New York City History

The area now known as New York City had been occupied by Native Americans for more than 11,000 years before Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine hired by the French to explore the northeastern coast, arrived at New York Bay in 1524. The area lay unmolested until English explorer Henry Hudson stumbled on it while searching for the Northwest Passage in 1609. 'It is as beautiful a land as one can hope to tread upon,' reported Hudson, who claimed the place for the Dutch East India Company.

By 1625, the Dutch settlers had established a fur trade with the natives and were augmented by a group that established a post they eventually called New Amsterdam, the seat of a much larger colony called New Netherland. Advertisements in Europe lured settlers to New Amsterdam with promises of a temperate climate and bountiful land, but the harsh winters claimed many lives. Historians agree that Peter Minuit, the director of the Dutch West India Company, purchased the island from local tribes for goods worth a pittance. But the goods were worth a bit more than the 24.00 commonly recorded - probably closer to 600.00 (still a bargain).

After some to-ing and fro-ing between Britain and the Netherlands, New Amsterdam became the British colony of New York in the 1670s. Though colonists began cultivating farms in New Jersey and on Long Island, the port town remained geographically tiny - the area that today runs from Wall St south to the tip of Manhattan. Anti-British zeal caught on as early as the 1730s. Thirty years later, New York's Commons - where City Hall stands today - was the centre of many anti-British protests. Despite the intensity of New Yorkers' sentiments, King George III's troops controlled New York for most of the war, finally withdrawing in 1783, a full two years after the fighting stopped.

By the time George Washington was sworn in as president of the new republic on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall St in 1789, New York was a bustling seaport of 33,000 people, but it lagged behind Philadelphia as a cultural capital. The new Congress abandoned the city for the District of Columbia the following year - Thomas Jefferson later remarked that New York was a 'cloacina (sewer) of all the depravities of human nature.'

New York boomed in the early 19th century. Its population swelled from 65,000 in 1800 to 250,000 in 1820. During the Civil War, the city provided many volunteers for the Union cause. But as the war dragged on, many of the city's poorest citizens turned against the effort, especially after mandatory conscription was introduced. In the summer of 1863, Irish immigrants launched the 'draft riots' protesting the provision that allowed wealthy men to pay 300.00 in order to avoid fighting. Within days the rioters turned their anger on black citizens, as they were considered the real reason for the war and their main competition for work. More than 11 men were lynched in the streets and a black orphans' home was burned to the ground.

The remainder of the century in New York was a boom time for the city's population, which grew thanks to European immigration, and for businessmen, who took advantage of lax oversight of industry and stock trading during the so-called 'Gilded Age'. These men built grand mansions along 'millionaires row' on lower Fifth Ave. Along Broadway from City Hall to Union Square, multi-storey buildings - the first 'skyscrapers' - were built to house corporate headquarters.

As the city's population more than doubled from 500,000 in 1850 to over 1.1 million in 1880, a tenement culture developed. The burgeoning of New York's population beyond the city limits led to the consolidation movement, as the city and its neighbouring districts struggled to service the growing numbers. Residents of the independent districts of Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx and financially-strapped Brooklyn voted to become 'boroughs' of New York City in 1898.

Between 1900 and 1930 the new metropolis absorbed a huge wave of European immigrants who arrived at New York's Ellis Island and its population exploded, from just over 3 million in 1900 to 7 million in 1930. During this period, horse-drawn trolleys disappeared as a major network of underground subways and elevated trains ('Els') expanded into the city's outer reaches.

As the immigrant population gathered political strength, demands for change became overwhelming and during the Depression a crusader named Fiorello La Guardia (previously an Ellis Island interpreter) was elected mayor. In three terms in office the popular 'Little Flower' fought municipal corruption and expanded the social service network. Meanwhile civic planner Robert Moses used a series of appointed positions to remake the city's landscape through public works projects, highways and big events like the World's Fairs of 1939 and 1964. Unfortunately, his projects (which include the Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Center, several highways and massive housing projects) often destroyed entire neighbourhoods and rousted huge numbers of residents.

New York emerged from WWII proud and ready for business. As one of the few world-class cities untouched by war, New York seemed the place to be. But prosperity wasn't limited to the city. In the 1950s, highways made access to the suburbs easy and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers moved away permanently. It wasn't just an understandable desire for upward mobility that drew them away: many white residents left neighbourhoods they felt had 'gone bad', which was a racist way of saying that African Americans and Puerto Ricans had taken their rightful place there too.

While the politicos dithered and played to various entrenched constituencies, the city began to slide. TV production, manufacturing jobs and even the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team moved to the West Coast, along with the Dodgers' cross-town rivals the New York Giants. Like most of the US, New York looked to the West for cultural direction, and eventually corporations began abandoning the city as innovation in communications technology made it possible to do business anywhere. The city's economic slide led to the threat of bankruptcy in the 1970s, which was staved off only by massive infusions of federal cash.

New York's famous hustle and bustle was abruptly cut short on 11 September 2001 when a terrorist attack in the form of two hijacked passenger aircraft razed the gleaming twin towers of the World Trade Center. Thousands of people were killed in the worst terrorist act ever on US soil. New York, though severely shaken, showed its grit. The city was quick to regain its composure and normality, rebuilding its business district and its confidence. Shops and restaurants near the site re-opened, tourists re-appeared and the rebuilding for the Ground Zero site's rebirth is underway.

What's UP?

Navigating the Tribeca Film Festival

With more than 200 films and almost as many parties, what to do?
» Read more

Metropolitan Museum of Art

"The Met is a universal museum: every category of art in every known medium from every part of the world during every epoch of recorded time is represented ...
» Read more


This 57,545 seat stadium is home to the New York Yankees, baseball's most successful team.

John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)

JFK, in Queens (at the south end of the Van Wyck Expressway), primarily handles international flights.
General Info: 718-244-4444
Parking Info: 718-244-4168

Visitor's centers

Visitor's centers can provide you with free maps and general information about New York.
For information on visiting New York, contact the New York Convention and Visitor's Bureau. You can also call them at 800-NYC-VISIT (U.S. and Canada) or 212/397-8222 (elsewhere). To speak with a multilingual counselor: call 212/484-1222 Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm EST.

© Copyright 2024 York Magazine. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized duplication in part or whole strictly prohibited by international copyright law.