Friday, April 5, 2013

New York City's Rise to Power and Fame (Historical Stuff about NYC)


Why did New York City become so powerful and famous?  Two reasons:  geography and money.  The geography led to the money.

What’s so special about New York City geographically?  Well!  It has the deepest port/harbor in the western hemisphere.  Huge ships from Europe and all over the world could sail right up to land and unload their cargoes (the goods or stuff that they carried). In regard to other cities on the east coast, sometimes the ships had to anchor out to sea and send the cargo in to land on smaller boats.  That was a real pain in the ass.  It was much better to sail right up to the land and unload or load up a ship.

Also, New York City did not really have any type of crop nearby. The soil sucked and no real crop could be grown.  A crop is a type of food that is grown: wheat, rice, barley, corn etc.  People could not survive as farmers so they became highly aggressive traders.  They built roads and canals to help farmers and manufacturers get their goods to New York City’s port, where the goods could be shipped overseas.  Once goods arrived in New York, they were easily transported out to various other regions of the country.  For example, the southern part of the USA was heavily dependent on New York City to ship its cotton overseas to England and other countries.  The South then also received various goods from England.  So the first stage of New York City’s rise was located at South Street.  This is where the main port was.  You can still go there and see some old ships.  They have lots of stores and restaurants there and few people even know that this area is what gave New York City its early boost toward wealth and fame.
People who engaged in trade out of New York City became fabulously (hugely) wealthy.  America’s first millionaire – John Jacob Astor – was one of these guys.  Astor came to America right after the Revolution, from Germany.  He began to buy animal furs from Native Americans and he would sail his ships all the way to China to trade these furs for Chinese silk, tea and porcelain. He would then sail to Europe to sell these Chinese goods.  When Astor died it was estimated that he had so much wealth that if his money were converted into contemporary dollars, he would be considered the third wealthiest person to have ever lived! (I don’t know who the first two were.)

OK, so that’s the geography part.  Guys like Astor were making so much money trading that they literally couldn’t use most of it.  Even with the fanciest houses in the USA and every luxury, they still had too much money just lying around.  So, basically, they began building banks.  This way they could loan money they didn't need to others and make a profit by collecting interest on these loans.  Where did they start building these banks?  Wall Street.  One bank after the other was built along Wall Street by the guys who made money by trading.  As I mentioned earlier, Trinity Church is the only building that still exists that existed before they began tearing down houses and churches to build banks on Wall Street.  A stock market was also set up on that street and it is now the famous Stock Exchange (get your picture taken next to the giant statue of a bull there).

So these guys who had been traders began to realize that it was a lot easier to make money by building banks and loaning out money for interest.  Within a relatively short time New York City started to become the financial capitol of the world.  So do you see the development here?  New York City started out as a trading center but was so successful as a trading center, it evolved into a banking center.

It took the Civil War, however, to really launch New York City into the stratosphere.  At this time, 1861, America had two different economies – a northern industrial economy and a southern agricultural economy.  The industrial economy was based on folks who owned factories and folks who worked in factories while in the south the agricultural or farming economy was based on folks who owned land and the slaves who were forced to work on this land for free under inhumane conditions. 
The interesting thing is, traders and Wall Street bankers in New York City were making a huge amount of money from the cotton that was being produced by slaves in the south.  The cotton had to be transported up north and then it had to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, primarily to England.  So, believe it or not, initially folks on Wall Street wanted to support the South in the American Civil War.

In fact, southerners joked that once the south stopped sending its cotton up to New York City, grass was going to start to grow in the streets of lower Manhattan and Wall Street because there would be no business any more.  Wrong.  Once the southern states left the United States and stopped shipping cotton to New York City, the northern economy paradoxically took off.  Why?  New York City traders and bankers realized that, in reality, the southern method of doing business was not very efficient and the exporting of cotton was a good source of making money but not the best source of making money.  New York City traders soon began gathering grain and various food products from the Midwest and other northern areas and began exporting this.  At that time Europe had been experiencing a drought and desperately needed food.  So New York City lost the cotton trade but discovered a much more lucrative food trade.  The economic situation for the Wall Street bankers blossomed.
Furthermore, the United States government needed money to fight the war.  They got virtually all of the money they needed from Wall Street.  Basically, Wall Street bankers paid for the North to win the civil war.  They loaned the United States government an immense amount of money and the government paid that money back with interest.  And, now that the south was gone, the Congress was made up entirely of northern congressmen.  Southern congressmen had been stopping northern industrialization by blocking various laws that the north needed to develop technologically.  Such laws would have hurt the south.  Now that the south was gone from the Union (the term for the United States of America) the north began to pass laws that allowed the development of many new industries and technologies and the development of a transcontinental railroad system. 

Getting rid of the south for awhile and then beating the south in the Civil War was the best thing that ever happened to America!  Unfortunately hundreds of thousands of people died in this war brought about by ignorant southern racists.  Without the South the Wall Street economy really took off!  It went through the roof!  The south had been dead weight to the American economy and without the South, America was now free to fulfill its economic potential.  Or, at least, lots of bankers and factory owners got filthy filthy filthy rich.  Filthy rich means really rich. 
So this is another paradox that I realized when I got to America.  Basically New York City is the most exciting city in the world primarily because of the bankers and factory owners who lived from around 1861 to 1900.  They created so much wealth in the United States of America that all kinds of things could be developed and created.  Great universities, museums, concert halls, huge department stores, skyscrapers etc.  I mean, the Metropolitan Museum, which has to be one of the greatest museums in the world, was started by these wealthy guys who made a fortune between 1861 and 1900.  Oh! Did you ever hear of The Frick Collection?   

There was a guy named Henry Frick who lived during this time and he was a steel guy – he worked with Andrew Carnegie to produce some of the best steel in the world.  Steel is the strong metal you need to build railroad tracks and skyscrapers.  He made so much money that he bought a lot of great works of art from Europeans who were desperate for money.  When he died he had so many masterworks of world art that they just turned his house into a frigging museum!  And it’s one of the nicest museums in the city!  There are paintings by Rembrandt and Velasquez and Goya and Holbein there!  Virtually every painting is a masterwork! 

So these greedy white guys who lived for money and were super aggressive, and who often treated their workers like garbage, endowed this city with great art and great services.  That’s why I say it’s a paradox.  You would think that greedy behavior would lead to corruption and decline, but New York City seemed to develop amazing institutions.  In fact, economists have an expression for this paradox: private vice leads to public good.  So basically the more greedy people are, and the more they pursue their own economic interests, the more wealth will be generated for the public to enjoy. Yet, New York City has a huge gap between the rich and the poor, so, obviously, this system isn’t as perfect as the economists might suggest.

So there have been various incarnations of New York City.  The first incarnation was when the Native Americans lived here and farmed and hunted.  Then the Dutch came and lived pretty peacefully with the Native Americans (for awhile).  They were interested in getting beaver skins from the Indians so they could make money by making and selling fancy hats back in Holland.  So there was trade and peaceful coexistence.  If you look at the flag of New York City you’ll actually see two beavers on it.  

So we can say the second incarnation of New York City involved the Dutch, and later the English, who stole New York City from the Dutch in a war, and this incarnation was a pre-international trade New York.  Then we get the third incarnation, which was centered around South Street.  This is the big trading period where New York City’s excellent port came in handy and helped traders develop excess (more than was needed) wealth.  This period led to the fourth incarnation, which was the banking incarnation.  The excess wealth developed through trade was used to create banks which allowed more wealth to be created more easily.  These days New York City seems to remain the off-spring of these wealthy, greedy, aggressive white guys who turned to banking. Of them, J.P. Morgan was the most famous and powerful.  They turned his house into a museum as well – it’s near the Empire State Building. 

How does that make you feel?  Basically NY City kind of owes its prominence to a few guys who made zillions of dollars through trade, oil, steel and banking. I’m not sure how it makes me feel.  Should I feel grateful to these guys who were not interested in creating wealth for their society but who accidentally created it while they got filthy rich? 

Will there be another incarnation of New York?  Probably.  Who knows? I can feel New York City struggling toward something else, but without proper leadership, and New York City hasn’t had any leadership in a long time, the struggle might be in vain.

Definitions of terms

geography – the physical features of an area; i.e. Chicago is near a lake and on a flat area of land.  The city of San Francisco is located geographically in a hilly area.

a port/harbor – this is a place where ships come in to shore (land) or the place from which ships depart from the land.

right up to – some students are confused by two prepositions next to each other.  Right up to means directly up to something; practically touching something.

anchor out to – again, two prepositions…no big deal.  To anchor out to sea means that a ship drops its anchor out in the middle of the sea or far from land.  An anchor is that huge and heavy cross-shaped thing that ships drop into the water to stop the ship from moving.

in to land – again, two prepositions…moving in toward the land

a pain in the ass – this is a "dirty" or slang expression.  If a person is a pain in your ass the person bothers you.  If something is a pain in the ass it is a nuisance or a bother.  Don't use this expression formally - it is only for very casual conversation among friends.

a boost - this is a lift off the ground; it means assistance or help, to help someone get off the ground or to help someone or something to get started.

The Revolution – this is the American Revolution, which was fought against England from 1775-1783.  Basically, this was a revolution started by wealthy people living in America at that time, but fought primarily by brave farmers and city workers.  The wealthy people did not want to pay taxes to a far-away English government that wanted to use its American colonies to support the English economy.  Basically, England wanted Americans to produce raw materials that would be processed in England and sold back to Americans.  That wasn’t fair, was it?  Of course not!  Americans wanted to process and export their own goods.  Some people have said that this “revolution” was more of a “Civil War” since the Americans had considered themselves English citizens.  That’s an interesting argument.  It’s not true, though.  By 1775 Americans and Englishmen were totally different types of people.

fur – this is the skin of an animal that helps to keep a person warm when it is worn by the person.  Many women own fur coats made of mink, for instance.

to convert – to change.

contemporary – right now.

interest – if you take out a loan, you will be charged interest.  This is extra money you have to pay back in addition to the amount you borrowed.  This allows the loaner to make a profit.  If you take out a loan you are a borrower.  Many students get confused when they use the terms “borrow” and “loan.”  If you give the money, you are loaning.  If you take the money, you are borrowing.

The Civil War – this was the war that was fought between the north part of the US and the south part from 1861 – 1865.  Basically the USA had two economies at that time.  There was a northern industrial economy and a southern agricultural (farming) economy.  The southern economy was based on slave labor.  The big issue which really caused the war to start, however, was the issue of tariffs.  A tariff is a tax on imports to a country.  The north always wanted high tariffs because they were good at producing goods and the south always wanted low or no tariffs because they liked importing stuff from England.  When Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 the south realized he would promote an economic policy favoring the north and they left the United States and formed their own country: The Confederate States of America.  Ultimately they lost the war because of Wall Street, Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and many brave northern soldiers who died because they believed the world could be a more just place (a "just" place is a place with justice - real justice). God bless them for believing that.

the stratosphere – this is an upper layer of the earth’s atmosphere.  To say that something went into the stratosphere means that something really did well or really soared; it did unbelievably well.

inhumane – not showing human or humane values. If someone acts in a cruel or nasty way, he is inhumane.

a paradox – when you expect one thing and something opposite happens.

a drought – a long period of time without rain.

lucrative – if something is lucrative it generates a lot of money.

Congress – The US Congress makes the laws.  There are three parts to the US government: the Congress, The President and the Court system.  Each of these parts can control or limit the power of the other parts.  This is one reason why the USA has never had a dictator.  Even though the president is called the most powerful person in the world, his power is really quite limited by the Congress.

transcontinental – going across the continent of North America.

to take off – to soar, to rise, to increase.

through the roof – a figurative term.  If something goes through the roof it increases quickly and more than anyone could have expected.

dead weight – something unnecessary that might hold back a person’s progress.  Let’s say that you go hiking in the mountains.  You don’t want to take high-heeled shoes with you – those would be dead weight because you can’t use them.

sky scrapers – tall buildings found in cities around the world.

frigging – a term just a little less dirty than fucking.  It’s still kind of dirty.

to endow – to fund or to provide resources to.

vice – immoral behavior, behavior which seems evil or wrong.

an incarnation – a version of something.

beaver skins – the skins from the fat little animal that likes to build dams in small streams.  You know the type of animal – he likes to float on his back.

coexistence – to live together.

to come in handy – to be useful.

the off-spring – something born from something else.

Prominence/to be prominent – if something is prominent, it stands out from other stuff.  A prominent doctor is more famous or well-known than other doctors.  

to be in vain – if something is “in vain,” that means that an effort was made but nothing was accomplished. i.e.  Jack had studied for 3 years to pass his CPA exam, but each time he took it, he failed.  All of that studying was in vain. 

Grammar stuff: the subjunctive

The subjunctive is dying in English.  It is really only used when “was” is changed into “were” in situations which are unreal.  But because formally educated Americans tend to use the subjunctive, you should know about it. 

If I were that fat guy, I would not eat so much fried food.  You would think it should be “If I was that fat guy”…however, to indicate unreality “was” is changed to “were”.

Basically, the rule for the subjunctive is that you always change “was” to “were” after “if.”  This helps more clearly indicate that this is an unreal situation.

It’s the same for the third person singular as well. 

If he were feeling better, he would go to the baseball game. 

If she were not interested in literature, she wouldn’t be writing a book about it. 

If he were a bit more relaxed, he would live longer. 

Just remember that if you use “if” and the verb “to be” in the past tense in the first clause, you should use “were” and not “was.”  Many Americans use “was” anyway.  As I said, the subjunctive seems to be dying out. 

If he were more handsome, he would be able to date more women.

15 essential vocab words  Fill-in-the-blanks

geography, a harbor, fur, to convert, contemporary, in vain, inhumane, a paradox, a drought, lucrative, to endow, an incarnation, to coexist, vice, skyscraper

Many people who object to the usage of fur coats feel that the animals used for this fur are treated in an ______________ or very cruel manner.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is the actual, literal ___________ of the God of Mercy; the God of Mercy lives within his body.

I am an open-minded and tolerant person and I respect everyone’s religious beliefs, but I hate it when people try to _________ me to their religion by taking me to their church and trying to make me believe what they believe.

A society’s definition of what constitutes (makes up) ____________ often changes.  At one point drinking alcohol was considered immoral and wrong in America, but now alcohol is drunk freely in the States.

Henri did not want to give up the dream of owning his own business. He had worked hard and saved money for many years and he did not want all of this effort to be _____________.

Although the differing races and ethnicities in America don’t always mix with each other socially, at least they seem to ____________ with each other peacefully.

Due to scientific farming techniques, farmers do not need to fear ____________ as much as they used to.  Even if it doesn’t rain, water can be stored or transported long distances.

Some people like the artwork of the old masters but for those who like more ___________ art, the Guggenheim Museum or MoMA might be more interesting.

J.P. Morgan, an incredibly wealthy banker from the early 1900s, helped to ___________ a number of cultural institutions with his huge amount of wealth.

America not only has a diverse population but also a diverse __________; there is everything here from deserts, to mountains to prairies to marshlands.

A great transition occurred in the history of the economy of New York City when it was discovered that banking could be much more _____________ than trading; bankers made more money more easily than traders.

Although New York’s ____________ is the deepest in the western hemisphere, it is not used as often as it was when thousands of ships would sail up to the pier near South Street.

The origin of the universe seems to involve a puzzling __________: how could something come from nothing or how could something always have existed?

The Empire State Building used to be the world’s tallest ____________.  Looking at it now, it still seems tall, but that that huge.

John Jacob Astor became America’s first millionaire by obtaining animal ________ from the Indians and trading it with the Chinese for tea, silk and porcelain.

Answers: inhumane, incarnation, convert, vice, in vain, coexist, droughts, contemporary, endow, geography, lucrative, harbor, paradox, skyscraper, fur

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