In cultural studies the cosmic center refers to the meeting point between the heavens and the earth at the center of the universe. It often is associated with a high place perhaps in nature like a mountain or human-built like a ziggurat.
For the United States of America, New York City is the cosmic center, the crossroads of the universe, ground zero. But as New York prepares to ignore the 350th anniversary of when it became New York, it’s also appropriate to remember that when New York began as New Amsterdam, no one thought of it as a city on a hill. There is a story to tell of how it turned out that way.
Scholars have recognized that differences existed among the Europeans who settled America. For example, David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, traces the transplantation (plantation meant “colony” then) of four distinct ways of life from what would now be the United Kingdom to the English colonies here. These groups, the Puritans, the Quakers, the Cavaliers, and the Scotch-Irish, brought with them their material and cultural way of life. The antagonisms and conflicts they had in the old country continued on in the new country as it does right to this very day (see the healthcare fight).
These distinctions were more narrowly addressed by E. Digby Baltzell, who coined the term WASP, in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia with Ben Franklin, who founded the University of Pennsylvania where Balzell taught, crossing the boundary between the two. Baltzell sought to show how the Puritans and the Quakers contributed and defined the cultural identities of their respective cities and how such influence continued on into the 20th century.
And still to this very day, it is Boston/Massachusetts and Philadelphia/ Pennsylvania which have the active history tourist market for colonial and revolutionary times. New York is minimized in historical accounts on America even though the Hudson River was the object of great importance and the Battle of Saratoga which transformed the war into a global one was fought are here…and Washington spent more time in New York than in any other state. Thank the Dutch for New Amsterdam/New York secondary status in the historical record with historians educated in New England controlling the accounts of the American Revolution and Southerns the Civil War. But perhaps Dutch-founded New York will have the last laugh after all because what city is better situated to be world capital of the 21st century? Boson? Philadelphia? Atlanta?
The story of the Pilgrims landing in Massachusetts is told annually by school kids. At the spot designated Plymouth Rock one can stand where those first settlers (allegedly) did. What could be more Thanksgiving than the New England Thanksgiving tradition? How about the Macy*s Thanksgiving parade? The cosmic center of Thanksgiving, the national holiday of Lincoln’s America, is not Plymouth but Broadway in New York.
There is a story to be told about Philadelphia and the birth of liberty in America. The city hosted the continental congresses where the call for independence was written and declared, where we constituted ourselves as a people, where the Liberty Bell rang. What could be more American Revolution than July 4th in the cradle of liberty in Philadelphia? The cosmic center of the American Revolution is Lady Liberty.
There is a story to be told about Jamestown which recently celebrated its quadricentennial. And it has been told by Hollywood, including Disney, which took great liberties. Finding the actual original Jamestown has proved a challenge and the discovery of the colonial site is one of the recent archaeological triumphs. New York doesn’t have much of a story for its founding – more of a one-liner about $24. On the other hand, New York never disappeared, there was never any mystery about where it was located.
When John Winthrop gave his lay sermon (he was not ordained) mentioning the city on a hill that the eyes of the world were to be upon, he was referring to Boston not America. But it was New York which became the “Island at the Center of the World“, in part because it was founded not by the Puritans, Quakers, Scotch-Irish, Cavaliers or Palatines, but by the Dutch. And the Dutch came here to make money. They built a wall at the edge of the community and that street became a cosmic center where people come to make money. People go to schools founded by Puritans and then they come work in New York. America and the world’s rich buy apartments in New York skyscrapers, not Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, or Bejing because, thanks to the Dutch, New York is the island at the center of the world.
The title of Russell Shorto’s book tells a story that continues to be true, on an even larger scale. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America needs to be extended to include and Shaped the World. America’s field of dreams has always been and continues to be New York. We are the Netherlands greatest legacy.
We need to do a better job of remembering the significance of our Dutch heritage so for our 350th anniversary of no longer being New Amsterdam. If we build it, they will come.
Illustration courtesy Comitini.com.