Black Gotham Stories

Washington Irving's Gotham

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis in 1809
Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis (1809)

In my great-great-grandfather's generation, black New Yorkers began referring to themselves as Gothamites, claiming for themselves an insider status as citizens of Gotham.  But what did that mean? 

In 1807, New York writer Washington Irving inaugurated a magazine titled Salmagundi, in which he coined the name Gotham for the city of his birth. Irving took the name from early English folklore tale that featured a village called Goat's Town and then proceeded to corrupt the term. Its inhabitants were said to have been wise men who deliberately acted like fools during the reign of King John (1199-1216).  According to one account, they did so to avoid paying taxes; in another version, they hoped that their crazy behavior would dissuade the king from a visit that would prove costly to them.  From this came the observation that “more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.” 

Irving was suggesting that, much like their medieval forerunners, modern day Gothamites were fools in appearance only.  In one of his first uses of the name, Irving self-servingly but mockingly wrote about how much the wise men of Gotham appreciated his new publishing venture: ''One of the most tickling, dear, mischievous pleasures of this life is to laugh in one's sleeve - to sit snug in a corner unnoticed and unknown and hear the wise men of Gotham, who are profound judges (of horseflesh) pronounce from the style of our work, who are the authors. This listening incognito and receiving a hearty praising over another man's back is a situation so celestially whimsical that we have done little else than laugh in our sleeves ever since our first number was published.''  The name was quickly picked up by the city’s inhabitants—both white and black—and has stuck until this day.