The Top 100 Greatest New Yorkers — #1
DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828)
The greatest New Yorker in the city’s history was a visionary who helped create the city as it is today, both geographically and economically. As mayor, DeWitt Clinton proposed and drove forward the grid plan of streets, bringing the once hilly and marshy Manhattan into a mostly symmetrical crosshatch of easy-to-follow numbered streets and avenues. Wherever you are from, whatever language you speak, numbers are universal. Even more importantly, as governor, Clinton was the man behind the Erie Canal. Looking at an 18th century American map, New York should not be the great commercial and economic capital that it became, separated from the heartland by the Appalachian Mountains. New Orleans, situated at the mouth of the Mississippi River, was a much likelier candidate. In 1800, it was cheaper, faster, and easier to ship cargo from New York to London than to Chicago. With the public project, popularly derided as “Clinton’s Ditch”, the governor changed all that. Cutting shipping costs by over 90% and time by two-thirds, Clinton’s Erie Canal positioned New York City as the center point of the first cheap, easy trade route from the markets of Europe to the plains of the Midwest. From this central position in the world of commerce sprang the future of all of New York’s other successes. The city’s position as the cultural, artistic, creative, intellectual capital of the world begins with the commercial and economic centrality secured by Governor Clinton on the day he opened the canal. Symbolically “marrying the waters” when he poured two buckets of water from Lake Erie into the Upper Bay of New York, he guaranteed the city’s future in all that followed.
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