new york city history guide

In 1609, Henry Hudson was the first European to set foot on Manhattan Island (called ‘Manahtin’ by the local Algonquin peoples). However, European settlement began four years later with the establishment of a Dutch fur trading post in Lower Manhattan, a settlement that was to later be called New Amsterdam. In 1626, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island and Staten Island from the native peoples for trade goods (legend has it that the agreement was over $24 worth of glass beads — this has since been proved untrue). Peter Stuyvesant was appointed governor in 1640 and established self-government in the city. However, his reign was short-lived, as in 1664 the city was captured by the British and renamed New York.

In the 1680s, King James II designated New York as the first capital of the colonies of New York, New Jersey, and the Dominion of New England. The city quickly became an important port, supplying agricultural products from the Caribbean islands and serving as a military base for British operations against the French. The site of today’s city was the theatre of the New York Campaign, a series of important Revolutionary War battles. Throughout the war and until November 25th 1783, British forces occupied the city. The same day when the last British troops left the city, George Washington triumphantly arrived in New York. The ensuing Continental Congress meetings established New York as the first capital of the United States. In 1789, Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States at Federal Hall on Wall Street. New York would remain the capital of the new country for only another year.

By the 18th century, New York was quickly growing in importance as an economic centre, first because of the policies of Alexander Hamilton, and from 1825 due to the opening of the Erie Canal, which made the Great Lakes and the midwestern United States accessible by boat to the Atlantic. After the Revolutionary War thousands of New England Yankees moved to the city; by 1820 the city had over 120,000 residents, mostly middle and upper-class, and 95 percent American-born. The Protestant homogeneity of the city would soon change, however, when in the 1840s thousands of Catholic Irish immigrants fled rural strife and moved to the city. The ensuing ethnic tensions turned New York into an unruly city.

City planners recognized the need to control the growing city, and in 1811, the Commissioners’ Plan established the famous grid system that was to encompass all of Manhattan, save for the already-settled areas of Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan. The plan called for sixteen numbered and lettered avenues running north-south (First through Twelfth avenues and Avenues A to D in the East Village) and 155 orthogonal cross streets, beginning with 1st Street in Greenwich Village. Broadway, a former native footpath, was to retain its original form and bisect the island on a diagonal.

Between 1821 and 1855, the city nearly quadrupled in population. City officials recognized the need for open space for citizens to escape from chaotic urban life, and in 1857, writer Frederick Law Olmstead and architect Calvert Vaux won a contest for the design of the massive Central Park, stretching from yet-undeveloped 59th Street to 110th Street, and from Fifth to Eighth Avenues. The park itself is larger than the world’s two smallest nations combined — Monaco and Vatican City.

During the American Civil War, the city’s residents were split in support for both the Union and the Confederacy. In 1863, this tension broke in one of the worst events of civil unrest in American history, the Draft Riots. At least 100 civilians were killed in skirmishes between troops and protesters who were angry over President Lincoln’s decision to allow the drafting of adult men into the military.

In 1870, construction began on a bridge that would connect Manhattan with its largest borough, Brooklyn. Ferries were becoming increasingly inefficient for transporting commuters to Manhattan from its quickly-growing neighbour. The suspension bridge, designed by a New Jersey engineering firm and stretching 1825 metres over the East River, was completed in 1883 and would later be known as the Brooklyn Bridge. The construction of the bridge helped unify the two boroughs, and in 1898, the five Boroughs of New York (The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Queens) were incorporated into one city.

Immigrants continued to pour into the city from European ports, and the city began to evolve distinct Italian, Jewish, Irish, and even Chinese districts. This influx of impoverished newcomers led to the popularization of the city’s most characteristic apartment design — the tenement. Such buildings were several stories tall and did not have elevators; their corridors were narrow, their rooms were small and often shared by multiple families, and their bathing facilities were almost always common. Tenements popped up throughout the Lower East Side of Manhattan, while the city’s more affluent residents moved to Midtown and the Upper East Side. Conditions were so cramped in these apartment buildings that the state legislature was in 1901 forced to pass the Tenement Act to improve living arrangements for the poorer residents of the city.

New York City was the second American city to construct an underground rapid transit system, with the opening of the subway in 1904. It was also a centre for the steel-framed high-rise building; in 1902, the city’s first steel-framed skyscraper, the Beaux Arts-styled Flatiron Building was built at Broadway and 23rd Street. The Woolworth Building, a neo-Gothic tower near City Hall, became the world’s tallest building upon its completion on 1913. It would be supplanted by the Art Deco masterpiece Chrysler building in 1930, and one year later by the symbolic Empire State Building, which rises 1,250 feet over the Midtown skyline.

The Immigration Act of 1924 prevented further migration to the city from Eastern and Southern Europe, and the demographic balance of the city began to shift. African Americans, many of whom migrated to New York from the southern states, began to congregate Uptown in Harlem. This concentration sparked a flowering in African American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance, and defined by figures such as Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Fats Waller. The stock market crash of 1929 changed the air of optimism that New York City had during the Ragtime era and Roaring Twenties. In 1934, however, the Republican reformer Fiorello LaGuardia was elected Mayor, and helped attract the 1939 World’s Fair to the city — an occasion that is sometimes regarded as having signaled the end of the Great Depression.

After the Second World War, New York City gained a new global prominence. The United Nations Headquarters were completed on the Upper East Side in 1952, and several new skyscrapers built in the International Style popped up throughout Midtown and represented the city’s newfound affluence. However, the issue of poverty still pestered local politicians, prompting the construction of large-scale housing projects on the Lower East Side and in Harlem. These urban renewal projects have generally been regarded as unsuccessful and were harshly criticized by urban activists, most notably the author Jane Jacobs, who lived in Greenwich Village.

Since the 1970s, though, New York has experienced a revitalization based upon the improved prospects of Wall Street and the city’s reestablishment as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Under the leadership of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the crime rate in New York City dropped dramatically, and the city is now considered to be the safest large city in the United States. Even after the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City has maintained its resiliency and is more popular and welcoming than ever.