New York: Stockade City

Part of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center area in lower Manhattan includes reopening several of the streets that were closed for the initial construction. On the map, these reopenings appear to reconnect the flow of some of the oldest streets in the city. Greenwich Street, for example, which was laid out in 1739 along the high-water line of the Hudson River, and which was cut in two in 1965, will be restored. A portion of Cortlandt Street, laid out in 1733 by Philip and Frederick Van Cortlandt and also closed in 1965, will be resurrected as Cortlandt Way, a pedestrian mall.

The restoration of the haphazard net of old streets is not as much a reopening as the map would suggest, however. Fired by fears of terrorist attacks, the NYPD maintains a high presence in the area around the World Trade Center with security checkpoints and barriers intended to discourage another attack. Michael Powell has written about the effect the increased security has already had on the residents and workers in the area, and expressed on Twitter his belief that letting security concerns dictate design will result in an urban fortress.

Powell’s remark on Twitter reminded me that New York began its life as a “stockade city,” literally, with a stockade of wood and earth running just a few blocks south of the World Trade Center along Wall Street. Fearful of attack from New England, Director General Petrus Stuyvesant had ordered the wall built to protect the land side of the city, which was fortified on the waterside by Fort Amsterdam and a battery along the Hudson.

Then, as now, the city’s security measures created controversy among its residents. Stuyvesant’s wall crossed property lines, cutting off lots and generating disputes in court. Stuyvesant also recommended that no building be allowed within a cannon shot of the wall. The burgomasters and schepens concurred and issued a decree in October, 1657. (Coincidentally, part of the current WTC site is probably within that no-build zone.)

The city’s decree appears to have carried little weight with the residents of the island, who typically ignored such things when they found them inconvenient. In the end, New England did supplant New Netherland, but the takeover was negotiated and Stuyvesant’s fortress was never fully tested. Nevertheless, modern lower Manhattan was shaped by the security concerns of its founders.

Security threats from other sources also shaped the city. Aside from the potential threat of war, attacks by fire and disease were more common and immediate dangers to the city. Water Street is so much wider than the other old streets in lower Manhattan because it was laid out at a width of 40 feet to protect ships at the wharves and docks from the spread of fire from the city. Improvements in firefighting eventually allowed the city to expand outward into the surrounding rivers.

Many of the old slips that now lie buried under the streets of Manhattan were filled in to improve sanitation. The tidal waters of the harbor deposited all manner of trash and refuse in the stagnant slips, which became fetid. The prevailing medical opinion of the day was that foul air itself caused the regular outbreaks of yellow fever, and an effort was made beginning in the early 19th Century to drain and fill the reeking swamps and slips along the East River. (The strategy had some success inasmuch as it reduced the amount of stagnant water where yellow-fever-carrying mosquitoes bred, but the actual source of the disease was not identified until 1900.) At the same time, Greenwich Village experienced a small population boom with each outbreak as city dwellers fled for the countryside and healthier air. Wealthier New Yorkers built or purchased their homes around open spaces like Gramercy Park to protect themselves from disease by improved air flow.

New York has been designing for security for 300 years, sometimes actively and sometimes incidentally. The city has adapted as each threat has passed and been replaced by a new one, but the designs have left enduring marks still visible today.

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