Fifteen streets or so, depending on how you count them: that was the capital of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. At its southern end, Manhattan Island tapered to a smoothed point, rather like a sock, with the toes sticking out toward the harbor. Once the decision was made to make it the capital, other features of the town fell into place. The position of the fort at the end of the island naturally meant that the town would develop around it, the streets radiating northward from it and from the East River frontage. The presence of a small inlet cutting through the developing grid didn't deter the inhabitants. They decided it was a "gracht"--a canal--and built pretty little bridges over it, as in Holland.
For most of its life, New Amsterdam had fewer than 1,000 residents, but its influence would far outstrip its size. This was the first and most important multicultural base in colonial America. While Boston and, later, Philadelphia, developed along distinctly English lines, New Amsterdam was pluralistic from the beginning. In 1643, when barely 500 people called it home, director Willem Kieft told a visiting Jesuit priest that 18 languages were spoken. In fact, according to some estimates this "Dutch" city was never more than 50 percent Dutch in its population. The other major groups included Germans, English, Africans, Scandinavians, French, and Jewish. From this tiny mix of peoples would come the structure of New York City.
The so-called Castello Plan--a map drawn up in 1660--gives us an excellent picture of what New Amsterdam was like at its height, just four years before the English took over and renamed it New York. Most of the individual houses indicated on the map can be identified with their owners. Other major features--the fort, gardens, windmill, the small pier--are easily recognized.
The remarkable thing about visiting this part of lower Manhattan today is that, because the street pattern has largely been retained, you can actually get a feeling of walking around New Amsterdam. Just keep your eyes on the streets and don't look up at the skyscrapers.
A walking tour of New Amsterdam and lower Manhattan.