THREE or four hundred hungry Indians, who called themselves Manhattoes, were living on this island of Manhattan in what is now New York Bay when Henry Hudson sailed this way one day in the year 1609, seeking a short route to the Indies. The same number of red men, as civilized as the rest of us, still live on Manhattan and in the other boroughs of New York City, a fact which their fellow citizens learned with some surprise when the head chief of all American Indians appeared at the City Hall in 1933 to plead for the establishment of a small reservation in Inwood Park, at the northwest corner of the island, in order that a few families might there continue the aboriginal life for the instruction of the other inhabitants of the modern Babel of New York.
Four hundred Indians then; four hundred now. The number holds after more than three centuries; but what is number compared to status? Now the Indians of Manhattan are suppliants for a tiny corner of the isle which was once the hunting ground of the red men. Today the three hundred are submerged, almost lost, in a “wilderness of human flesh” sprung from Europe, Africa, the West Indies, Central and South America. There are more Chinese on Manhattan than there are Indians; more Japanese, more Albanians, more Syrians, more Hindus. Of the six million inhabitants of New York City, two million reside on Manhattan, and a majority of the others visit the island by day, for work, trade, or play. The sovereign site which the Manhattoes sold for a pittance in 1626 has become imperial in wealth, commerce and population. From its shores, goods and capital go to the ends of the earth; to it come rushing men with ideas who need capital, and men with capital who need ideas. A substantial city set for the most part upon everlasting rocks has become a yeasty ferment of peoples where even standing room is so expensive that decisions must be made quickly and life, perforce, moves at double-quick.
On Manhattan today nothing is quite as sacred as property rights; and no wonder, since life goes forward on the most valuable land, by and large, on the planet. To this stony island, in whose bowels were neither gems nor gold nor other metals, whose insignificant farms have become skyscraper building sites, whose waterfalls were so puny that they were long ago reduced to sewers, has come the wealth wrought by miners in far places, by husbandmen on wide plains, by engineers in distant gorges. In this dominant borough of New York City “ten-cent men sleep under thousand-dollar trees” in parks where nature is assisted to maintain herself against mighty odds, at a cost beyond the bearing except for the fact that the tax gatherer can skim here the cream of the world’s trade. A doctor of philosophy, for lack of better shelter, camped until recently in Morningside Park; when they ran him out, his nerve was still good after eight months of this gypsy existence in a setting where every shrub receives attention at the expense of the taxpayer. He lived, with a few modern improvements, the primitive Indian life, yet this particular individual is Jewish, and came to New York because it promised him fortune.
Everything that happens gets on the map sooner or later, though not always in ways to be comprehended by the casual observer. The ordinary maps of Manhattan reveal a great deal of the island’s unique and absorbing history; yet a fire underwriter’s map and an assessor’s map will reveal tremendously more, for they show the structures reared on this golden earth of Manhattan and the values which an energetic, acquisitive population has placed upon this crowded bit of land at various stages of its evolution from a wilderness of forest to a wilderness of flesh-and-blood.
The poor Manhattoes, who sold their island to the Dutch West India Company for trade goods worth twenty-four dollars, considered they had driven a good bargain. So they had, as far as the worth of the island to them was concerned. What made the island richer than Golconda was human activity on a scale and of a complexity of which the natives were incapable.
For agricultural purposes Manhattan would be worth little more than an equal average of hill-and-valley Vermont land. Its rents have been lifted by trade, by the activities of aggressive and foresighted persons evolving a complex society, until at last whatever in-creases wealth anywhere on earth sooner or later marks up values between the Battery and the Bronx.
Not automatically, of course; Manhattan has required remaking to fit each of its New Deals. Lakes have been drained, hills leveled, swamps filled, shore lines extended, streams put underground, tunnels pushed through stone. A few large parked areas have been left; in the little hills and valleys of Central Park one can see a suggestion of what Manhattan was before the realtors and engineers smoothed it out and reduced it to an asphalt checkerboard.
From a little Dutch walled town hugging the south end of the island to an octopus city ever reaching out-ward its subway and railroad tentacles; that is the evolution of New York. Its history is composed of many stages, some of which seem to have slight relation with the others. But in all of these eras the actors–Indian, Dutchman, Colonial Englishman, Revolutionary patriot, Irish immigrant, trader, merchant, artist, and brokerhave one thing in common: they walked in their day this Golden Earth of Manhattan and, consciously or unconsciously, contributed to its present enormous worth.