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Spring 2001

A Serendipitous Jaunt From Lenapes to Landfill

 

 

ew York City's vast history: we've had the long of it-the massive 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham by CUNY historians Edward Burrows and Mike Wallace--and now comes the short of it, co-authored by John Jay College professor of English and Melville scholar Jane Mushabac.

The cover of A Short and Remarkable History features a detail from Thomas Benecke's lithograph of Barnum's Museum on Brodway at Ann Street.   P.T. Barnum, who revolutionized the economics of mass entertainment, is seen at the lower right with one of his prize offerings, the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind.
The cover of A Short and Remarkable History features a detail from Thomas Benecke's lithograph of Barnum's Museum on Broadway at Ann Street. P. T. Barnum, who revolutionized the economics of mass entertainment, is seen at lower right with one of his prize offerings, the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind.

Brevity is the soul of A Short and Remarkable History of New York City, which has just appeared from Fordham University Press. The volume has been organized by Mushabac and local writer Angela Wigan as a single-file march of short entries through a year-by-year time line extending from 1524 ("The great sails of Giovanni da Verrazano's caravel Dauphine appear in New York Bay.") to 1998 ("The vast and ornate main reading room at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library opens after a $15 million renovation.").

This long march is enlivened by numerous quotations from writers on the city and unexpected observations that are interspersed along the way. Short and Remarkable also contains nearly 200 illustrations, largely from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Serendipity reigns between the opening pages on the Lenape nation that resided here for 1,500 years (they called the area Lenapehoking) and a 1998 entry on the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. You will learn when the first postal service was established (1673, New York-to-Boston), when a Brooklyn baseball player threw the first curve ball (1867), when the world's first typing class was held (1877), and when a Brooklyn couple invented the teddy bear (1902)--also whose presidential permission was granted for it. And of course you will learn when and how our fair city got the Gotham nickname.

Following are several entries that highlight the educational history of New York City:

  • 1638 The Dutch Reformed Church schoolmaster Adam Roelantsen opens a school for girls and boys, the forerunner of the Collegiate School, New York's oldest school. Tuition: two beaver pelts a year.

  • 1806 The Free School Society (later called the Public School Society) begins educating the children of immigrants and the poor.

  • 1831 New York University is founded as an alternative to upper-crust, Episcopal Columbia.

  • 1840 Irish immigrant Bishop John Hughes asks the City to help the struggling Catholic schools, since the free schools are anti-Catholic. The City says no, and soon establishes the Board of Education. Hughes sets up the parochial school system; he also founds St. John's College, which will become Fordham University.

  • 1847 A free academy is called for by City-wide referendum. It eventually becomes City College of New York. Naysayers ask why on earth the City would need so many college graduates.

  • 1870 Eugenio Marķa de Hostos-Puerto Rican educator, writer, and reformer-moves to New York to continue fighting for the liberation of Puerto Rico from Spain. In 1968 a branch of the City University of New York in the Bronx is named after him.

  • 1940s Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Clark, both Columbia PhDs, research children's self-image, using white and black dolls. Their findings will play an important role in the breakthrough 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

  • 1976 The City charges tuition at CUNY for the first time since it was founded in 1847.

  • 1996 The Board of Education is one of the nation's largest consumers of anthracite coal and uses it to heat more than 250 of the City's schools, even though coal furnaces have long been banned in most City workplaces.