 19th century to the agricultural riches of the Upper Midwest was an enormous engineering feat and political effort. And it was the thing that made New York the hub of the Atlantic world vis-a-vis the Upper Midwest, the crops of the slave South and the market, particularly in England. So that added to the existing geography and modified it and moulded it in a way that made it more influential.

The other thing I would mention about geography that I think is really important is that New York is a city of islands, so all of the boroughs except for the Bronx are not on the mainland of the United States. And some people have called it the Venice of America; I don't know if that's quite the way to think about it. Some people have called the waterways the sixth borough of New York, but the fact that we are separated by water or, we could say, connected by water was very important.

And also, the constraints, particularly for Manhattan, of the business centre of the city growing up on an island, a very skinny, narrow, long island is one of the things that pushed the development of the city upward. It's not the only one, but when you think about the crowding and the density of New York and its vertical growth, in Manhattan, in particular, it is definitely shaped by the constraints and therefore, opportunities created by the geography of the island.

Again, that geography has changed over time. So, for example, going back to the Dutch period, the use of landfill to change the contours of the waterfront is really important. And of course, in our own time, the waterfront has taken on different meanings than it had in the days of [sail?]. Let me just say that again because of that ding. And of course, in our own time, the waterfront has taken on different meanings than it did in the great days of the port when it was a seaport. And what we're seeing in the 21st century is this incredible reinvention of what it means to be a city of islands and how to realise new potentials and new opportunities for the waterfront.

Greg Clark

Did you already talk about New Amsterdam and the Dutch element in the history of the city or anything that went before that?

Sarah Henry

I did but tangentially or parenthetically. So I can talk about that in lots of different ways. I think one of the really important things that has distinguished New York's trajectory from other American cities, particularly those on the East Coast that trace their history to the European colonial era, is that New York was founded by the Dutch, not by the English or the French or the Spanish. And it was founded, moreover, as a for-profit enterprise, a company town, a trading post for a private company, the Dutch West India Company chartered by the Dutch government, of course. And that has got it off to a different kind of start.

And even during the long English colonial period, a lot of traditions or cultural elements or even economic features that were created by the Dutch in their brief period from the 1620s to 1664 or 1674, depending on how you count it, they lived on. And one of the things that was a conscious decision by the English governors was to disrupt as little as possible of the existing society and culture and economy. So the Dutch language continues and so do certain sort of civil and political rights that people were accustomed to having, the white people of New Amsterdam.

It also has a very different and complicated and extremely fraught history with the native people who were here first and also with the enslaved population and under the British, grows to be the largest slaving holding city in the North and the, really, centre of urban slavery in a lot of ways. So it's all very complex and entangled with each other.

And one of the things that's often touted is that there's a Dutch tradition of toleration that infuses New York. I think that can be overstated. Though, there are some threads that you can examine that are about the particularities of how New York evolved from being a Dutch colony to a British colony to an independent city that has a particular character because of its Dutch origins.

Greg Clark

Sarah, thank you. Would you mind if we just spent one moment on two key points that you've just mentioned and just give them your take? One of them is, of course, the pre-Dutch New York. What was the First Nations, the Indigenous people’s society? What was it about that place, Manhattan, that led to a settlement being there? And if you like, what do we know about that that's important for understanding New York today? And then I guess the second question is just to kind of invite you to amplify a bit more about slavery and the role of New York in that.

Sarah Henry

Sure. All right, let's do this. Doing this quickly in a compressed way is a fun challenge.

Greg Clark

It's tricky.

Sarah Henry

No, it's good. So the people who inhabited the area that we now call New York and the broader region around New York were Munsee people called the Lenape, and they recognized the rich resources and value of the place that the Dutch and then, later, English colonised: the importance of the waterways, the incredible fertility of the water, for example, and of the land. And the ways that they use the land and the ways that they connected with the economy of the region and of the continent are complicated. And they have often been erased from the narrative and erased from the history, and there's been incredible good work being done to retrieve and recover those histories more than we can talk about in this compressed time.

But one of the things that we do at the Museum of the City of New York in our core exhibition, which is called New York at its Core, is we've mapped the physical, demographic and economic landscape of the Lenape era and shown, for example, that they're incredibly complicated and rich trading routes that connect the harbour that we now call New York to nations that are far away, bringing materials and presumably ideas and cultural exchange in and out of the city. So you see the role of the economy, money - what we put under, in a European way, the title ‘money’ - diversity with all the different native nations and bands and tribes that are moving through the area and creating treaties and commerce and exchange, the ways that the native people changed and used the land and lived upon it and with it.

For example, one of my colleagues and one of our great advisers, Eric Sanderson of the Mannahatta and Welikia projects at the Wildlife Conservation Society, likes to say that for the Lenape, uptown was downtown. So the major settlements were really located in what we would now call Harlem - though, there have been lots of different areas of habitation that have been documented all across what is now the five boroughs - and that there was an area called the Harlem Plains which was created through the management of the landscape. And so the use of fire to burn lands and make areas that can be used both for hunting and for agriculture was important. So it's a very multi-layered story about how human society functioned for hundreds and thousands of years before the Europeans came.

And then with the arrival of the Europeans, there is a catastrophe for the native people, both because of violence and wars and displacement and also very tragically and expansively the role of disease. So smallpox, for example, decimates, in the literal meaning of that word, the native population. So there is an incredible turning point that happens very, very quickly. But the displacement of the Lenape people doesn't end their story. And one of the things that we've been very interested in doing and working with lots of other collaborators is to work with the Lenape people, who are now in diaspora, to re-establish, reassert and recover the stories that have been overwhelmed and lost.

Greg Clark

Thank you so much, and I'm sorry that you had to do that so quickly because I assume it's an amazingly rich story. Can we move on now to the other topic you were raising which is the one of New York's role in slavery? 

Sarah Henry

Sure. So the enslavement of human beings and the use of enslaved labour has been part of New York City's history from virtually the inception, and it is a complex story that has changed over time. But it is critical to the understanding of New York to realise that it was a slave city, and it was so for a very long time, and that slavery was not abolished in New York until 1827, so long generations after the American Revolution and also even after the abolition of slavery in New York City, New York was deeply embedded in the slave economy of the United States and that New York merchants and financiers, in particular, had deep connections, business connections to the slave South, to the cotton economy and other crops of the South.

And in some ways, New York was kind of conjoined with the Southern cause. And there was a lot of pro-Southern sentiment, even through the civil war in New York City, and some sense that New York maybe should secede along with the South. At the same time, New York was a place where there was a tremendous energy behind the abolitionist movement, and you see, virtually, civil war in the streets of New York over the division on these issues.

And this is an issue we deal with not only in our permanent galleries, New York at its Core, but also in a dedicated gallery called Activist New York which looks at the fight over slavery in New York. And so New York was an important place for the abolitionist movement, for the Underground Railroad. And it reflects something of what I was speaking about at the beginning, is that New York contains within it a tremendous amount of tension and division and multiplicity, and the issue of slavery is absolutely no exception.

Greg Clark

Thank you, Sarah. 

Sarah Henry

Yeah, I'll just say, though, it's not an exaggeration to look at the 19th century and to say that New York's wealth and economy was built in slave labour literally in New York City when slavery existed in, what's today, the five boroughs, but then economically speaking on the existence of the economy of the slave South and New York businesses complicity in that.

Caitlin Morrissey

And I know that this is one of the contested and traumatic histories that you cover in your exhibitions at the museum. And I wonder if there are any other traumas or scarring episodes that New York has learnt from and that have shaped its DNA more recently in its history?

Sarah Henry

Well, the history of New York is a roller coaster, and it's a story of trauma and reinvention. And I would bring that trauma back to the colonial era and the effect on the native people of the arrival of the Europeans and the colonisation. So that is the original trauma of New York. We've talked about slavery, and there were convulsions over that throughout the hundreds of years that slavery affected New York City.

And then the revolution itself was a deeply, deeply catastrophic and traumatic experience for New York. New York was an occupied city for seven years during the revolution - or you could say it was the headquarters of the British - and it was racked by fires, potentially arson during that time when George Washington sailed back into New York to reclaim the city for the New American Republic. He came to a city in ruins. It was very hard to imagine that this place could rise to be an influential part of the urban landscape of the emerging city. And one of the great and complicated stories is how within the course of a generation, New York went from being a city really on its knees to emerge to be the leading city of the 19th century. And that's a really rich and contested story that we look at in many places, including in our core exhibition.

I would say that disease - very topical for today as we talk about this as we sit here in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic - has been one of the things that has caused convulsions and destruction and reinvention in New York over time. Too many epidemics to mention but particularly, in the Antebellum period. And for example, in 1842 with the cholera epidemic that followed on the heels of yellow fever and lots of other things, there was a great deal of fear and sort of existential concern as to whether you could live in this kind of dense urban place, in ways that echo to today with people picking themselves up to leave because it was seen as too dangerous, too congested and too dirty. And it's one of the things that then spurs the creation of the park system and of the water system. So these are huge catastrophes that also then drive invention and investment that make the infrastructure that makes dense living possible.

Another enormous trauma and convulsion occurred during the civil war in 1863, what we call the 1863 draft riots, the largest civil unrest in the history of the United States in which there was tremendous ire and violence unleashed upon the African-American population in New York, who were free by then, of course. It was a generation after 1827. But the feeling of a populace out of control, turning upon the Black population, in particular, caused a lot of soul searching for, particularly, the elites in New York and spurred an investigation of, what were the conditions under which, particularly, the recent Irish immigrants were living and how was the working class-- what was working-class life like in New York, and how could the city prevent this cauldron from boiling over, over and over again? And that's one of the things that spurred some of, for example, the housing reforms of the second half of the 19th century.

The 20th century is just a dizzying cycle of ups and downs in New York. Of course, the World Wars tended to drive New York's fortunes up because New York was underwriting a war that wasn't taking place within its borders. So that differentiates it from its great European counterparts since we weren't physically devastated by the World Wars. But like every place on the globe, New York was deeply influenced by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and that was another period of tremendous invention and reinvention and reimagining what the city should look like, as well as how it should function and what kinds of safety net it should offer. Like, how do you make life liveable for people who have been so deeply affected by the collapse of the economy?

And the feeling that capitalism was in its death throes was a deeply personal idea for New York City, which could have been seen as the capital of capitalism. Right. So there're political movements around that, economic, social reform movements and in-built environment movements that come out of the Great Depression whose importance just can't be overstated, even almost a hundred years later.

The next big existential crisis is often called the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, but it's really tied to a broader urban crisis that is complicated to unpack, but it includes the de-industrialization, so the movement of industry out of the city, the creation of suburbs, the change in population as the second great migration of African-Americans from the South and the big in-migration of Puerto Ricans to New York change the character of the population.

And it all culminates in this municipal fiscal crisis in which the city can't pay its bills. And there's a sense that New York really-- that maybe its days are just over. Like, it's done for. Why do you need New York? Why do you need a city if you don't need it to work in because the jobs have moved out? And you don't need it to live in because you've got suburbs to go to. Why do you need to be all packed together? And maybe New York needs to shrink, mindfully shrink.

And then, of course, in the 21st century, you have 9/11 and the jolt that that gives to our sense of security and all of the changes it creates around surveillance and feelings about our relationship to the rest of the world. And we at the Museum of the City of New York, in our exhibition, put a lot of emphasis on Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as a real turning point, understanding it as this moment for a wake-up call regarding climate change and the future of a port city in an era of rising waters. Those are just a few of the crises that have affected New York, but I left out a lot of them. So there you have it.

Greg Clark

And then COVID-19, right?

Sarah Henry

And then COVID-19. And so we sit here now in the midst of yet another convulsion around the future of dense urban life. We've been there before with other diseases and other crises, but of course, we don't know how this one turns out. And it brings into question, I'd say, each of the words that we identify as being at the heart of the DNA of New York. Money: what's the future of the economy when we're looking at both tremendous economic loss and deepening inequality, but also dispersion of economic activity through remote work and the feeling that you don't need to physically have those big office buildings, perhaps, anymore? Diversity, in terms of who's been most affected and how we confront issues around police violence and racial injustice. Density has been much talked about in the COVID-era and many, many death sentences laid upon its head. I think it remains to be seen because we have heard this before, and there have been very interesting debates over to what degree the density of New York is a culprit in what we've experienced.

I think as we see New York City turning the situation around faster than other places, one, it disrupts the easy syllogism of 'density causes disease causes the end of density'. And then, of course, the whole question of creativity is also deeply implicated in all of this because we rely on the money, density and diversity for the creativity. But it's also a moment for new creative thinking, and you don't know where that's going to go.

Greg Clark

Can you tell us about critical inventions from New York, key leaders as you see them, any myths or untruths that are commonly held about the city that we ought to be aware of.

Sarah Henry

Well, thinking about inventions in New York, we are really spoilt for choice. I mean, because of New York's outsized role in business, in the economic life of the country and the world and the tremendous cross-pollination that occurs here, there is just an endless list of things that come out of New York.

Some of them very specific, like technological things like air conditioning, which is not just a fun fact but actually, key to then the creation of the skyscraper city. So I think it's worth mentioning because it does enable a kind of planning and architectural change, so it's a nice confluence. It's kind of a coincidence that it's created in New York and I don't think is core to the history of air conditioning, but it's definitely core to the history of New York.

Things like economic innovations, for good and for ill, things like the credit card and the ATM but also, the complex financial instruments that led to the financial crisis in the early 21st century came out of New York's financial sector.

Then the examples of creativity and invention and innovation in culture are just too many to mention, literally, but we can kind of invoke them when you think about the role of jazz, abstract expressionism, pop art, and then really importantly, hip hop and all the culture around that, which became one of America's most important and long-lasting cultural exports that arose out of some of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods and some of the worst times in New York's history.

So I think one of the interesting things about thinking about invention or innovation is that sometimes the innovations and inventions come out of opportunity, like out of the surplus of money and energy and growth, and sometimes they come out of the opposite. They come out of a place where there's a sense of a vacuum or of abandonment or neglect and that New York also has a history of taking those moments of absence and filling them with new and exciting inventions that go on to change the world.

Greg Clark

Brilliant. Shall we go for the key leaders as you see them, Sarah?

Sarah Henry

Okay, this is an impossible question. So to think about who are the key leaders in the history of New York, it really depends upon what zone of influence you're looking at because New York has influenced the world through people who have taken a leading role on the international stage. It has influenced America and American culture and politics, and it has influenced-- there are people who have been deeply influential in the changing shape of New York.

So taking, for example, how American history has been changed by New Yorkers. Things like the Civil Rights Movement, which I think we think of as-- we associate with great leaders from the South in many degrees, but there's actually, really, a deep, deep history of New Yorkers fighting for civil rights and social justice, both fighting against slavery and segregation and discrimination here in New York, but also on the national stage. And some of those are household names like Malcolm X, but others are people whose stories have been less told, like Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin, who were so deeply influential in the national Civil Rights Movement and whose stories don't get told as much.

The same thing can be said of the fight for women's political rights. And we have this key moment when New York becomes the battleground in the suffrage movement. And, of course, the mid-19th century leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton comes to us in New York. But really in the 20th century, we see the creation of a new kind of women's politics led by people like Carrie Chapman Catt, who helps to really mobilise a mass movement around women's suffrage based out of New York or then later, in the 20th century, just a host of heroes in the struggle for women's rights including Shirley Chisholm, who runs for president; someone like Elsie Richardson, who worked with Shirley Chisholm, who transforms Bed-Stuy, the Brooklyn neighbourhood Bedford-Stuyvesant.

There are literally too many of these people to name, but I also think that there are so many moments of reinvention of New York itself and that to be reminded that the way that New York developed as a built environment was not an inevitable process. People had to have visions and fight for change and take as an inspiration the idea that what was, did not have to limit what could be.

And some of these characters are deeply controversial. There are the master builders of New York, too many to mention again. Robert Moses being the most well-known name of the 20th century, but predecessors of his, like Andrew Haswell Green, who's responsible for so many parks and cultural institutions and even the consolidation of the five boroughs of New York, or then urban planners who are re-envisioning the 21st century, like Janette Sadik-Khan who's been thinking about the bicycling city and rethinking the role of the car.

But none of these people act alone. And one of the reasons that we have a gallery called Activist New York is to understand that people at the grassroots have pushed the agenda for New York over and over again and that we should resist thinking about the great woman or the great man version of this history, to understand that there's always a dialogue and that for every Fiorello La Guardia, there are hundreds and thousands of people working at grassroots and at the margins, people who don't have a place at the table who have been pushing the agenda and reshaping New York. I left out all of the business leaders and all the Cornelius Vanderbilt's and August Belmont's of the world who brought private capital, but there it is.

All right. And then you wanted a myth.

Greg Clark

A myth.

Sarah Henry

Okay, so I have two myths for you. One is a historical one, and one is a more contemporary one. So the founding myth of New York is the $24 purchase of the island of Manhattan. So the story goes that the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan for trinkets valued at $24, and historians have done a great job at dissecting this and tracing where does the story come from, how much truth is in it and how much not.

I mean, there is a big question about whether it was $24. In fact, it wasn't. This was a number that was made up by a 19th-century historian and just stuck. He was basing it on a document that indicated a sale for goods in the value of 60 guilders which he then did some math two hundred years later and translated into $24, and it kind of stuck around in the popular imagination.

And then this question: was this a purchase at all? And that goes directly to the very fraught and complex relationships between the native people and the European colonisers. But one can say that if it was a purchase, it wasn't a very good one because it did not stick, and they had to purchase it again. And this speaks to the whole question of what these transactions were about and to what degree they were more like treaties or leases and to what degree the native people got very skilled at manipulating and leveraging these negotiations in ways that gave them the most advantage and most protection that they could have. So that's one of the myths.

And then I'll just say on a contemporary level, I do think that there's a myth that New Yorkers are rude. Well, and I would say there's a myth that New York's a dangerous place. To this day, people, this is, to say, in pre-COVID times-- there are people who are just afraid of being in New York, and New York has become in terms of crime - again, thinking pre-COVID - the safest big city in North America. So there are some things that come through the media and popular culture that like to reinforce a certain kind of view of New York that has a life of its own, that doesn't correspond to the way that people experience New York today.

The rudeness. One of my favourite comments is that New Yorkers aren't rude; they're just in a hurry. And I do think that people are surprised at how kind and helpful New Yorkers can be. However, they are rushing a lot, and we rush on foot because our walking is our mode of transportation. And just like you wouldn't want to be slowed down by someone stopping to sightsee in the middle of a highway, you don't necessarily have time to be slowed down on foot for somebody sort of pausing to look around in the street. So I see where the myth comes from, but I think anybody who's visited New York realises there's definitely another side to that.

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