Attention, Mr. Mayor: We Had Windmills 400 Years Ago
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s vision of a city powered by air is nothing new in New York. For a sneak peek at the mayor’s spinning skyline of tomorrow, one need look no further than the almost-400-year-old city seal.
There it is, smack in the middle, between a pilgrim type in breeches and a strapping Indian with a longbow: a windmill. Its return to center stage brought praise from the Dutch community on Wednesday.
“We came here on the sailing ships, and the wind brought us to New Amsterdam 400 years ago,” Gajus Scheltema, the consul general of the Netherlands, said from his New York office. “We were proud to be at the very root of New York, and the windmill, for me, is the symbol of the energy that drives New York. The wheels are spinning around, and it shows we are going back to energy resources we were using 400 years ago.”
There were no fewer than four windmills in place in 1638, when New York was still New Amsterdam and owned by the Dutch, according to the authoritative tome “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. Granted, they were in various states of disrepair even then: “Only one gristmill and one sawmill remained in operation,” the book states.
Charles T. Gehring, director of the state’s New Netherland Project, a collaboration of the New York State Library and the Holland Society, said he was pleasantly surprised by the evocation of old-school Dutch technology in the mayor’s announcement on Tuesday.
“There was a windmill just north of the fort,” he said, referring to Fort Amsterdam, at the foot of Manhattan. “Where the Customs House is now, to the northwest of the fort. You see it on early drawings of the city.”
The windmills were used primarily at sawmills, he said. “A series of wooden gears and so forth would work a shaft hooked up to a gang of saws,” he said. “It was a very sophisticated operation.”
The windmills served another valuable purpose: as an early version of an emergency broadcast system for boat pilots on the East River.
“We have the instructions for the ferrymen,” Mr. Gehring said. “A ferry ran over from Manhattan to Long Island. He was to cease operations when he saw the sails taken off the windmill in Manhattan. That would be the forewarning of a storm coming across from the West.” He shared a bit of Dutch wisdom that could still hold true today: “You didn’t want to be out on the East River with a boatload of cows when the water got tough.”
The Dutch profile in New York has not been a large one since its heyday in the 17th century. In 2001, there was a fair amount of ink spilled about a new Dutch restaurant in Greenwich Village called NL — which is short for Netherlands — said to be the first of its kind since the settlers’ time.
“NL starts with a tremendous advantage,” William Grimes wrote in a review for The New York Times in 2001. “No one has the faintest idea what Dutch cooking might be.”
The menu, which included sauerkraut risotto and other stout fare, was praised as eclectic. “Hazenpeper, a flavorful hare dish, looks like a very large hockey puck,” the reviewer said. The restaurant later closed.
An Internet search found a hopeful successor in Brooklyn, the New Dutch Deli in Gerritsen Beach. No such luck.
“It’s based on ‘Dutch,’ as in dairy,” said Stephen Kelly, 18, in between serving cold cuts. “Not as in, ‘We’re, like, real Dutch people.’ There’s no horse and carriage out here. I am not Dutch. I’m Irish.”
The mayor’s proposed return of the windmill, Mr. Gehring suggested, could be just the beginning.
“Who knows what else he’ll come up with,” he said. “Have everyone walking around in wooden shoes and eating chocolate.”