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So, Why Do We Call it Gotham Anyway?

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High buildings in New York at night.
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New York is a city of nicknames—the Big Apple, The City That Never Sleeps, Empire City, The City So Nice They Named It Twice... but let’s just concentrate on one: Gotham.

For some, the term Gotham City is forever tied to the Batman comic universe.  But writer Bill Finger was inspired by an entry in a telephone book for Gotham Jewelers.  Finger explains in the Steranko History of Comics that changing the locale from Manhattan to the fictional Gotham City made the setting of Batman more vague.  In fact, the nickname goes a lot further back than 1940, when in Batman issue number four, Gotham City is named for the first time.

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Washington Irving (autograph). Likeness from a daguerreotype, in the possession of his family.
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For a history of the term “Gotham,” one doesn’t have to go much further than Edwin Burrows’ and Mike Wallace's Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Always one of our most popular reference books in the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy, Gotham is a massive but fascinating chronicle of New York City history. It is here that we learn that the term Gotham is tied to the author Washington Irving, famous for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle.”  It’s also here that we learn Irving was being less than flattering when he nicknamed the city in 1807.

Irving was sort of a ringleader of a group known as the Lads of Kilkenny, a group Burrows’ describes as “a loosely knit pack of literary-minded young blades out for a good time.”  The Lads made their rounds of the Park Theater and the Shakespeare Tavern, and some of them eventually organized to create the literary magazine called Salmagundi (full text available in Google Books).  In Salmagundi, Irving and the Lads published essays concerning events in “the thrice renowned and delectable city of GOTHAM,” thereby creating a nickname for New York which is now over two hundred years old. Irving, coincidentally, also coined the term “Knickerbocker” with his book A History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty ... by Diedrich Knickerbocker (full text available in Google Books), which Irving attributed to the fictional Knickerbocker. 

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Theatres -- U.S. -- Brooklyn, NY -- Gotham
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The word “Gotham” actually dates back to medieval England. NYPL has some of these resources, including an 1866 reprint of The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gottam. Gathered Together by A.B. of Phisicke, Doctor, 1630. There is also a digitized version available on site at the library and a Google Book version. English proverbs tell of a village called Gotham or Gottam, meaning “Goat’s Town” in old Anglo-Saxon.  Folk tales of the Middle Ages make Gotham out to be the village of simple-minded fools, perhaps because the goat was considered a foolish animal.  Some tales describe the denizens of Gotham as only playing the fool, a ruse used to avert the wrath of the sinister King John.  Burrows’ poses that “it was doubtless this more beguiling—if tricksterishsense of Gotham that Manhattanites assumed as an acceptable nickname.” Burrows’ also notes that the term “Gotham” as a nickname “has gone in and out of favor, having great currency in one decade, falling into desuetude the next” when he discussed the resurgence of the term as it is associated with Batman.  He quotes an [unnamed] Batman editor in saying that “Gotham is New York’s noirish side... whereas Superman’s Metropolis presents New York’s cheerier face.”

It’s without doubt that New Yorkers have indeed embraced the nickname, Gotham. It no longer invokes a foolish village of goat herders, and sometimes invokes the darkened noirish version as popularized through Batman, but it can be referencing New York in several ways. From the Gotham typeface font to the Gotham Center of New York History and all of the businesses with Gotham in their names in between, the moniker remains a permanent part of New York City’s character.  

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More on NYC nicknames - Fear City?

Though not as comprehensive or entertaining a look as your post, Time Out NY has a list of some other NYC nicknames - http://newyork.timeout.com/things-to-do/this-week-in-new-york/702221/a-history-of-nyc-nicknames?page=0,0 I want to find one of those "Welcome to Fear City" flyers...

The Original Gotom

Well, something that would probably break the hearts of tens of thousands of New Yorkers is that, Washington Irving first encountered a district called Gotom (later Gotham) in, get ready for it, New Jersey. That's right. In what is now the town of Passaic, and in the area that Irving was known to visit frequently when escaping the city, was the original Gotom.

The Wise Men of Gotham

Gotham was famed for its proverbially/sarcastically "wise men": Three wise men of Gotham Went to sea in a bowl: And if the bowl had been stronger My song would have been longer. (traditional: Mother Goose, 1765) and SEAMEN three! What men be ye? Gotham's three wise men we be. Whither in your bowl so free? To rake the moon from out the sea. The bowl goes trim. The moon doth shine. And our ballast is old wine.— And your ballast is old wine. (Thomas Love Peacock)

Gotham

It was not pure insult, rather a nod to the craftiness of a New Yorker. Those original Gothamites did indeed pretend to be mad - as a town-wide, orchestrated ruse to avoid new taxes King John was trying to collect. Not so foolish.

Goats

I have little to add to these excellent posts except to observe that the mythological and folk implications of the goat go a little beyond foolishness; there's more than simplicity suggested by calling a randy elderly fellow an "old goat." And anyone who has had the opportunity (as few modern Gothamites do) to contrast the behavior of goats to that of other barnyard animals will see immediately that goats are smarter, pushier, and more independent than any of their hoofed companions; some shepherds place one goat in a flock to lead the sheep, who will happily eat grass down to bare dirt, into greener pastures. Yet another reason for New Yorkers to be proud of their nickname.

Gotham Book Mart

I was sorry to see no reference here to the late, lamented Gotham Book Mart: "Wise Men Fish Here."

Gotham

If you're going to use DC comics as your reference. New York = Metropolis Chicago = Gotham That's where they film the backdrops for the movies.

Gotham.

@Anonymous, from October 16, 2013: From: Wikipedia : Topic: Filming "Locations used as inspiration or filming locations for the urban portion of Gotham City in the live-action Batman films have included New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Newark, London, St Neots, Tokyo and Hong Kong, while British country house locations in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire have been used to depict the less urban scene of Wayne Manor." From: Wikipedia : Topic: Artistic Inspiration "Batman artist Neal Adams sees the 1940s mobster history of Chicago as the basis for Gotham, while writer/artist Frank Miller has stated that Metropolis is New York in the daytime and Gotham City is New York at night." --- Basically, Gotham City is a fictional place. Both by Chicago and New York had a hand in its inspiration. The movies filmed lots of places, but only one of those places has Gotham as a historically-validated nickname, and that's New York.

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