By the Hudson

by the sea At the tip of Big Apple where all manner of ships pull in. photos by author

It was a funny day when we went up the Hudson River in a ferry. The dying horse of winter gave its last kick — so as the bright sun bore down on us, chilly winds caught riders in mittens shivering and hugging long coats, beanies.
I wondered how the New World mariner the Italian Giovanni da Verrazano, and later the Englishman Henry Hudson, some 400 years ago, managed their exploratory journeys without having their butts frozen stiff! Bad weather was just another occupational hazard, a pain of international travel. A small one no doubt when compared to the unknown dangers that awaited in strange lands.

When Hudson piloted the famed vessel ‘Half Moon’ up this river, the land on the right, known then as the Great Mohegan and now with most striking flamboyant buildings, was teeming with all manner of danger — unfamiliar creatures and conditions, inhabitants who went about with spears, bows and arrows. But Hudson was quick to note the region’s ‘beauty, natural abundance and commercial advantages’.
Those arduous journeys made by those came from across the Atlantic Ocean, people with strange features — red, yellow hair, green, blue eyes, clothed from head to toe in flat bottom boats and multi-masted vessels right such as the Tiger ‘changed the world forever. Within a century, the waterways would merge into one vital corridor at the epicenter of global commerce, politics and ideas’.

At that time, on September 12, 1609, when Hudson came up the river, the area on the right of our ferry was then heavily wooded and had tree bark wigwams, longhouses and cone-shaped tepees. Women tended to children and home chores while their men with feathers in their hair, were at work — in canoes, fishing hunting, gathering wild fruit. It was a picture pristine and old as time.

Then, as if in the blinking of an eye, the old order got torn down. Even as the age-old residents watched, the newcomers put up strange structures — brick buildings, and a bizarre, frightening twirling contraption known as windmills and canal houses. Elsewhere, a massive protective wall came up to deter adventurers from sneaking into their fur trading post. The wall, however, didn’t stop the British from sacking the Dutch colony, and remodelling it into New York. The area beside the wall became known as Wall Street.
In time, cannons were installed to protect the ports, piers and warehouses in the area known as the Battery. More exciting developments took place to make the island mirror a modern city: Flour-mills, ship-building, hospitals, churches, roads, parks, impressive buildings, horse-drawn carriages, theatre, a newspaper — New York Gazette — and even an elevated railroad. Small enterprises grew into mighty corporations that required big and grand buildings. Interestingly, it was at this time that the first coffeehouse sprang up in the Financial District. The caffeine-fix no doubt added to the frenzy of development!

City of villages
Maritime trade flourished. The first steamboat moved up the Hudson in 1807. Vessels flying all manner of flags brought people from different countries, ethnicities, races, educational and philosophical background to the City of Villages.
By the late 1800s, the southern tip of the island became a vibrant centre for new technology, a daring showpiece for new-fangled ideas and mind-boggling innovations. The most revolutionary happening was a plant that mass produced ‘electricity’.
This, the first ‘power plant’ in the New World on Pearl Street, made it possible to illuminate hundreds of distant incandescent lamps! Along with lighting, came other ‘wondrous’ technology to make possible novel multi-storied vertical inhabitation in the space-starved land. One opulent structure after another came up. The crowning moment was in 1890 when the first ‘skyscraper’ — the 22 storey, New York World Building — zoomed into the clouds.

Today, some 100 years later, that concern continues to be addressed. Even as the old converges with the new, a well-thought plan of greening the city continues. The West Side, the 550 acres Hudson River Park dominates the landscape even though it is only half-complete. With acres devoted to open water and gardens, it is a haven for leisure and pleasure seekers. There are scenic overlooks, children play area, art, luscious lawns, gardens, and horticultural walkways and art.

Walking past the flattened ground that once hosted architect Minoru Yamaskai’s 110-story twin masterpiece, we are reminded that we live in a world of uncertainties. To distract me, on the other hand, celebrating life were groups of earnest seniors at a park going through the calming motions of tai-chi, actors loudly rehearsing Shakespeare, middle-aged chess players, and spirited children.

As charming as these little vignettes of the Big Apple are, to many it is the towering architectural beauties of the city that stun and take the breath away — particularly when one is at street level, looking up. These structures have long been celebrated in books, magazines, movies — the Empire state, the Chrysler, the US Custom House, the City Council building with its George Washington writing desk dating to 1789 when New York was the US capital, and the Woolworth structure invariably bring a lump in the throat to first time visitors.

At the end of our trip, we stood on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge to get another view of Lower Manhattan. A blue sky formed a backdrop to the skyscrapers that bring to mind Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead. The phalanx of buildings have geometrical shapes — rectangular blocks, elongated cylinders, parallel lines ending in triangular formations and spires — all racing for the sky. They’re a far cry from the housings of the original inhabitants, the wind-mills of New Amsterdam, and the edifices of the Merchant Princes.
What would Verrazano or Hudson or the early Man-a-hatta-ta Indians make of this awe-inspiring sight, this change to their world? Would they, like Rand, feel ‘that if a war came to threaten this city, they would throw their bodies into space, over the city, and protect these buildings’?

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