ROGER ROSENBLATT: The Dutch are cursed with cuteness. Their wooden shoes are cute. Their windmills are cute. Their tulips, hats, canals and-- I assume-- their treats are cute. Even the name, while not exactly cute, is neither here nor there: The Netherlands. And in 1609, when they sailed over to create America-- specifically New York-- all that, in hindsight, has been regarded as cute, as well.
Cute Peter Stuyvesant with his peg of a leg, though his bigotries certainly were not cute. Cute Knickerbocker Holiday with Walter Houston sadly singing "September Song." Cute $24 for the sale of Manhattan. All in all, an astonishingly significant history mired in cuteness, down to the Knickerbocker pants we used to wear and the New York Knicks, who, while hardly cute, steadfastly have remained insignificant.
The truth, as exhibited in the museum of the city of New York, is that the Dutch, cute or not cute, happened to transport an entire civilization from one continent to another when they created New Amsterdam. And they also transported the two main features that created America: Pluralism and the very free spirit.
Last spring, a book came out that goes a long way toward explaining how this happened. The book is "The Island at the Center of the World" by Russell Shorto, based on the research of Charles Gehring. In a way, it tells of a portable renaissance. New Amsterdam was both a world in itself and a world to come. The Africans, Norwegians, Italians, Germans, Jews and others who populated the settlement became the Dominicans, Haitians, Koreans, Russians and others of today.
A whole mess of people found safety and encouragement principally in being a whole mess of people. 350 years ago, in 1654, the last governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, buried right here at the church of St. Marks in the bowery, sought to block Jews from living in New Amsterdam. But a man named Adrian Van Der Donck opposed him, and the Dutch colonial administration did, too. This island, said the Dutch, was to be for everyone-- tolerant, liberal, hopeful, multicultural and upwardly mobile.
Sound familiar? More unusual was that feeling of belonging to a renaissance, a rollicking time of creative rebirth. At the time that a motley crew of pirates, smugglers, prostitutes and explorers were roving around this island, Europe was ablaze with the likes of Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, not to mention the Dutch's own Rembrandt. In the crude, faraway land of mudflats, waterfalls and cormorants, a new world renaissance was driving pilings. What the Dutch created, created us.
When I was a kid in this neighborhood, they told us that one could hear the ghost of peg- leg Peter Stuyvesant stomping around the church at night. It was all that a Jewish kid needed, an anti-Semitic ghost. But in a way the ghost was real if one thinks of the stomping as the incessant beat, sometimes rhapsodic, sometimes just loud, of the city.
Henry Hudson and company brought over the renaissance, not the arid plains of the far west, not the dry, high-starched collars of Puritan New England. The Dutch brought and protected art, noise, life. This is how America got started, lusty as a New York street. The first Manhattanites shipped over the spirit that the latest Manhattanites gladly inherit, a spirit shown in the recent renaissance at the site of the World Trade Center, and shown perpetually in the undying relentless renaissance of the citizens.
America is insistently various, open, grand in its vision if not always in execution, sloppily and beautifully alive. People outside this city sometimes say that America is not New York. They're right. It's New Amsterdam.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.