Pre-history to Revolutionary War
Before New York City was the Big Apple or the city that never sleeps, before skyscrapers and Central Park, and long before electricity, the glaciers of the last Ice Age tore through Manhattan and the other boroughs, carving out hills and valleys and defining the shoreline of New York City. Once the dust settled—or more accurately, the ice melted—people began to populate the islands of modern-day NYC, thousands of years before the Europeans ever dreamed of the "New World."
These people were the Lenape, a group of "original people" who lived in seasonal campsites, fished, farmed, and hunted undisturbed in the region for centuries. Like too many Native American tribes, the Lenape experienced the trouble that arrived with the European's ships. The year 1524 brought the French vessel La Dauphine and Italian explorer Giovanni da Varazzano into the lives of an estimated 5000 previously undisturbed Lenape. Varazzano was the first man to attempt to kidnap members of the tribe, hoping to use them for slave labor. He called the region New Angoulême.
One hundred years after La Dauphine, the Dutch West India Company set up a trading post in today's lower Manhattan; the group of 110 settlers named their colony "New Amsterdam." The Lenape, whom the Europeans had consistently kidnapped and raided over the past century, were dwindling in numbers. To top off the misfortune, one of the settlers, Peter Minuit, offered to buy Manhattan and Staten Island for the equivalent of $24 today. Having no concept of land-ownership, the Lenape agreed, assuming the settlers were giving offerings in order to hunt on the land alongside the Lenape for a year or two.
By 1647, when newly appointed governor Peter Stuyvesant arrived, only 700 Lenape were left in the area. Stuyvesant attempted to make peace, as well as repair the fort, create a municipal wharf, markets, a night watch, and a canal, which is now covered by present day Canal Street. Five years after Stuyvesant's arrival, New Amsterdam received its city charter. It certainly seemed like the region was in good hands and prospering. The principle of religious tolerance was even established in New Amsterdam's court with the Quaker John Bowne's case. This all ended, however, upon the arrival of the British in 1664. Stuyvesant surrendered immediately to King Charles II, who renamed the colony after his brother, the Duke of York. At this time, the last of the Lenape fled north after much fighting with the British. They were officially driven out of their home.
Less than ten years after the British took control of New York, the Dutch took it back, renaming it New Orange. This little stunt lasted only one year, however, and New York was again in the hands of the British. Over the next half a decade, colonists continued to sail to New York, with the population reaching around 11,000 in the mid 1700s.
In 1735, another groundbreaking event occurred: the concept of freedom of press was established during the court case of printer John Zenger, who openly opposed the king and royal governor in his newspaper, New York Weekly Journal. He was not, however, the only colonist unhappy with British rule; by this time many had already devised clever systems of dodging taxes and evading British laws. These actions were among the very beginning of the revolution.
Washington's Inauguration to the Creation of Central Park
About two decades after the founding of King's College (now Columbia University) in 1754, a young man by the name of Alexander Hamilton enrolled for study. He soon became a strong anti-British organizer just before the revolution, a small precursor of his eventual key role in the development of New York City and the United States. At the start of the war, General George Washington lost a terrible battle in New York and had to retreat, leaving the city for recapture to the British. A short while later, however, the British too left, and Washington returned with his men to reclaim New York City. This was to be his crowning moment and after the celebration, Washington retired from his post, saying goodbye to his officers at what is now the Fraunces Tavern Museum.
The years 1784 and 85 were momentous for New York City, when it was named first the capital city of New York, and then the first capital of the United States. The city, of course, only hung onto these designations for a short time; the state capital rotated between Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Albany and NYC before settling permanently in Albany in 1797. The U.S. capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790.
In the last year that New York City was the capital of the United States, George Washington was inaugurated as President in an open gallery at Federal Hall on Wall Street. Alexander Hamilton, now more than just a young college student after playing several vital roles on Washington's staff during the war, became the first Secretary of the Treasury. He established the New York Stock Exchange and began rebuilding NYC.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, New York City experienced waves of progress, followed by waves of adversity and disaster. First progress: in 1811, the current grid system for the layout of Manhattan's streets was developed. The following year, city hall was built and is still used today. New York University and Union Square Park were opened in 1831, followed by disaster: the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed 674 buildings in the city; a decade later 300 more buildings were wiped out by fire. Progress: the city began constructing Central Park in 1855, as well as opened Castle Garden at the Battery as an immigration center. Disaster: Massive cholera epidemics swept the city throughout much of the century until an aqueduct system was devised to bring water to the city from Croton, using the 363-mile Erie Canal, dug by Irish immigrants. The Panic of 1857 led to a four-year depression in NYC. Progress: Macy's opened in 1858, and shortly after, the elevated railway was constructed. Grand Central Depot was also built by Cornelius Vanderbilt around this time.
The biggest disaster and also the biggest wave of progress was yet to come: the American Civil War in 1861.
Civil War to Joining of the Five Boroughs
New York City provided much of the troops, supplies, and equipment for the Union army during the Civil War; however, many residents also sympathized with the Confederacy. These mixed feelings contributed to the Draft Riots of 1863, in which one of the largest civil insurrections of American history occurred. Thousands were injured and about 125 people died in the riots, which quickly turned into a directed attack on black citizens. The Draft Riots created a stain on the history of NYC.
In 1866, New York became of the first city in the nation to have a Board of Health. The year 1869 saw both a major stock market crash and the opening of the American Museum of Natural History. Two years later, it was discovered that a dirty politician, William "Boss" Tweed had been embezzling money from the city treasury. After stealing an estimated $200 million and contributing to the poverty of many of the city's people, Tweed was thrown in jail, where he would eventually die.
From 1879 to 1891, many important structures were built in NYC, including St. Patrick's Cathedral, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Edison's steam-driven power plant (which was the first electrical generating plant in the world), the Brooklyn Bridge, the Metropolitan Opera House, Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, Carnegie Hall, and the New Croton Aqueduct. In 1892, Ellis Island became the new U.S. immigration center, processing 12 million immigrants since its founding.
Despite this boom in construction, housing was not a part of it; nearly one million people were living in 37,000 tenement houses within the city limits. The situation was dire to say the least, causing Jacob Riis to publish his book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. An example of the cramped living conditions can be viewed today at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Just before the turn of the century, the ratifying of the Charter of New York took place, joining Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx. Together, the five boroughs formed the largest city in the United States.
Electric Lights to Rent Control Laws
As electric lights began to replace gas throughout the city, Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of 65 public libraries in 1901. NYC also benefited that year from new housing laws to improve the living conditions in the area's 83,000 tenements. Major labor law reforms came about ten years later, but only after tragedy struck the city: a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company killed 150 of 500 female factory workers who were trapped behind locked doors. The event spurred a march to City Hall by 20,000 garment workers, eventually ending in the reforms.
Another ten years brought about another important step for women in New York; Margaret Sanger created the American Birth Control League (later renamed Planned Parenthood) after being arrested for opening the first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn. The 1920s in New York City was the heart of the Jazz Age, a time of Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium, the Harlem Renaissance, prohibition, speakeasies, and the Apollo Theater. The good times ended in 1929, however, as the stock market crash began the Great Depression.
By the 1930s, Hooverville shacks were erected by the homeless in Central Park; the structures were named after President Hoover who refused to help the poor in NYC and across the nation. The next president to take office was more sympathetic, though, and with the combined effort of President Franklin Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, "New Deal" projects brought relief money to the city, and eventual prosperity.
During World War II, Times Square was the go-to place to party for troops about to be shipped overseas. With the white men at war, women and African Americans were given the unionized factory jobs and finally able to work for a decent wage. Rent control laws also appeared during this time.
The Expression of the '60s to Decline in the '80s
Urban planner Robert Moses stepped into the NYC scene in the 1960s, and, working with Mayor LaGuardia, transformed much of the transit system in and around the city. The transformation shifted mass transit to a dependence on the automobile; both the West Side Highway and the Long Island Parkway system were the creation of Moses. While many approved the changes happening to the city, some were outraged by the loss of historical monuments and neighborhoods that Moses proposed. In 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission formed to protect such destruction.
Also during this time, creativity and expression exploded throughout much of Manhattan. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac created poems and stories in Village coffee houses, and abstract expressionism was created by controversial painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner. The gay and lesbian community expressed themselves vehemently during the 1969 Stonewall riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, which marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States.
The 1970s brought about the development of alternative culture; warehouses were renovated and turned into nightclubs, industrial areas like SoHo became trendy neighborhoods and centers of art and culture, and hip-hop emerged out of the Bronx and Brooklyn. With the serial killer Son of Sam, along with citywide blackouts, terrorizing the city in 1977, few could have guessed that worse times were yet to come for New York City.
The start of the 80s appeared to be positive with the stock market booming. But as greed grew and the decade advanced, cocaine addiction, crime, AIDS, and homelessness swept the city. All these problems had a major impact on the city, causing it to decline to a level of seediness never before experienced. Times Square became infamous as a red light district, known as stomping grounds for the mob, small-time criminals and adult entertainment. In 1988, the Tompkins Square Park Riot shined a negative light on the New York Police Department when it was determined that police brutality and excessive force incited the riot. The city's reputation as a center for art, prosperity, and culture appeared to be going down in flames.
Mayor Giuliani to Present Day
After a decade so full of crime and decline, the 1990s begged for a change. This change began with the flourish of dotcom businesses, causing a spike in new building and partying. John F. Kennedy Airport became the new immigration center, in effect becoming the new Ellis Island.
In 1994, Rudy Giuliani became Mayor of New York City, the start of a very controversial eight years in office. Many will agree that while in office, Giuliani made major strides to improve the safety of the city and decrease crime, greatly improving the quality of life for New Yorkers. Some believe, however, that the drop in the crime rate was coincidental, and found that he took too much credit for things he didn't really do. During his terms, Giuliani recommended and appointed many people for positions of authority who were revealed to be involved in much wrongdoing, reflecting badly on Giuliani's judgment.
However, everything changed on September 11th, 2001. When planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center killing nearly 2,800 people, Giuliani stepped forward to lead New York City through this dark time. His image took a drastic turn for the positive, and he was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year." Giuliani's reputation continues to be the center of much debate, but there is no question that New York City is a changed city since the early 90s. The cleaning up of Times Square —called by some Disneyfication — as well as the rush by chain stores to open in NYC, has certainly left the city with a different look.
Beginning in the 2000s, tourism, shopping, and rent have all increased throughout the city. Manhattan is one of the most expensive cities for real estate, with even small spaces expensive to rent or lease. Many New Yorkers who treasured the one-of-a-kind feel of the city consider the flurry of Starbucks and retail stores like Old Navy and the Shops at Columbus Circle to be a very un-New York movement, putting many indie shops out of business. If you know the whole story of the land, though, you would understand that charging in and buying real estate in the area for ridiculous prices is a longstanding tradition and an integral component of New York City history.