Tag Archives: New York City

“…A Small Elderly Gentleman By the Name of Knickerbocker.”

In her book Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York — now available from Rutgers Univerity Press — author Elizabeth L. Bradley traces the use of Washington Irving’s fictional historian Diedrich Knickerbocker — the crusty narrator of his 1809 satire A History of New York — as the embodiment of All Things New York.  Here’s Bradley, in a recent piece in the New York Times:

Manhattanites knew little of their Dutch founding fathers, and Irving took advantage of that to create a past that interwove fact and fable; one that presented an appealing portrait of the Dutch colonists as pleasure-loving, pipe-smoking burghers who introduced Santa Claus, doughnuts and diplomacy to America, and let their meandering cows give shape to the streets of Lower Manhattan . . . What Irving did not anticipate was that in the ensuing 200 years, New Yorkers would adopt his imaginary character as an emblem of all that was authentically, emphatically New York . . . generations of New Yorkers recast the Dutchman according to their needs and their times: he became a symbol of nativism and patriotism, of high society and of five-borough consolidation, and he was seized upon to market everything from beer to basketball.

Spot on.  At the time, Irving had no idea he had just created an advertising juggernaut.  But New Yorkers were quick to embrace Knickerbocker — with his unshakable, unimpressed, irreverent attitude — as the ultimate New Yorker, and even in Irving’s lifetime, Diedrich was already a go-to icon for companies seeking to brand themselves and their products as distinctly New York.

In his introduction to the 1848 author’s revised edition, Irving wrote of his amazement at finding his crotchety narrator had “become a ‘household word,’ and used to give the home stamp to every thing recommended for popular acceptation, such as . . . Knickerbocker insurance companies, Knickerbocker bread and Knickerbocker ice.”  Today the name is still used by the city’s professional basketball team, albeit in its more familiar abbreviated form, reading simply KNICKS.

There’s a fun slide show over at the New York Times where Bradley provides a peek at the use of the Knickerbocker name in and around New York, sometimes visible in faded painted lettering for defunct companies, other times still blazing in bright neon letters on restaurants and clubs.  The slide show starts right here, and you can order Bradley’s book here.

“My Beloved Island of Manna-hata!”

The Wildlife Conservation Society has created a neat project on a topic near and dear to Washington Irving’s heart, and to mine.  It’s a history of New York, but with a twist — unlike Irving’s History of New York, which traced the rise and fall of the Dutch settlers, this one traces Manhattan’s ecological history.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project imagines what Manhattan Island was like only hours before Henry Hudson and his men set foot on the island 400 years ago, in 1609.  As the WCS puts it:

[T]he center of one of the world’s largest and most built-up cities was once a natural landscape of hills, valleys, forests, fields, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, beaches, springs, ponds and streams, supporting a rich and abundant community of wildlife and sustaining people for perhaps 5000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene in 1609.  It turns out that the concrete jungle of New York City was once a vast deciduous forest, home to bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders, with clear, clean waters jumping with fish.  In fact, with over 55 different ecological communities, Mannahatta’s biodiversity per acre rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains!

The website for the project is a lot of fun, allowing you to see what New York neighborhoods looked like four centuries ago.  Most familiar sites sit in what was then dense forest, while other familiar locations — like Ground Zero — would be smack in the middle of the Hudson River, centuries before groundfill molded the island to its current shape.

Go poke around on the website, and visit your favorite New York spot or neighborhood as it might have looked in 1609.  And be sure to check out the real work behind the project, Eric W. Sanderson and Markley Boyer’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.