street view

The Streets of Pre–New York

The New-York Historical Society shows the city through its earliest maps, and it remains, if faintly, recognizable in ours.

The Castello Plan of 1660, now visiting New York.
The Castello Plan of 1660, now visiting New York. Photo: Courtesy of the New York Historical Society
The Castello Plan of 1660, now visiting New York.
The Castello Plan of 1660, now visiting New York. Photo: Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Hell-on-Hudson or urban Eden? That question, which these days gets debated in dueling social-media posts of squirming garbage heaps and sunbathers on waterfront lawns, has dogged this city for almost exactly 400 years. Dutch settlers put down stakes in May 1624, and in the last decade before the English marched in, a sketchy village of 300 boomed into a mercantile center of 1,500 or so. But the tension between the ideal and the degraded city went unresolved, and it’s at the heart of the Castello Plan, a drone’s-eye view of New Amsterdam in 1660 that is making a rare visit to Manhattan from its home in the Laurentian Library in Florence. The map anchors an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society that also includes the famous letter referring to the “purchase” of Manhattan for the value of 60 guilders, or $24.

I first learned about the plan 20 years ago from The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto’s revelatory chronicle of life in New Amsterdam. Shorto, who is also the show’s curator, argues in the book that the Dutch settlement contained the seeds of New York in its religious tolerance, its hardheaded focus on money, and its openness to absorbing people of many colors and languages. Thanks to his persuasiveness, I can’t help reading the Castello Plan anachronistically, as an embryonic version of today’s megalopolis, radiating a strangely familiar personality even though virtually none of the structures represented in it still stands.

The 17th-century streets, though, are laid out in much the same way they are today. At the corner of what we now call Stone Street and Whitehall Street, you find the White Horse Tavern, the second incarnation of the city’s first bar. The market square, now called Bowling Green, remains an open wedge of public space in front of what was then the fort and later became the Custom House. Arrayed along the Heeren Straet (Gentlemen’s Road, now Broadway), a series of serried wooden houses stands like the progenitor of the brownstone block. I have a feeling that if I were dropped at that muddy street corner in 1660, I would know exactly where I was and where to get lunch.

The historian Jaap Jacobs, author of the 2005 book New Netherland: A Dutch Colony in 17th-Century America, cautions against reading all this too literally. The Castello Plan had a complicated birth: A house-by-house survey generated a rough map (now lost) that traveled back to Amsterdam, where it was redrawn by an artist who had never crossed the Atlantic. The result was bought by the archduke of Tuscany, and it hung in his palace, unappreciated and unknown, until the late-19th century. The mapmaker took liberties. Jacobs says, “He adds details that we know weren’t there and makes the canals too straight and neat. The defensive works are depicted like the earthen bulwarks of Amsterdam, not the fence and ditch they actually had.”

Even so, it’s not just the vestigial locations or the staged real estate that makes New Amsterdam seem modern, or the fact that its public works cost too much, aged quickly, and were perpetually delayed. It’s also that everyone had two jobs and a side hustle. “All the people here are traders,” the lawman Nicasius de Sille reported, which means the butcher might have had a cache of primo otter pelts he needed to move, or the tavern keeper had a stake in a shipload of Virginia tobacco. A motley, polyglot band of villagers had clustered into a magnificently — often brutally — cosmopolitan place, linking the backwoods with European capitals, the west coast of Africa, and the Caribbean. What made New Amsterdam unique in North America was its creation not as a religious refuge but as a middleman’s paradise, a small town that moved enormous quantities of goods. Ships regularly delivered Portuguese sailors, enslaved Africans, English privateers, sugar, and salt, and carried away pelts, grain, and many of the same people. Local ordinances dealt with the downsides of that arrangement: freelance traders dodging customs tariffs, out-of-towners wreaking havoc, nightly taproom dustups.

The infamous letter home: 60 guilders, or $24, for Manhattan Island. Photo: Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Founded in 1624, New Amsterdam was for most of its existence just a scraggly village, a rough rural copy of a neat Netherlandish town. Tucked at the narrow end of a long and tapered island, surrounded by water on three sides and cut through by a reeking ditch that passed for a canal, it was vaguely protected by a crumbling fort and a flimsy wall. It was not supposed to be this way. Barely a year into the West India Company’s experiment in settling the Northeast, it dispatched a surveyor, Willem Verhulst, with strict instructions for laying out the ideal city, free from compromise and the accretions of history. The directors saw it as a clean-slate outpost to be staked out on virgin terrain — or at least on land that could be cadged from the sparse and willing locals. The plan called for a right-angle street grid, parallel to the East River and protected by a rectangular set of ramparts. Each house would occupy a square lot with 200-foot sides (about the length of a north-south city block), with a market square at the center, ringed by employee houses, each slightly wider than a brownstone. None of that ever happened. Verhulst’s was the first in New York’s long line of pretty plans that were never carried out; if it had been, the tangled Financial District would have looked as uniform and regular as midtown.

By the 1640s, the dumpy hamlet was already the subject of an elaborate political marketing campaign waged with renderings and maps. A young lawyer named Adriaen van der Donck became a protodemocratic dissident, chafing against corporate control and a disastrous war with various Indigenous tribes. With the boundless dedication and obsessiveness of a true New York kvetch, van der Donck collected grievances — not just his own but those of the populace, which he canvassed door-to-door — and hand-delivered them to the authorities in The Hague.

He had two virtually opposite tasks: to make the case that New Amsterdam was a mess — and that it could become a wondrous hub. In a drawing he brought with him from America, a windmill has lost two of its arms, the houses’ roofs are caving in, and a rocky no-man’s-land sunders the town from the shoreline. In a cleaned-up panorama that he published, the windmill has a full complement of limbs, the homes are tight enough to pass muster in a Vermeer, and the unkempt shore has sprouted tilled fields and orderly meadows. Van der Donck geared the sad version to the men with clout; the cheerier one was meant to attract prospective settlers.

The drawing Adriaen van der Donck brought home, with busted-down windmill …
… and the cleaned-up View of New Amsterdam, by Johannes Vingboons, 1664. Photo: Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Peter Stuyvesant eventually created a municipal government that diluted the West India Company’s control (though not his own), a move that unlocked New Amsterdam’s potential as an engine of private enterprise. The Castello Plan is a portrait of that boomtown. Like all maps, the meticulous, apparently objective plan articulates an agenda, or perhaps just betrays a collection of overlapping biases. It looks like a map of a shoreline village; it’s really an ad for a world trade center.

Stuyvesant navigated political change with a steady stream of ordinances tackling what we would call quality-of-life issues. He and the town council ordered homeowners to fireproof their chimneys and required them to obtain official approval for the homes, fences, and outbuildings they intended to erect. Then, as now, the authorities tried in vain to get residents to do their part in keeping the streets clean. “As the roads and streets of this City are by the constant rooting of the hogs made unfit for driving over in wagons and carts,” one regulation announced, New Amsterdammers consequently had to henceforth “put a ring through the noses of their hogs, to prevent them from rooting.”

From official records, you get the sense of a dictatorial governor firing off directives in a desperate attempt to keep his small town from going up in flames, miring in filth, collapsing in on itself, succumbing to hostile powers (whether Mohawk or English), or letting nature reclaim it. The authorities tried to domesticate residents who displayed a penchant for anarchy, but they didn’t embrace law and order for their own sake, says Dennis Maika, a historian at the New Netherland Institute in Albany. Civilizing the place was good for business.

Stuyvesant’s rapid-fire instructions were intended to inspire confidence, not just in the people who slept, drank, brawled, and let their hogs run loose in Manhattan but in all of those in Amsterdam and Curaçao who sent precious cargoes and cataracts of money coursing through its harbor. Born as an instrument of global capital, New Amsterdam gradually developed communal bonds to counter the system’s built-in selfishness — a social compact made visible in the layout and upkeep of the streets. “How do you allow a private merchant community to prosper when you’ve got thousands of miles of ocean and a credit system based on trust?” Maika asks. “You create order.”

The 1651 map of “Novi Belgii” that Adriaen van der Donck had printed to promote settlement, with an inset view of Manhattan. Photo: Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

That concept was embodied by the well-run Dutch city, a tidy arrangement of cozy houses fronting on navigable canals. To establish such a place in the American wilds was the equivalent of plopping a McDonald’s or a Comfort Inn down along a desert highway: It offered the reassurance that nature, no matter how harsh, was no match for commerce. Just as they do today, landlords warehoused real estate, driving up prices and aggravating a housing crisis. We know this because Stuyvesant told them not to; he ordered property owners to build on or sell vacant lots or face fines. “To promote the increase of population by their living closer together,” he also forbade the construction of new homes at the town’s outskirts, near the wall, “until the [vacant] lots have been properly improved.” First, fill the city in, then start expanding out. Stuyvesant was hoping to accomplish what contemporary planners would love to do — guide development into dense clusters and discourage suburban sprawl. In the 17th century, the urgency of that approach went well beyond price gouging and a concern with unsightly vacant lots; outlying farms were vulnerable to Indian attack. Since it proved impossible to order farmers off their land and into more defensible villages, he warned them that they stayed “at their own peril and without assistance in their time of need.” Municipal services, rudimentary though they were, extended only so far.

In promoting a tight urban fabric, Stuyvesant was following the inclination of the company’s top brass, who were citified to their core. When the now-vanished original map on which the Castello Plan is based arrived in Amsterdam, the directors responded with some long-distance planning advice: “According to our opinion too great spaces are as yet without buildings … where the houses apparently are surrounded by excessively large lots and gardens, perhaps with the intention of cutting streets through them.” The directors were apparently fans of density but not of superblocks.

That attitude yielded a distinctive urban form. English settlements tended to stretch out along roads and bleed into the countryside. New Amsterdam brought farmland into town. “The Dutch have always clustered in cities — still do,” Shorto told me via e-mail. “I think this tendency reflects one of the many divergences between the directors, who sat in their offices in the home country, and the people on the ground. In New Amsterdam, they knew they had to grow food.” The result was a hybrid place with the polyglot raucousness and global links of a metropolis. Dutch practice would have had the church and the town hall facing off across a market square. In New Amsterdam, the church was tucked away inside the fort, and the town hall occupied a converted waterfront tavern. It was, in other words, a semi-stable, profoundly unequal, not quite European but wholly capitalist city formed by the chemical reaction of chaos and discipline, protest and power. It’s a place I think I would have loved.

The Streets of Pre–New York