new york city arabella

Image: Basil Karatzas

CITY of ships!
(O the black ships! O the fierce ships!
O the beautiful, sharp-bow’d steam-ships and sail-ships!)
City of the world! (for all races are here;
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and out, with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of marble and iron!
Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
Spring up, O city! not for peace alone, but be indeed yourself, warlike!
Fear not! submit to no models but your own, O city!
Behold me! incarnate me, as I have incarnated you!
I have rejected nothing you offer’d me—whom you adopted, I have adopted;
Good or bad, I never question you—I love all—I do not condemn anything;
I chant and celebrate all that is yours—yet peace no more;
In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine;
War, red war, is my song through your streets, O city!
– Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, in 1819 to a barely literate mother of Dutch origin and a hard disciplinarian carpenter father of English lineage. The second of nine children, he never had a chance to receive formal schooling, but he was a voracious reader, especially of the classics, throughout his life. He made his living initially as a teacher and later as an editor and journalist, including time spent in the ante bellum South and the slavery-driven New Orleans society around 1848.

After returning to the North, he started writing poetry with his magnum opus being Leaves of Grass (1855). The poem ‘City of Ships’ comes from the Drum-Taps section of the collection, and the poem is a direct, nevertheless disguised, call to arms for the City of New York to rally behind President Abraham Lincoln against slavery during the Civil War. In the last verse ‘War, red war, is my song through your streets, O city!’ his war cry is clear to the ‘proud and passionate city’ to ‘submit to no models but her own’ to ‘love all’. The cause is never mentioned explicitly, but the poet calls for the city to ‘incarnate’ him, to give him her body, the body of a ‘city of the world’ where ‘all races are here’.

The main point of the poem notwithstanding, the description of the city of New York is of much greater interest to us in the poem. The marine-inspired analogy of ships to describe and define the city is both a practical but also poetic referral to the epitome of the American ‘melting pot’ in the city of New York: a port city made of almost every culture on earth and a city that has been the unofficial capital of the world ever since the end of the 19th century.

The city has been one of the most important ports of the United States since the American Revolution for cargo, for passengers, for pleasure. Unlike the fateful RMS Titanic” which never made it to her maiden voyage to dock at Pier 54 on the west side of Manhattan (the canopy still stands, sort of nostalgically waiting for a ‘prodigal’ child to return), many types of ships from ‘black’ to ‘fierce’ to ‘sharp-bow’d steam-ships’ and ‘sail-ships’ from ‘all the lands of the earth’ called the harbor of New York ‘and made contributions here’. It’s not the people from ‘all the lands of the earth’ who ‘made contributions here’ but first it was their ships who brought them here, their trading ships, and ‘sailing ships’, their ‘beautiful ships’ who moved cargo around and people, and effectively cultures and habits and knowledge. It’s the epitome of the port city with the many cultures and her open-minded culture to welcome newcomers and tolerate their customs and nourish their cultures.

Isn’t it surprising that the most interesting and colorful and fun cities in the world are ‘port cities’, and the most interesting, colorful and fun neighborhoods in the world are around the port of the port cities of the world?

New York is just any other of the port cities of the world, just more interesting, and colorful and fun!

City of ‘gleeful tides,’‘city of the wharves’ that has built the ‘city of tall façades of marble and iron’ with the trading and financial power! A century and a half since the poem was written, the power of the port city comes back to support and invest in the ships that brought all the power to the city; the human power of the ‘all races here’ who built a ‘proud and passionate’ culture who afforded ‘tall façades of marble and iron’!

Although not much shipping and shipping operations take place in the City of New York any more, there is little doubt that the city is as important as ever to shipping. Major financial institutions are based here who have financed vessels in the last decades, but most prominently in the last few years. Possibly Piraeus or Singapore matter more to shipping operations these days, but the place for innovative and attractive and plentiful financing in shipping is right here in this city (and by association in this country.) For equity and debt and mezzanine financing and sale-and-lease-back transactions and equity injections and strategic alliances and joint ventures. The ‘city of tall façades of marble and iron’ has always been attentive to her children, the ships that built her! Isn’t it a coincidence that the greatest financier of all times (J.P. Morgan) based in New York was the beneficial owner of the most famous ship of the world, the “RMS Titanic” (through his ownership of the International Mercantile Marine Company)?

We were reminded of the poem ‘City of Ships’ while reading an article in the Financial Times recently trying to assess the legacy of New York City’s outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Under his leadership, a lot of investments have taken place or are planned to be developed in the coming decade about New York’s waterfronts.  Times have changed and not many ships call to the New York harbor any more (but still, the seventh biggest port in the US by volume of trade) and the RMS „Titanic” will never dock here, but still the seafront is very important to the city and its culture; it’s about nourishing the culture and the cultures that built this ‘mettlesome, mad, extravagant city’!

We were also reminded of the poem ‘City of the Ships’ while were taking a stroll the other day by our office in the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan and seeing on the waterfront by the Hudson River Walt Whitman’s inscription about the ‘City of the Sea’ where a sleek sailing vessel was docked next to a snow-covered dock!

Oh, New York! ‘City of the Sea!’

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