It takes imagination to lift a guide about New York and the surrounding area above the sea of travel guides and reference books that have been written about the world’s fastest-paced city, which is also one of its most culturally diverse.
But editors Gajus Scheltema and Heleen Westerhuijs and the nearly two dozen writers of Exploring Historic Dutch New York have managed to achieve this considerable feat.
They have done so not with the aim of creating just another travel guide about New York itself, but to commemorate New York’s earliest colonial history by researching and writing a guide which highlights the physical and cultural legacy that Dutch (and Walloon, and Huguenot, and other associated European) settlers from the 1620s have left the area with today.
The result is a fact-packed, beautifully illustrated and profusely photographed, history-based guide of 254 pages that provides a fresh and intriguing look at New York City and the surrounding areas of the Hudson Valley, New Jersey, the Delaware River and Delaware.
As such, Exploring Historic Dutch New York really should be called ‘Exploring Historic New Netherland’, since New Netherland was the name given to the area of the northeastern U.S. settled by the Dutch and their co-settlers from western Europe.
Scheltema and Westerhuijs point out that, outside of lower Manhattan (where New Amsterdam, the capital of New Netherlands, was located), evidence of early Dutch settlement is far-flung. Remaining sites of compelling Dutch historical and architectural interest are fairly few and far between.
So they widened the book’s remit well beyond New York City itself to create a guide about the influences the first European settlers of the entire New Netherland area have left for visitors, and residents, to find today. Some “little gems can be traced and enjoyed”, they write.
The book – which is all-color, softback and on high-quality paper – does not pretend to be a comprehensive list of all things Dutch in the New York area: “Much is still to be discovered, and some sites proved to be less suited to the purposes of this travel guide,” the editors note.
To highlight the influences of the cultures of the Dutch and the other early European settlers on the area, the editors have also been unafraid to include some more recent examples of Dutch heritage in the New Netherland area.
The guide really represents an outgrowth of the 2009 celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage of exploration in the ship Halve Maen (‘Half Moon’). On that voyage, Hudson found for the colonizing Dutch one of the world’s greatest natural harbors and the sheltered island of “Manna-Hata” (‘Hilly Island’), as the island’s original settlers – the Lenape tribe of North American Indians – called it.
Encouraged by the Museum of the City of New York and various corporate sponsors led by Citgo, editors Scheltema and Westerhuijs gathered contributions from nearly two dozen scholars to provide a highly authoritative – though anything but dry – review of the most significant aspects of Dutch and early European-settler culture and architecture to be found in and around New York today.
Evidence that they managed to do so successfully is provided by the fact the book – first published in 2011 – is already in its second printing.
It is a guide not only for the exploration-minded visitor. It is also a valuable resource for residents who want to find out more about the fascinating early colonial history of their famous homeland.
So much so, that the reviewer’s wife – a native New Yorker who does not have a Dutch background – exclaimed in enthusiasm when she saw what the book was about and demanded that it become a permanent part of the family’s travel library.
In addition to its listings of Dutch architecture and sites of Dutch cultural influence, Exploring Historic Dutch New York has many two-to-six-page sections on Dutch-culture subjects such as ‘The Dutch Influence on the American Kitchen’, ‘American-Dutch Antiques’ and ‘Dutch Words in American English’. You’d be surprised at how many Dutch-derived words there are in modern American day-to-day usage.
Just a little too large to be truly pocket-sized (though it might fit into a spacious coat or parka pocket), Scheltema’s and Westerhuijs’ guide nonetheless does not aim to provide precise travel directions to the many sites it lists.
Although the hundreds of illustrations in the book include 12 maps, these are fairly general – mainly because the sites listed are spread over a wide area, most of the suggested tours require using a car and some of the tours could take several days.
“The maps we have supplied are intended to orient readers to the relative locations of sites,” write the editors. Detailed local maps, or GPS-based navigation aids, should be used in conjunction with the book’s maps to help readers find the sites listed.
Given the guide’s scale and its historical and cultural focus, this lack of complete geographical precision is understandable and does not detract from the guide’s unusual perspective.
All in all, the reviewer thinks Exploring Historic Dutch New York is well worth buying, whether you are a visitor wanting to explore in and around New York City or a resident of the area. You will learn a great deal about the early colonial history of New York and its surroundings and you will be entertained in the process.
Exploring Historic Dutch New York (ISBN-13: 978-0-486-48637-6; ISBN-10: 0-486-48637-0) is published by Dover Publications in association with the Museum of the City of New York.
It costs $19.95 and can be bought from the Museum of the City of New York (located at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street or via www.mcny.org); the South Street Seaport Museum (12 Fulton Street or www.southstreetseaportmuseum.org); at most bookstores; and online at www.doverpublications.com and Amazon.com.