This is the tale of a city that never sleeps, of a kingdom where tycoons and world leaders converge, of a place that’s seen the highest highs and the most devastating lows. Yet through it all, it continues to reach for the sky (both figuratively and literally). And to think it all started with $24 and a pile of beads…
Living Off The Land
Long before the days of European conquest, 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.'
A Rude Awakening
The Lenape people lived undisturbed until European 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, attempted to kidnap some of the Native Americans he encountered. This began several decades of European explorers raiding Lenape villages, and cultivated the Lenape's 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, when the colony's first governor, Peter Minuit, became the city's first – but certainly not the last – unscrupulous real-estate agent, by purchasing Manhattan's 14,000 acres from the Lenape for 60 guilders ($24) and some glass beads.
Peg Leg, Iron Fist
Following the purchase of Manhattan in 1626, the colony quickly fell into disrepair under the governance of Willem Kieft. Then Peter Stuyvesant stepped in and busily set about fixing the demoralized settlement, 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. The burgeoning sugar economy in the Caribbean inspired 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. 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.
By 1664, the English showed up in battleships, ready for a 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. New York became a prosperous British port with a population of 11,000 by the mid-1700s. The city grew in prominence as the change point for the exchange of slaves and goods between worlds. The honeymoon, however, was short lived.
Freedom of the Press & the Great Negro Plot
Rising tensions were evident in the colonial press, as John Peter Zenger's New York Weekly Journal flayed the king and royal governor so regularly that the authorities tried to convict Zenger for seditious libel in 1733. He was acquitted and that was the beginning of what we know today as 'freedom of the press.'
In 1741, a spate of fires occurred across the city, including one at Fort George, then home of Lieutenant Governor George Clarke. The blazes were widely blamed on African-American slaves, and rumors quickly spread of a planned rebellion by blacks and poorer white settlers to burn down New York City. Despite contradictory accounts and a lack of solid evidence, the so-called Great Negro Plot led to the arrest and execution of numerous slaves and their alleged conspirators.
Revolution & War
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 city, 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.
However, 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.
Population Bust, Infrastructure Boom
The 19th century brought with it plenty of setbacks: 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 where Chinatown now lies. Eventually, though, the city was prosperous and found 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 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.
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.
By the turn of the 20th century, elevated trains carried one 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's population 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.
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.
Meanwhile, newly wealthy folks – boosted by an economy jump-started by financier JP Morgan, who bailed out sinking railroads and led to the city becoming 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 reflected bejeweled revelers, and 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.
Factory Tragedy, Women’s Rights
Wretched factory conditions – low pay, long hours, abusive employers – in the early 20th century were highlighted by a tragic event in 1911. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire saw rapidly spreading flames catch onto the factory's piles of fabrics, killing 146 of 500 female 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 she formed the American Birth Control League (now Planned Parenthood), which provided services for young women and researched methods of safe birth control.
The Jazz Age
The 1920s saw the dawning of the Jazz Age, when Prohibition outlawed the sale of alcohol, encouraging bootlegging and speakeasies, as well as organized crime. Congenial mayor James Walker was elected in 1925, Babe Ruth reigned at Yankee Stadium and the Great Migration from the South led to the Harlem Renaissance, when the neighborhood became a center of African American culture and society. It produced poetry, music, painting and an innovative attitude that continues to influence and inspire. Harlem's daring nightlife in the 1920s and ’30s attracted the flappers and gin-soaked revelers who marked the complete failure of Prohibition, and provided a foretaste of the liberated nightlife New Yorkers enjoy today. But the fun could not last forever – economic collapse was looming.
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 La Guardia found a friend in President Franklin Roosevelt, and worked his Washington connections to great effect to bring relief money – and subsequent prosperity – home.
WWII brought troops galore to the city, ready to party down to their last dollar in Times Square, 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 good, unionized jobs. The explosion of wartime activity led to a huge housing crunch, which brought New York its much-imitated, tenant-protecting Rent Control Law.
There were few evident controls on business, as Midtown bulked up with skyscrapers after the war. The financial center marched north, while banker David Rockefeller and his brother, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, dreamed up the Twin Towers to revitalize downtown.
Enter Robert Moses
Working with Mayor La Guardia 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 (now the Robert F Kennedy 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. His vision was one of doing away with intimate neighborhoods of brownstones and town houses, 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.
Move to the Beats
The 1960s 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 and novelist/playwright Jane Bowles. They gathered in Village coffeehouses to exchange ideas and find inspiration, which was often found in the form of folk music from burgeoning big names, such as Bob Dylan.
By the early 1970s, deficits had created a serious fiscal crisis, effectively demoting the elected mayor Abraham Beame to a figurehead, 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.
The traumatic ’70s – which reached a low point in 1977 with a citywide blackout and terrorizing serial killer David Berkowitz – saw rents fall, which helped 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 with the advent of the punk-rock aesthetic. 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. Ramones-loving 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 renaissance challenged gender roles and turned the East Village into America's center of tattooing and independent filmmaking.
Out Of the Ashes
During the 1970s a wave of arson attacks reduced blocks of apartment houses in the South Bronx to cinders. Amid the smoke, an influential hip-hop culture was born, fueled by the percussive rhythms of Puerto Rican salsa. Rock Steady Crew, led by 'Crazy Legs' Richie Colón, pioneered athletic, competitive break dancing. Kool DJ Herc spun vinyl for break beat all-night dance parties. Afrika Bambaataa, another founding hip-hop DJ, formed Zulu Nation, bringing DJs, break dancers and graffiti writers together to end violence.
Daring examples of graffiti dazzled the public with train-long graphics. 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.'
Some of the 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.
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, boutique-ing and partying unparalleled since the 1920s.
With pro-business, law-and-order-loving 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. 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 big city, by targeting high-crime areas and using statistics to focus police presence. Crime dropped, restaurants boomed, real-estate prices sizzled, and Sex & the City beamed a vision of sophisticated singles in Manolos around the world.
Still, things were faltering in 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.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists flew two hijacked planes into the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, turning the whole complex to dust and rubble and killing nearly 3000 people. Downtown Manhattan took months to recover from the ghastly fumes wafting from the ruins as forlorn missing-person posters grew ragged on brick walls. While the city mourned its dead and recovery crews coughed their way through the debris, residents braved constant terrorist alerts and an anthrax scare. Shock and grief drew people together, uniting the oft-fractious citizenry in a determined effort not to succumb to despair.
Protests, Storms & Political Change
The decade after September 11 was a period of rebuilding – both physically and emotionally. In 2002, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg began the unenviable task of picking up the pieces of a shattered city that had thrust all of its support behind his predecessor, Mayor Giuliani, whose popularity rose in the wake of September 11.
Much to Bloomberg’s pleasure, New York saw much renovation and reconstruction, especially after the city hit its stride with spiking tourist numbers in 2005. In 2008, however, the economy buckled under its own weight, in what has largely become known as the Global Financial Crisis. Anger toward the perceived recklessness of America's financial institutions saw thousands take to the Financial District’s Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, in a stand against the nation’s unfair division of personal wealth. Known as Occupy Wall Street, the protest subsequently spread to hundreds of other cities across the world.
Fury of the meteorological kind hit New York in 2012, in the form of superstorm Hurricane Sandy. While a prestorm surge on October 28 turned parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey into a New World Venice, Sandy saved her ultimate blow for the following day. Cyclonic winds and drenching rain pounded the city, causing severe flooding and property damage, including to the NYC subway system, Hugh L Carey Tunnel and World Trade Center site. A major power blackout plunged much of Lower Manhattan into surreal darkness, while trading at the New York Stock Exchange was suspended for two days in its first weather-related closure since 1888.
The winds of political change swept through the city in November 2013, when Bill de Blasio became the city's first Democrat mayor since 1989. The 52-year-old self-proclaimed 'progressive' also became the first white mayor of NYC with an African American spouse.