Manhattan History – Golden Earth After Three Centuries

A VISITING Dutch boy recently amused New Yorkers by saying that he would gladly pay double the price for Manhattan today than his ancestors paid to the Indians, which, as you will recall, was the trifling sum of $24 in trade goods. The island today is worth $8,000,000,000 on the assessment rolls, which is a rock-bottom figure approached in actuality only during periods in which the natural optimism of man re-fuses to function. Ten billion is a conservative appraisal in ordinary times, to which must be added another ten billion to cover public properties, streets, etc. At least half of the twenty billion total is land value.

This ten billion is literally golden earth in earning power, thanks to the trade advantages of its most unusual location. But to bring the island along to its present colossal worth has required the plowing back of a considerable part of its earnings through taxes and the anticipation of a goodly slice of its future earnings through borrowers. The Greater City, of which Manhattan is only one of five boroughs though incomparably the wealthiest, owes $2,500,000,000, two and one-half times as much as in 1910. On such a rich terrain it would seem that only designedly bad management could have built up such a liability. Politics, centering in Tammany Hall, has been the worst offender; but nearly all city administrations have been cursed by the ease with which money can be borrowed by so rich a debtor. Even when ordinary sources of credit dry up during a depression, the City of New York can still borrow from some one. When all other springs fail the State of New York or the Federal government will provide the wherewithal to keep New York going on something like an even keel. The terror of a really bankrupt New York City, without funds to keep its muncipal services going, is something that no responsible servant can imagine without shrinking from the consequences.

A recent rub has come through feeding the indigent unemployed, a humane and apparently socially necessary process which nevertheless impedes a rational re-distribution of population. New York contains too many people for its own good, from the standpoint of either finance or comfort, yet the natural corrective of want is not permitted to drive any considerable part of the surplus to less crowded and more productive areas. A strong vested interest fights against loss of population, even while it cringes somewhat at the tax bills required to maintain those who have neither jobs nor incomes.

Want and wealth as companions are unknown in primitive societies where distributional processes are simple. Either he who has divides, or the destitute relieve him of part of his burden by main strength. Between the poor and the rich who stand on Manhattan’s golden earth today stands firmly a police force of more than 19,000, sometimes referred to as “the finest.” This may not be an exceptionally able force in putting down crime; both the statistics and the racketeering gang records indicate that the police still have something to learn about apprehending criminals and protecting legitimate trading activities. Yet one who sees them on riot duty perceives what a truly efficient body the police are. Observing them at such times, one concludes that Manhattan’s golden earth will continue severally owned for some time to come.

And, in spite of all the incongruities in the present system, there is really some reason for its doing so. The values of Manhattan are man-made, and chiefly the creation of individuals and their voluntary groupings. Its geographical location is superb, but was of little or no value to the original Indian inhabitants because they had not developed either an instinct for or methods of trade, and trade first and last is the _expression of individual desire for profits. In developing Manhattan, government has lagged, usually acting when spurred on by private interests or, latterly, by the social needs created by the profit-seeking activities of private interests.

While the scientific and engineering attainments which have created modern transportation may be considered from one point of view part of the social heritage of the masses, their application in subways, elevators, office buildings, and apartment houses has been chiefly at private risk. As the city continued growing the risk passed quickly in most cases, but it was there in the beginning of each enterprise. The takings of the dead hand are heavy; but consider that living hands might not be lifted to great heights except for the precedent actions of the dead hand.

All through the history of the city, an under-surface conflict has gone on between masses and classes, tenants and landlords, doers and heirs, have-nots and haves. These groups are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Some very rich persons in New York are renters; some quite poor ones are owners. Go-getting real estate men disliked John G. Wendel as intensely, because he hindered progress, as a Negro tenant in Harlem dislikes his Jewish landlord. This is, indeed, a city of conflict, which is part of its strength.

Newcomers, blind to the conflicts which continually engage New Yorkers, are impressed not only by the vitality of New York’s heaving crowds but also by the massive evidence which the city presents as an undertaking in human cooperation. Its sky line is an enduring monument to the ability of mankind to pull together; its complicated life processes hang on the slender thread of dutiful coordination. New York has been called “a wilderness of human flesh”; the flesh is here in abundance, and some of it is beyond doubt a bit wild. Yet the poet might with equal truth have called New York a city of disciplined will, whose greatest triumphs have been in the direction of orderly restraint, whose greatest operations are those which serve the millions, and whose crowning charm is an endless variety of scene and personality which includes all possible transitions from worst to best. The golden earth of Manhattan draws its revenues from all manner of men, all manner of deeds, and all manner of things which come to its mart, including, along with the spices of the East and the gold of the West, the virtues of the godly and the sins of the damned. To visitors the latter may seem to be in the majority, but actually six of New York’s seven millions stay at home nights and New York is the one city in the country where many churches are too crowded for comfort.

The Golden Earth of Manhattan grows more than rents; it is also prolific of dreams for human betterment and programs for the glorious completion of what is called, for lack of a better word, civilization.