New York Is Turning 400. We Should Celebrate. But How?

This spring is the 400th anniversary of the founding of New York — or, to be precise, of the Dutch colony that became New York once the English took it over. It’s a noteworthy milestone. That settlement gave rise to a city unencumbered by old ways and powered by pluralism and capitalism: the first modern city, you might say.

Don’t feel bad, though, if you were unaware of the birthday. Organizers of commemorative events have themselves been in a quandary about how to observe it — a quandary that has become familiar in recent years. Yes, New Netherland, the Dutch colony, and New Amsterdam, the city that became New York, created the conditions for New York’s ascent, and helped shape America as a place of tolerance, multiethnicity and free trade. But the Dutch also established slavery in the region and contributed to the removal of Native peoples from their lands. Where in the past we might have highlighted the positives, now the negative elements of that history seem to overshadow them, which may result, paradoxically, in the loss of a valuable opportunity for reflection.

A question that hung in my mind as I curated an exhibit about the founding at the New-York Historical Society continues to vex me, and not just in terms of that event. Are we allowed to celebrate the past anymore? Do we even want to?

Consider that in two years’ time the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and of the founding of our country, will be upon us. Efforts to commemorate the occasion have been slowed, in part, by controversy and confusion because we can’t agree on what our past means. And that’s because we can’t agree on our identity and purpose as a country.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m utterly convinced that the concerted effort of recent years to look deeply into the wrongs of our ancestors is vital. We are going through a national process of reckoning, a societal self-analysis that, if done right, just might result in a more open and honest culture.

But we’ve also become allergic to nuance and complexity. Some seem to feel that championing the achievements of the past means denying the failures. Others fear that to highlight those failures is to undermine the foundation we stand on.

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