A former editor for Time-Life Books leads an engaging charge through almost four centuries of N.Y.C.'s turbulent history. What has molded the character of the ""most powerful city in the world,"" in Allen's view, is its harbor, which in turn produced ""its formidable financial power and its role as a cosmopolitan port of immigration."" This anecdote-crammed chronicle starts with the Dutch, tracing Manhattan's commercial bent and tolerant attitudes to their 40-year dominance. Skillfully, and evenhandedly, Allen outlines the political, social, and economic forces at work through the Revolution, the heyday of the clipper ships, the rise of Wall Street, the Gilded Age, the Twenties, the Depression, the prosperous postwar years, the 1975 fiscal crisis, and the economic boom of the 80's. Allen brings on the major personalities like Stuyvesant, Hamilton, Burr, Astor, Morgan, Lindsay, and Koch, and influential choruses of immigrants--Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, etc. Today, when once again New York seems sliding toward a financial precipice, this broad-brush account offers useful perspectives on a contradictory city that has in the past overdrawn its accounts, elected scoundrels, and tolerated the juxtaposition of flaunted wealth and extreme poverty. In the 1860's, Boss Tweed's Ring is estimated to have plundered taxpayers of over $50 million; but the city thrived even as homeless haunted the streets and more than half of the children under the age of five died. Allen also recalls the achievement of the ""autocratic and stubborn"" Fiorello La Guardia, who balanced the budget and ""established a record of honest government that few thought was possible."" A rich character sketch that explains much about N.Y.C.'s precocious American nature.