|“Had I been left to the dictates of my own judgment, New York should have been laid in Ashes before I quitted it … Providence—or some good honest Fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.”
George Washington, 1776
If George Washington can learn from his failures, we all can. On November 16, 1776, the British attacked Fort Washington, situated at the northernmost tip and highest elevation of what is now the borough of Manhattan in New York City. The commander of the British Army forces, Lieutenant General William Howe, led an assault from the north, east and south. The inevitable was delayed by tides in the Harlem River, which prevented some troops from landing. When the British did make landfall, the fort’s southern and western American defenses fell swiftly. Patriot forces on the north side put up a mean resistance, but they too were eventually overwhelmed. With the fort surrounded by land and sea, Colonel Robert Magaw had no way out but surrender.
The tragedy of the lives lost that cold day was that General George Washington, for whom the fort was named, had already issued a discretionary order to Major General Nathanael Greene to abandon the fort and remove its garrison to New Jersey. But Col. Magaw refused the order believing he could hold the fort. Following this crushing defeat – which laid to rest 53 Patriots, wounded 96 and saw the British capture 2,818 — most of Washington’s army was forced to retreat to New Jersey and into Pennsylvania leaving the British to consolidate their control of New York.
Providence was ultimately with the Patriots. And while the fort no longer stands, its site today is Bennett Park on Fort Washington Avenue between West 183rd and 185th Streets. Seven blocks north, on 549 Audubon Avenue at West 192nd Street, is the former George Washington High School, built on the hill where the Revolutionary War battle of Fort Washington was fought. The school, which is now split up into four academies opened on Washington’s Birthday, on February 1, 1925. The subway line that opened there in 1906 drew families from the crowded slums of the Lower East Side escaping to larger apartments and better living conditions. The Roaring Twenties subsequently invited a flurry of construction, which was followed by a flood of new residents.
Per the high school’s website, its notable graduates include, “Harry Belafonte, actor and singer; Rod Carew, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer; Gene Colan, Marvel and DC Comics artist; Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve; Jacob Javits, senator and state attorney general; Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, 1973 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Manny Ramírez, Major League Baseball player; and Ron Perlman.”
By the middle of the 20th century, many of the lucrative manufacturing jobs that had drawn immigrants to New York City began to vanish. This marked a turning point for Washington Heights, which began its long descent. That point in time, the 1950s, is where this week’s featured guest for the Quill Interview Series came to find himself growing up at the northern tip of Manhattan. For Barron’s Associate Editor Randall Forsyth, himself a graduate of George Washington High, the most famous graduate he can site is his mother. After that, alongside the baseball greats, he named Henry Kaufman, the esteemed economist who started his career at the New York Fed and earned the nickname “Dr. Doom” for his seething criticism of government policies in the 1970s when he was chief economist at Solomon Brothers. Of course, Greenspan’s name came up as well. Randy, as he’s known to me and those lucky enough to know him, grew up at Broadway and 164th, one block north of where the Maestro had been raised, albeit decades earlier. As he recalled in an hour visit with me last month, “growing up there gives you great preparation and great incentive to get the hell out.”