If I’ve ever given the impression that I’d like to travel back in time I just want to clarify that I meant I’d like to travel back in time during the summer months only. Good god! You know what I’m talking about? What the f did people do before central heating? Yeah, I know I know, they probably had a lot of fires to keep them warm. Well bullshit! These people must have been freezing! I’m freezing now and it’s 2010.
I’ve had the idea of late of spending a weekend or some similar amount of time just within the parameters of the original New Amsterdam settlement – south of Wall Street, west of Pearl Street, north of State Street, and east of Trinity Place. I don’t know, that might be fun right? Though where would I sleep? That’s one question. Also, what would I really do all day? Maybe I’ll boil it down to a long afternoon and a half-pint of whiskey. In the summertime mind you, about six months from now. And I guess with the growing residential nature of the Financial District, the whole idea isn’t that special anyway. I’m sure a lot people end up spending their whole weekend within these streets. You’re feeling lazy on a Saturday, you don’t want to go anywhere, and then on Sunday you’ve got football to watch.
New Amsterdam’s eastern-most road, Pearl Street, used to run more or less along the East River (taking its name from the numerous oysters that dotted the shoreline). A block west of that is Stone Street, originally called Brewers Street (I’m not gonna try to include the Dutch names here), and then changed to Stone Street after its cobblestones were laid down – probably the first paved street in Manhattan. A block west of Stone Street is South William Street, originally called Mill Street after the giant windmill that stood along it. The tiny Mill Lane still keeps its name in recognition of that, running between South William and Stone Street. This is one of my favorite spots in Manhattan.
Besides grinding grain, the windmill served the important function of holding the meeting room for the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States), Shearith Israel, located for the last hundred odd years on Central Park West and 70th Street. They worshiped in the windmill until 1730, when they were able to construct their first synagogue at what is now 26 South William Street. The Jewish population of New York was small throughout the colonial period and into the early 19th century – Shearith Israel would remain the sole Jewish congregation in the city all the way up to 1825. The very first Jews to arrive in New York (New Amsterdam) in 1654 ended up here through a series of accidents. They were Sephardic Jews fleeing Brazil and the Portuguese Inquisition, on their way to Holland when their ship was seized by pirates. After being rescued by a French frigate they were charged for passage to Amsterdam, but were brought to New Amsterdam instead. Governor Peter Stuyvesant was opposed to them settling here but eventually relented, and allowed them to stay. The congregation is also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, in recognition of its heritage.
You won’t find any remnants of them now on South William Street. The whole district was built up with wooden structures throughout the 17th and 18th century, and they all burned down completely in the Great Fire of 1835 (there’s been a couple Great Fires in this city – 1776 was the other one). A year later numerous Greek Revival commercial buildings started going up, with storefronts below and warehouses above. A lot of those are still standing, although in the early 20th century a variety of new facades were added to several of them. As such you get a wide mix of styles following the curve of South William Street – neo-Dutch Renaissance next to neo-Renaissance next to neo-Tudor – a whole bunch of neo. Most of the buildings extend through the full lot to back onto Stone Street, where you can get a better sense of their original design. These days Stone Street is full of restaurants and bars, with outdoor seating in the warmer months, for tourists or the people who live their lives down here, on the only remnant left of New Amsterdam – its street plan. I’ll see you down there, should we say in June? I’ll bring the whiskey. Wild Turkey or Old Grand-Dad?
(Originally posted Jan. 6th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)