- Living off the land
- 1524: a rude awakening
- Buying Manhattan
- Peg leg, iron fist
- Freedom of press
- Revolution & war
- Population bust, infrastructure boom
- 19th-century corruption & immigration
- Class lessons
- 1898: boroughs join Manhattan
- Factory tragedy, women’s rights
- The jazz age
- Hard times
- Enter Robert Moses
- Beats & gays
- ‘drop dead’
- Out of the ashes
- Dot-com days
- September 11
- Shiny happy highrises
Long before land-grabbing settlers or property-obsessed residents took hold of this area, the swath that would eventually become NYC belonged to Native Americans known as the Lenape – ‘original people’ – who resided in a series of seasonal campsites. They lived up and down the eastern seaboard, along the signature shoreline, and on hills and in valleys sculpted by glaciers after the Ice Age left New York with glacial debris now called Hamilton Heights and Bay Ridge. Glaciers scoured off soft rock, leaving behind Manhattan’s stark rock foundations of gneiss and schist. Around 11, 000 years before the first Europeans sailed through the Narrows, the Lenape people foraged, hunted and fished the regional bounty here. Spear points, arrowheads, bone heaps and shell mounds testify to their presence. Some of their pathways still lie beneath streets such as Broadway. In the Lenape language of Munsee, the term Manhattan may have translated as ‘hilly island.’ Others trace the meaning to a more colorful phrase: ‘place of general inebriation.’
The Lenape people lived undisturbed until explorers muscled in, firstly by way of the French vessel La Dauphine, piloted by Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazano. He explored the Upper Bay in 1524, deemed it a ‘very beautiful lake, ’ and while anchored at Staten Island, he attempted to kidnap some of the Native Americans he encountered. This touched off several decades of European explorers raiding Lenape villages, and cultivated their deep mistrust of outsiders. By the time the Dutch West India Company employee Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, encounters with Native Americans were often dichotomized into two crude stories that alternated between ‘delightful primitives’ and ‘brutal savages.’
The Dutch West India Company sent 110 settlers to begin a trading post here in 1624. They settled in Lower Manhattan and called their colony New Amsterdam, touching off bloody battles with the unshakable Lenape. It all came to a head in 1626, the colony’s first governor, Peter Minuit, became the city’s first – but certainly not the last – unscrupulous real estate agent. He offered to buy Manhattan’s 14, 000 acres from the Lenape for 60 guilders, or $24. Unaware of the concept of private land ownership, the Lenape agreed, probably thinking that the exchange was about rent, and permission to hunt, fish and trade, rather than a permanent transfer of property.
From the beginning New Amsterdam’s governors displayed more talent for self-enrichment than for administration. As colonists grumbled about the Dutch West India Company’s stingy provisions and primitive wood huts, the walls and ramparts of the ‘fort’ crumbled under the assault of free-roaming pigs, cattle and sheep. Meanwhile, new Governor Willem Kieft stirred up so much trouble with the surrounding Native Americans that they formed an alliance to subdue the aggressive Europeans. By the time Peter Stuyvesant stomped off a ship to clean up the mess in 1647, the Lenape population had dwindled to around 700, and Kieft had retreated to count his gains in various corrupt transactions.
Newly appointed governor Peter Stuyvesant busily set about remaking the demoralized colony, making peace with the Lenape, establishing markets and a night watch, repairing the fort, digging a canal (under the current Canal St) and authorizing a municipal wharf. His vision of an orderly and prosperous trading port was partially derived from his previous experience as governor of Curaçao – and the burgeoning sugar economy in the Caribbean helped to inspire an investment in slave trading that soon boosted New Amsterdam’s slave workforce to 20% of the population. After long service, some were partially freed and given ‘Negroe Lots’ near today’s Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side and City Hall; you can see the remnants of their African Burial Ground, now a national park, on Duane St. The Dutch West India Company encouraged the fruitful connection to plantation economies on the islands, and issued advertisements and offered privileges to attract merchants to the growing port. Although these ‘liberties’ did not at first extend to the Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition, the Dutch West India Company turned Stuyvesant’s intolerance around. By the 1650s, warehouses, workshops and gabled houses were spreading back from the dense establishments at the river’s edge on Pearl St.
But by 1664, the English showed up in battleships, ready for a nasty fight. Stuyvesant was tired, though, and avoided bloodshed by surrendering without a shot. King Charles II promptly renamed the colony after his brother the Duke of York, and instead picked fights with the Lenape, many of whom were killed off before retreating upstate. Over the next few decades, the colony’s Dutch look became decidedly English, as elegant townhouses sprouted up. New York becoming a prosperous British port and population rose to 11, 000 by the mid 1700s. But at the same time, colonists were becoming resentful over British taxation.
Evidence of the rising tension could be found in the colonial press, as John Peter Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal flayed king and royal governor so regularly that the authorities tried to convict Zenger for seditious libel. He was acquitted, though, and that outcome was the beginning of what we now know as ‘freedom of press.’ Today you can see a marker in front of Federal Hall, where Zenger was tried, honoring that victory. Meanwhile, some 2000 enslaved New Yorkers continued to resist their involuntary servitude, while at the same time trade with the Caribbean accelerated, and wharves lined the East River to accommodate the bulging merchant ships. By the 18th century the economy was so robust the locals were improvising ways to avoid sharing the wealth with London. Smuggling to dodge various port taxes was commonplace, and the jagged coastline, full of coves and inlets, hid illegal activity well (a virtue that 21st-century drug smugglers have discovered). And so New York’s being a hotbed of hotheads and tax dodgers provided the stage for the fatal confrontation with King George III.
Patriots clashed in public spaces with Tories, who were loyal to the king, while Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, an intellectual, became a fierce anti-British organizer. Citizens fled the scene, sensing the oncoming war, and revolutionary battle began in August of 1776, when General George Washington’s army lost about a quarter of its men in just a couple of days. He retreated, and fire encompassed much of the colony. But soon the British left and Washington’s army reclaimed their city. After a series of celebrations, banquets and fireworks at Bowling Green, General Washington bade farewell to his officers at what is now the Fraunces Tavern Museum, and retired as commander-in-chief.
But in 1789, to his surprise, the retired general found himself addressing crowds at Federal Hall, gathered to witness his presidential inauguration. Alexander Hamilton, meanwhile, began rebuilding New York, and became Washington’s secretary of the treasury, working to establish the New York Stock Exchange. But people distrusted a capitol located adjacent to the financial power of Wall St merchants, and New Yorkers lost the seat of the presidency to Philadelphia shortly thereafter.
There were plenty of setbacks at the start of the 19th century: the bloody Draft Riots of 1863, massive cholera epidemics, rising tensions among ‘old’ and new immigrants and the serious poverty and crime of Five Points, the city’s first slum, located in what is now Chinatown and the City Hall area and dramatized by Hollywood in 2002’s Gangs of New York. Eventually, though, the city was prosperous, and found mighty resources to build mighty public works. A great aqueduct system brought Croton Water to city dwellers, relieving thirst and stamping out the cholera that was sweeping the town. Irish immigrants helped dig a 363-mile ‘ditch’ – the Erie Canal – linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie. The canal’s chief backer, Mayor DeWitt Clinton, celebrated the waterway by ceremonially pouring a barrel of Erie water into the sea (Clinton’s cask is on view at the New-York Historical Society). Clinton was also the mastermind behind the modern-day grid system of Manhattan’s street layout – a plan created by his commission to organize the city in the face of an oncoming population explosion.
And there was yet another grand project afoot: one to boost the health of the people crammed into tiny tenement apartments, in the form of an 843-acre public park. Begun in 1855 in an area so far uptown that some immigrants kept pigs, sheep and goats there, Central Park was both a vision of green reform and a boon to real-estate speculation. As much as Central Park promised a playground for the masses, the park project also offered work relief for the city when the Panic of 1857 (one of the city’s periodic financial debacles) shattered the nation’s finance system. Another vision was realized by German-born engineer John Roebling, who sought a solution to a series of winter freezes that had shut down the ferry system connecting downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn, then an independent city. He designed a soaring symphony of spun wire and Gothic arches to span the East River, and his Brooklyn Bridge accelerated the fusion of the neighboring cities. Soon the city population hit two million, and these urbanites were served by even more new creations – from the elevated railway to trains that pulled into Grand Central Depot, built by rail tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt and later replaced by today’s Grand Central Terminal.
Out of such growth and new prosperity came the infamous William ‘Boss’ Tweed – a powerful and charming politician who had served in the US House of Representatives and had become the leader of political organization Tammany Hall, which basically looked out for the wealthy class. He soon took charge of the city treasury and spent years embezzling funds – perhaps up to $200 million – which put the city in debt and contributed to citizens’ growing poverty. His crimes were highlighted by Thomas Nast’s biting caricatures in the 1870s, and Boss was eventually caught and thrown in jail, where he died.
By the turn of the 20th century elevated trains carried a million people a day in and out of the city. Rapid transit opened up areas of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, spurring mini building booms in areas near the lines. At this point, the city was simply overflowing with the masses of immigrants arriving from southern Italy and Eastern Europe, who had boosted the metropolis to around three million. The journey from immigrant landing stations at Castle Garden and Ellis Island led straight to the Lower East Side. There, streets reflected these myriad origins with shop signs in Yiddish, Italian, German and Chinese. Ethnic enclaves allowed newcomers to feel comfortable speaking their home languages, buy both familiar and New World staples from pushcart peddlers and worship varied versions of the Christian and Jewish faiths. You can experience their extremely tight living quarters today at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
All sorts of folks were living in squalor by the late 19th century, when the immigration processing center at Ellis Island opened, welcoming one million newcomers in just its first year. They crammed into packed tenements, shivered in soup lines and shoveled snow for nickels. Children collected rags and bottles, boys hawked newspapers, and girls sold flowers to contribute to family income. Family budgets were so meager that it was common to pawn the sheets to raise food money before a payday.
Meanwhile newly wealthy folks – boosted by an economy jump-started by financier JP Morgan, who bailed out sinking railroads and led to New York being the headquarters of Standard Oil and US Steel – began to build increasingly splendid mansions on Fifth Ave. Modeled on European chateaux, palaces such as the Vanderbilt home, on the corner of 52nd St and Fifth Ave, reached for new summits of opulence. Tapestries adorned marble halls, mirrored ballrooms accommodated bejeweled revelers, liveried footmen guided grand ladies from their gilded carriages in a society where Astors, Fricks and Carnegies ruled. Reporter and photographer Jacob Riis illuminated the widening gap between the classes by writing about it in the New York Tribune and in his now-classic 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, eventually forcing the city to pass much-needed housing reforms.
After years of governmental chaos caused by the 40 independent municipalities around the New York area, a solution came in 1898: the ratifying of the Charter of New York, which joined the five boroughs of Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan into the largest city in America. (Brooklyn, though, already a fiercely independent city, took some cajoling to join the others, and had actually refused the idea five years earlier.) The move – which would be celebrated 100 years later with the biggest fireworks display in history – brought even more development, this time in the form of skyscrapers that made good use of the steel industry and spawned many building contests to see who could reach higher into the sky. The Flatiron Building, Woolworth Building and Chrysler Building held the title briefly, all to be eventually outdone by yet another architect with vision. New York was home to nearly 70 skyscrapers by 1902.
Wretched factory conditions – low pay, long hours, abusive employers – in the early 20th century were illuminated with a tragic event in 1911. It was the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire when rapidly spreading flames caught onto the factory’s piles of fabrics and killed nearly 150 of 500 women workers who were trapped behind locked doors. The event led to sweeping labor reforms after 20, 000 female garment workers marched to City Hall. At the same time, suffragists held street-corner rallies to obtain the vote for women. Nurse and midwife Margaret Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, where ‘purity police’ promptly arrested her. After her release from jail in 1921, though, she formed the American Birth Control League (later Planned Parenthood), providing services for young women and researching methods of safe birth control.
All this sassiness paved the way for what came to be known as the Jazz Age, when Prohibition outlawed the sale of alcohol, encouraging bootlegging and speakeasies, not to mention organized crime. James Walker was elected mayor in 1925, ruling with pizzazz during a time when jazz ruled, Babe Ruth reigned at Yankee Stadium and the Great Migration from the South led to the Harlem Renaissance, when the neighborhood became the center of African American culture and society. It turned out poetry, music, painting and an innovative attitude that continues to influence and inspire. This is where the Apollo Theater, still humming on 125th St, began its famous Amateur Night; the venue has boosted the careers of unknowns such as Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and the Jackson Five. Harlem’s daring nightlife in the 1920s and ’30s attracted the flappers and gin-soaked revelers that marked the complete failure of Prohibition. Indeed, the Jazz Age seems to have taught women to smoke, drink and dance at speakeasies, a foretaste of the liberated nightlife that New Yorkers still enjoy today (although they are forced to smoke on the street outside bars now).
The fun times were not to last, though, as the stock market crashed in 1929, beginning the Great Depression of the 1930s, which the city dealt with through a combination of grit, endurance, rent parties, militancy and a slew of public works projects. The once-grand Central Park blossomed with shacks, derisively called Hoovervilles, after the president who refused to help the needy. But Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia found a friend in President Franklin Roosevelt, and worked his Washington connections to great effect to bring relief money – and subsequent prosperity – home. Riverside Park and the Triborough Bridge are just two of the still functioning monuments of New Deal projects brought to New York by the Texas-born, Yiddish-speaking son of an Italian bandmaster.
WWII brought troops galore to the city, ready to party down to their last dollar in Times Sq, before being shipped off to Europe. Converted to war industries, the local factories hummed, staffed by women and African American workers who had rarely before had access to these good unionized jobs. The explosion of wartime activity led to a huge housing crunch, which brought New York its much-imitated and tenant-protecting Rent Control Law.
But there were few evident controls on business, as Midtown bulked up with skyscrapers after the war. The financial center marched north, even while the banker David Rockefeller and his brother Governor Nelson Rockefeller dreamed up the Twin Towers to revitalize downtown.
Working with LaGuardia to usher the city into the modern age was Robert Moses, an urban planner who would influence the physical shape of the city more than anyone else in the 20th century – either wonderfully or tragically, depending on whom you ask. He was the mastermind behind the Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the West Side Hwy and the Long Island parkway system – not to mention endless highways, tunnels and bridges, which shifted this mass-transit area into one largely dependent on the automobile. His vision was one of doing away with intimate neighborhoods of brownstones and townhouses and of creating sweeping parks and soaring towers. The approach got preservationists fired up, and their efforts to stop him from bulldozing neighborhoods led to the Landmarks Preservation Commission being formed in 1965. His years of work were documented in the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Power Broker, by Robert Caro, which portrayed Moses as an anti-preservationist who had callously removed huge numbers of residents from ghettos to make way for development. He responded with the following statement: ‘I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.’
The ’60s ushered in an era of legendary creativity and anti-establishment expression, with many of its creators centered right downtown in Greenwich Village. One movement was Abstract Expressionism, a large-scale outbreak of American painters – Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Willem de Kooning among them – who offended and intrigued with incomprehensible squiggles and blotches and exuberant energy. Then there were the writers, such as Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac or novelist/playwright Jane Bowles, who gathered in Village coffeehouses to exchange ideas and find inspiration, which were often found in the form of folk music from some burgeoning big names, such as Bob Dylan. It all created an environment that was ripe for rebellion – a task that gay revelers took on with gusto, finding their political strength and voice in fighting a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. The Stonewall Riots, as they are now known, showed the city and the world that the lesbian and gay community would not accept being treated as second-class citizens.
By the early 1970s deficits had created serious fiscal crisis here, demoting the elected Mayor Abraham Beame to a figurehead, and turning over the city’s real financial power to Governor Carey and his appointees. President Ford’s refusal to lend federal aid – summed up nicely by the Daily News headline ‘Ford to City, Drop Dead!’ – marked the nadir of relationships between the US and the city it loved to hate. As massive layoffs decimated the city’s working class, untended bridges, roads and parks reeked of hard times. Even the bond raters turned their thumbs down on New York’s mountain of debt.
But the traumatic ’70s – which reached a low point in 1977 with a citywide blackout and the existence of terrorizing serial killer Son of Sam – actually drove down rents for once. It helped to nourish an exciting alternative culture that staged performances in abandoned schools, opened galleries in unused storefronts and breathed new life into the hair-dye industry. The fees from shooting the movie Fame at PS 122 at 9th St and First Ave, for example, helped pay for the renovation of the still-popular performance space. Blue-haired punks turned former warehouses into pulsing meccas of nightlife, transforming the former industrial precincts of SoHo and Tribeca. Immortalized in Nan Goldin’s famous photographic performance piece The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, this lowlife renaissance bent gender roles into pretzels and turned the East Village into America’s center of tattooing and independent filmmaking.
Meanwhile, in South Bronx, a wave of arson reduced blocks of apartment houses to cinders. But amid the smoke, an influential hip-hop culture was born both here and in Brooklyn, fueled by the percussive rhythms of Puerto Rican salsa. Rock Steady Crew, led by ‘Crazy Legs’ Richie Colon, pioneered athletic, competitive break-dancing. Kool DJ Herc spun vinyl for break beat all-night dance parties, drawing on his Jamaican apprenticeship in appropriated rhythms. Afrika Bambaataa, another founding DJ of hip-hop, formed Zulu Nation, to bring DJs, break-dancers and graffiti writers together to end violence. Daring examples of the latter dazzled the public with their train-long graphics. Perhaps the best-known ‘masterpiece’ belied the graf writers’ reputation as vandals: Lee 163, with the Fab 5 crew, painted a whole car of trains with the message ‘Merry Christmas, New York.’ Some of these maestros of the spray can infiltrated the art world, most notably, Jean-Michel Basquiat, once known by his tag ‘Samo, ’ who hung with Andy Warhol and sold with the big boys in the go-go art world of the 1980s.
Some of the easy money snagged in the booming stock markets of the 1980s was spent on art, but even more was blown up the noses of young traders. While Manhattan neighborhoods struggled with the spread of crack cocaine, the city reeled from the impact of addiction, citywide crime, and an AIDS epidemic that cut through communities. Mayor Edward Koch could barely keep the lid on the city as homelessness burgeoned and landlords converted cheap old single-room hotels into luxury apartments. Squatters in the East Village fought back when police tried to clear a big homeless encampment, leading to the Tompkins Sq Park riots of 1988. Hard to imagine that just a few years later, Manhattan would yet again become the shiny apple of prosperity’s eye.
A Time magazine cover in 1990 sported a feature story on ‘New York: The Rotting Apple.’ Still convalescing from the real estate crash at the end of the 1980s, the city faced crumbling bridges and roads, jobs leaking south, and Fortune 500 companies hopping the rivers to suburbia. And then the dot-com market roared in, turning geeks into millionaires and the New York Stock Exchange into a speculator’s fun park. Buoyed by tax receipts from IPO (initial public offering) profits, the city launched a frenzy of building, boutiquing and partying unparalleled since the 1920s.
With pro-business, law-and-order Rudy Giuliani as mayor, the dingy and destitute were swept from Manhattan’s yuppified streets to the outer boroughs, leaving room for Generation X to score digs and live the high life. Abrasive, aggressive and relentless, Mayor Giuliani grabbed headlines with his campaign to stamp out crime, even kicking the sex shops off notoriously seedy 42nd St. The energetic mayor succeeded in making New York America’s safest large city, by targeting high crime areas, using statistics to focus police presence, and arresting subway gate-crashers, people committing a minor infringement of city law but who often had other charges pending. So, in the 1990s crime dropped, powering a huge appetite for nightlife in the city that never sleeps. Restaurants boomed in the spruced-up metropolis, Fashion Week gained global fame and Sex and the City beamed a vision of sophisticated singles in Manolos around the world.
Meanwhile, to the delight of unionized plumbers, electricians and carpenters, real estate prices sizzled, setting off a construction spree of new high-rises, converted warehouses and rejuvenated tenements. Throwing off the uncertainty of the era of David Dinkins, a cautious politician who was NYC’s first African American mayor, New Yorkers flaunted the new wealth. Areas of the Lower East Side that housed artist storefront galleries in the 1970s and ’80s morphed overnight into blocks of gentrified dwellings with double-door security and maintenance charges equal to normal humans’ take-home pay.
Those left behind seldom seemed to bother the mayor. No new housing for ordinary people was built, but plenty of solid apartment stock disappeared from the rent rolls, as landlords converted rentals into pricey cooperative buildings. And yet the city’s population grew and grew, as ambitious young graduates flocked to the financial center. At the new Ellis Island – JFK airport – customs officials greeted wave after wave of Southeast Asians, South Americans and other immigrants willing to double up in cramped quarters in the outer boroughs. Still, things were faltering in the New York at the dawn of the new millennium, and when that fateful day came in 2001, it forever changed the perspective of both the city and the world.
September 11, 2001, was the day terrorists flew two hijacked planes into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, turning the whole complex into dust and rubble and killing nearly 2800 people in the process. Downtown Manhattan took months to recover from the ghastly fumes wafting from the ruins of the World Trade Center, as forlorn missing-person posters grew ragged on brick walls. While recovery crews coughed their way through the debris, the city braved constant terrorist alerts and an anthrax scare to mourn the dead. Shock and grief drew people together, and united the oft-fractious citizenry in a determined effort not to succumb to despair. Before the year was out, community groups were already gathering together in ‘Imagine New York’ workshops, to develop ideas for renewal and a memorial at the World Trade Center site. Still, good times were already faltering before the attack, which ushered in a period of high unemployment and tightened belts for everyone.
Shiny Happy Highrises
In 2002 Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the unenviable task of picking up the pieces of a shattered city that had (finally) thrust all its support behind his predecessor, longtime controversial mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose popularity rose after his reaction to September 11. Wrangling for his own rep, Bloomberg found his critics during his four-year campaign to build a huge sports arena atop the West Side Hwy, in order to bring the Jets back from Jersey and score a bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. All three failed after Albany said ‘no’ to a $2.2 billion project (to the cheer of many a New Yorker fearing traffic build-up and cost), but Bloomberg didn’t take a dent in the 2005 elections, comfortably topping the Bronx Democrat Fernando Ferrer.
The boom in NYC probably didn’t hurt his bid for re-election. For one thing, tourism picked up its pace by 2005, when receipts beat pre–September 11 levels and hotel prices and occupancy rates reached record heights. The Museum of Modern Art refurbished itself into a bigger, more beautiful version of itself. And plenty of ‘un–New York’ projects rushed out of the gate in the wake of September 11. One, both exotic and controversial, was the boom in malls and Texas-sized department chains. The Shops at Columbus Circle opened in 2003, with ‘upscale’ boutiques designed to draw in the stroller-pushers from neighboring Central Park. Sixth Ave became, cynics would say, a super-sized ghetto, with Best Buy and Home Depot opening up. Lower East Side hipsters were outraged when Starbucks opened on Delancey St in 2005. Downtown Brooklyn chimed in too, with the 2004 opening of a Target right off Flatbush Ave. The prime example of this un–New York movement, perhaps, was its setting in 2004 for the Republican National Convention, where 400, 000 protested the president, the war and the clean-cut suits in Madison Square Garden. But the Republicans carried the victory banner in the national elections anyway.
Preservation of the past has never been a strong New York trait, and in 2006 the landmark downtown-rock shrine CBGB closed its doors after its rent more than doubled. Similar tales are told all around the city, as a massive influx of national chains – banks, drugstores and retail outlets like Old Navy and Dunkin’ Donuts – constantly push indie bookstores, cafés and music shops out of business. The entire city seems to be under construction, as luxury high-rise condos are built at an alarming rate in every neighborhood, leaving many longtime New Yorkers wondering just where their diverse, creative and fostering city has gone. Still, they hold onto the hope that it hasn’t gone far, planting their feet in harder than ever before until everything swings back their way.