Wrong Ways and 400th Birthdays

March 30, 2009 at 2:18 am Leave a comment

Remember Wrong Way Corrigan?

In 1938, the legendary aviator was preparing to fly to Europe, but the federal government refused to grant him permission because his plane seemed too flimsy.

Disappointed but undaunted, Corrigan left Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, supposedly for a return flight to California. He flew east at first, ostensibly to avoid a fog bank. But he never reversed course. Twenty-eight hours later, he landed in Ireland, claiming he had misread his compass. He immediately became an American folk hero.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say Corrigan was inspired by a 17th-century navigator. But on April 4, 1609, 400 years ago next Saturday, Henry Hudson left Amsterdam Harbor to search for a northern passage over Russia to the Far East.

Hudson was supposed to sail east, as he had on two earlier unsuccessful voyages. Both were aborted by arctic ice. Instead, this time he obstinately steered his triple-masted yacht named the Half Moon toward the New World and a Northwest Passage to Asia. Like Corrigan, Hudson deliberately crossed the Atlantic, but went the other way.

Both adventurers discovered the enduring power of publicity. But while Corrigan’s name is irrevocably associated with a geographic blunder, Hudson’s is linked to the majestic river he was apparently the first European to explore.

You can choose from any number of dates, but arguably this April is the beginning of the birthday of New York.

The 400th anniversary of Hudson’s voyage will be celebrated this week in Amsterdam and also in Manhattan, where the Museum of the City of New York opens “Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: The Worlds of Henry Hudson.”

The exhibition, including 275 artifacts in an installation that evokes the hull of the 85-foot-long Half Moon, will remain open through the end of September. That’s when New York City and State will formally mark the anniversary of Hudson’s arrival in what would become America’s most diverse metropolis and a city of superlatives.

While Hudson and his crew received a decidedly mixed reception from the natives, consider what’s happened since: Today, New York’s population includes more American Indians and more people who identify their ancestry as Dutch than any other big city in the nation.

And that is precisely the point of the museum’s exhibition: New York is different from other places in America, and always has been, because it was founded by the Dutch.

“The Dutch were the first to overthrow a king and create a republic,” says Sarah Henry, chief curator of the Museum of the City of New York. “Nobody was celebrating tolerance, but the Dutch had a pragmatic approach to diversity.”

The exhibition — in collaboration with Amsterdam’s National Maritime Museum and the New Netherland Project in Albany — includes rare maps, excavated objects, paintings, documents, and other artifacts.

The collection validates the enduring Dutch legacy and the shared economic heritage of Amsterdam and New Amsterdam, including the birth of, dare we say it, Wall Street, figuratively and literally, where stock trading and multinational companies were incubated and where a barricade was built as protection from both the Indians and the British.

In September, the museum will publish “New York 400: A Visual History of America’s Greatest City with Images from The Museum of the City of New York,” a stunning collection of paintings and photographs, many of them never displayed publicly before.

The purpose of what Sarah Henry calls this “birthday card to the city” is to provide a new portal to an unfamiliar past largely perpetuated by Washington Irving’s satirical Diedrich Knickerbocker and by other fanciful 19th-century interpretations.

The city’s Dutch heritage all began with Hudson and what the author Russell Shorto calls his “accidental legacy.” He was an Englishman hired by the prescient Amsterdamers, who still prefer to call him Hendrik. It’s a tribute to New York that nobody refers to him as Wrong Way Henry.

Following is the script of the weekly “Only in New York” audio podcast. Listen at left or download the mp3 to a portable player. Browse a list of other Times podcasts here.

By Sam Roberts

New York Times

Entry filed under: Get Wet, Maritime, Region. Tags: , , , .

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