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New York Celebrates 400th Anniversary of Dutch Founding the City

A replica of Henry Hudson's ship Half Moon makes its way up the Hudson River to mark the 1609 arrival of the English explorer in the New World.
A replica of Henry Hudson's ship Half Moon makes its way up the Hudson River to mark the 1609 arrival of the English explorer in the New World. (By Stephen Chernin -- Associated Press)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

NEW YORK -- Think of the immigrants of New York City, and you might imagine the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Irish and Italians, maybe the Dominicans, the Bangladeshis, the Senegalese.

Not so much the Dutch.

But 400 years ago this month, Henry Hudson sailed on a Dutch ship into what became New York Harbor, a journey that inspired traders from the Netherlands to become the first immigrants to New York and establish a tolerant, motley Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam.

The Dutch are celebrating the anniversary this year with a $10 million series of festivities in New York, and this week they are presenting events cultural, gustatory, athletic, academic and commercial. Sunday is the city's inaugural "Harbor Day."

While many New Yorkers are unaware of the festivities, five dozen Dutch journalists have landed to cover them, and Dutch television has been airing daily half-hour newscasts. The Dutch government has sent so many celebrators it seems there's nobody left to govern the Netherlands.

Along with the Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Máxima, the Dutch defense minister, foreign minister, foreign trade minister and minister for European affairs are all here. The mayor of Amsterdam is here. Two Dutch Navy frigates came, and so did a fleet of flat-bottom boats.

This is about continuing economic, military and cultural ties between Old World and New. But it is also about memory and the ways we imagine the places we live, about proving to New Yorkers that they've always been unique in America, and to the Dutch that they played a role in what became a powerful American empire.

Puritans the Dutch colonists were not. They brewed so much beer, the joke went, that there was no grain left for bread; they were pirates and prostitutes as well as merchants and farmers. One of Hudson's party had been murdered just days after first landing on New York shores. Yet there was also something special here. Half of the colony's residents were not Dutch. Visitors marveled at hearing more than a dozen European and Native American languages spoken and seeing the practice of perhaps half a dozen religions.

In short, this settlement bore all the hallmarks of a young New York City: wilder, ruder, more open-minded and ambitious than other American outposts.

"New York takes the heat from the rest of the country for being aggressive, greedy and inquisitive," said Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University history professor. "The idea was never to improve your soul -- it was always a city of aspiration."

When most New Yorkers think of Dutch influence, they stop after listing the Dutch names now part of the city, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg did on Tuesday at an opening ceremony for the week of 400th-anniversary festivities. Brooklyn, Staten Island, Harlem, the Bowery -- the basketball team the Knickerbockers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke Tuesday about the bonds between the two countries.

But the Dutch like to talk about values.

A Dutch "passion for liberty, an entrepreneurial spirit, freedom of conscience" built the outpost of New Amsterdam, and later became central to the United States, said Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, at the ceremony.

The emphasis on values comes in part from internal debates as anti-immigrant sentiment rises, said Frans Timmermans, the Dutch cabinet minister for European affairs, who worked to build support for this celebration among the rest of the cabinet.

"The 17th century in the Netherlands is always referred to as our golden age, and it was the only time we were a world power," Timmermans said. "Now, with Dutch multicultural society under pressure, it's very important to point out that when we were at the height of power, we were multicultural. This is how we won riches and ruled the world."

The Amsterdam of Henry Hudson's time was the world's stock-trading capital. The rapid rise of the bourgeois encouraged art patrons and painters such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer.

This week the Dutch period will be celebrated with bike rides on free Dutch loaner bicycles, an old-fashioned oyster festival and beer competitions. Museums will have special exhibits, and bilateral conferences will convene on water, finance and the environment, and sustainable transportation. A massive show of Dutch artists will take over Governors Island.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poets will read; a stamp exposition will feature a Henry Hudson stamp from 1909; there will be an Amsterdam dance party with a DJ.

Regular people from Amsterdam and New York will swap jobs -- firefighters, teachers, musicians, farmers, food bank operators, bartenders.

"I'm just fascinated to learn about the difference in our laws and the ways in which they are enforced," said Amy Litwin, a prosecutor in the Bronx, soon to travel to the Netherlands. "Drug laws in particular."

Times have changed since previous anniversary celebrations. In 1909, there were two weeks of events, forming what was then the biggest citywide celebration New York had seen with millions of participants.

In 1959, the current queen of the Netherlands, then Princess Beatrix, came to New York for the 350th anniversary of Hudson's arrival, and celebrated with a ticker tape parade.

"The world then was a different world," Dutch Ambassador Renée Jones-Bos said. "Now there are far more countries. You have to work harder as a country to show what you can do and raise your profile."

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