THIS IS A BOOK about New York City as contemporaries have described it through the years. There are many ways of taking the measure of the present-day metropolis. Aerial photography, the daily newspaper, the census, the city directory, and even the telephone book unveil virtually every facet of its form and life. For the New York of an earlier day, when evidence of this kind was less abundant, no source is more consistently rewarding than the accounts of contemporaries--visitors to the city or resident diarists and commentators--whose deliberate attempts to describe the local scene supply a substantial, if somewhat less objective, substitute for the reporter's or the camera's eye. And even for the modern city, such description has the advantage of being more manageable and more interpretative than the information that newspaper columns and official listings now so copiously provide.
Certainly no American city has been more often described, more written about, than New York. Foreigners have been discovering Gotham ever since news of a Western world excited European minds; and for Americans, whether professional writer or casual commentator, New York has been a constantly intriguing theme. A member of Henry Hudson's crew described the site of the future city more than a decade before the founding of the fortified trading post from which the modern metropolis was to rise; and in less than twenty years, particulars regarding the wilderness settlement were appearing in the European press. In succeeding generations an unceasing stream of contemporary comment mirrored the pattern of the city's growth and the behavior of the people who resided there. Today, the ever changing metropolis excites description and interpretation no less than did its colonial ancestor three centuries and more ago.
More than six hundred commentaries of this sort have been drawn upon in shaping the historical portrait of New York City which is presented in the pages that follow. Each constituted intentional description by way of book, article, letter, or diary entry written con