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History of New York City

This article documents the history of New York City part of present day New York State. For the history of the State of New York, see the article History of New York.

First settlements

Before the arrival of Europeans the Canarsie people fished the rich estuaries and wetlands from permanent settlements around New York harbor.

Although the first European to see the harbor was Giovanni da Verrazano, during his expedition of 1524, and Henry Hudson explored the area in 1609, the written history of New York City properly begins with the Dutch settlement of Walloon families in 1624. That town, at the southern tip of Manhattan, was called New Amsterdam (Nieuw Amsterdam), and was the main city of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands. The Dutch origins can still be seen in many names in New York City, such as Brooklyn (from Breukelen), Harlem (formalized in 1658 as Nieuw Haarlem), the Bronx (from Pieter Bronck), Flushing (from Vlissingen) and Staten Island.

The island of Manhattan was in some measure self-selected as a future metropolis by its extraordinary natural harbor formed by New York Bay (actually the drowned lower river valley of the Hudson River, enclosed by glacial moraines), the East River (actually a tidal strait) and the Hudson River, all of which are confluent at the southern tip, from which all later development spread. Also of prime importance was the presence of deep fresh water aquifers near the southern tip, especially the Collect Pond, and an unusually varied geography ranging from marshland to large outcrops of Manhattan schist, an extremely hard granitic rock that is ideal as an anchor for the foundations of large buildings.

Arrival of British

In 1664, British ships captured the city, with minimal resistance: the governor at the time, Peter Stuyvesant, was unpopular with the residents of the city. The British renamed the colony New York, after the king's brother James, Duke of York and appointed Thomas Willett the first of the mayors of New York. The city grew northward, and remained the largest and most important city in the colony of New York.

1700s: Growth of a Cosmpolitan City

New York was cosmopolitan from the first, established and governed largely as a strategic trading post. Jews expelled from Brazil were welcome in New York. St. Patrick's Day was celebrated in New York City for the first time at the Crown and Thistle Tavern on March 17, 1756. This holiday has since become a yearly city-wide celebration that is famous around the world as the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Freedom of worship was part of the city's foundation, and the trial for libel in 1735 of John Peter Zenger, editor of the New-York Weekly Journal established the principle of freedom of the press in the British colonies.

Though the lead statue of George III in Bowling Green was melted down for bullets in the first enthusiasm of the Revolution, the city itself was roundly Tory during the war. Several retreats and skirmishes were fought in Long Island and north of the city, in which the British defeated George Washington's troops, and held the city until 1783. 'Evacuation Day' was long celebrated in New York.

New York, then the nation's second largest city, was briefly the capital of the new United States of America, in 1789 and 1790, and George Washington was inaugurated as President in New York on the steps of Federal Hall. In 1792 a group of merchants began meeting under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street, beginning the New York Stock Exchange, while a yellow fever epidemic that summer sent New Yorkers fleeing to nearby healthful Greenwich Village.

The 1800s

Even before the opening of the Erie Canal, the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 imposed a surveyed grid upon all of Manhattan's varied terrain, in a far-reaching though perhaps topographically insensitive vision. The Erir Canal, opened in 1825, helped the city grow further by increasing river traffic upstate and to the west, making it the Atlantic gateway to the heart of the continent. By 1835 Manhattan overtook Philadelphia as the most populous American city and was in the throes of the first of its building booms, unfazed by the summer of cholera in 1832 but cut short by the Panic of 1837. The city recovered and by mid-century established itself as the financial and mercantile capital of the western hemisphere. The raw excesses of unregulated capitalism created a large upper-middle and upper class, but its need for manpower encouraged immigration on an unprecedented scale, with mixed results. The famed melting pot was brought into being, from which multitudes have since arisen in the successful pursuit of the "American Dream". But countless others failed to rise, or entire generations were forced to plough themselves under for their children or grandchildren to rise. In the mid-1800s these antipodes could be found in the contrast between rich stretches of lower Broadway, Washington Square and Lafayette Street (wealth that would later take up more extravagant residences on Fifth Avenue) and the almost unbelievably squalid enclave of Five Points (abject poverty later to occupy the Lower East Side).

In 1857 Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician, founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.

During the American Civil War on July 13, 1863 draft opponents began three days of rioting, the 'Draft Riots' that for a century would be regarded as the worst in United States history. The post-war period was noted for the corruption and graft for which Tammany Hall has become proverbial, but equally for the foundation of New York's pre-eminent cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, the American Museum of Natural History, while the Brooklyn Museum of Art was a major institution of New York's independent sister city. The Brooklyn Bridge epitomized the heroic confidence of a generation and tied the two cities inexorably together.

New York newspapers were read across the continent as editors James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled for readership.

The flood of immigration from Europe passed through Ellis Island in New York Harbor, under the eye of the Statue of Liberty (1886).

The Twentieth Century

The modern city of New York — the five boroughs — was created in 1898, as the merger of the cities of New York (then Manhattan and the Bronx) and Brooklyn with the largely rural areas of Queens and Staten Island.

The building of the New York Subway, as the separate IRT and BMT systems, and the later IND, was a later force for population spread and development. The first IRT line opened in 1904.

The world-famous Grand Central Terminal opened as the world's largest train station on February 1, 1913, replacing an earlier terminal on the site. It was preceded by Pennsylvania Station, several blocks to the south. Twice a New York World's Fair has mixed entertainment with a little progressivist instruction.

New architecture

Broadway in 1909

Starting in the early 1900s, New York City became known for its daring and impressive architecture, most notably the skyscrapers which transformed the skyline, from the Art Deco icon the Chrysler Building to the starkly modernist World Trade Center.

Rise of Broadway

After Jerome Kern's Showboat, the Broadway musical developed into a characteristically American art, while Tin Pan Alley cranked out the tunes America danced to before rock and roll.

Multicultural impact

The era of graft and corruption, unfairly epitomized by mayor Jimmy Walker was followed by the reformer Fiorello La Guardia, arguably New York's greatest mayor, and the rise of the bridges, parks and parkways coordinator, Robert Moses, the greatest proponent of automobile-centered modernist urbanism.

Culturally New York became a truly international city, rather than a great American city, with the influx of intellectual, musical and artistic European refugees that started in the late 1930s. After the war New York inherited the role of Paris as center of the art world with Abstract Expressionism, and became a rival to London as an art market. However, the city lost two baseball teams to California, the Dodgers and the Giants, in the late 1950s. They were replaced by the Mets.

1970s and 1980s: Financial crisis

Financial crisis hit the city in the mid-1970s, when it briefly appeared that the city might have to declare bankruptcy (see John Lindsay). The fiscal crisis resulted largely from the combination of generous welfare spending by the city government in the 1960s and the stock market and economic stagnation of the 1970s. President Gerald R. Ford earned the enmity of many New Yorkers when he refused to use federal money to "bail out" the city. The New York Daily News famously summarized Ford's decision in a headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead".

An electrical blackout hit the City of New York on July 13, 1977, lasting for 25 hours and resulted in looting and other disorder.

Adult entertainment sites filled the Times Square district beginning sometime in the 1960s, and continuing until the Disneyfication of the area in the 1990s. There are still such sites in the vicinity.


The city rebounded in the 1990s due to an unprecedented expansion in the national economy and the stock market boom (or bubble) of the same decade. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, is credited by many for revitalizing Times Square and making the city more "liveable" by cracking down on crime. Critics argue, however, that the drop in crime came at the price of greater friction between police and some of the city's ethnic groups, and less concern for civil liberties, while others point out that other cities achieved similar drops in crime. Supporters of the former mayor reply that crime in the city fell more rapidly during Giuliani's term than in most other major U.S. cities, such as Detroit or Los Angeles.

The Twenty-First Century

September 11, 2001

New Yorkers lived through the city's bloodiest and perhaps most tragic day on
September 11, 2001, when hijackers linked to the jihadist organization Al-Qaeda piloted two airliners into each of the World Trade Center towers. The airplanes, designated for cross-country flights and therefore engorged with jet fuel, slammed into the towers in the early morning hours of September 11. The crashes ripped gaping holes into the buildings, and ignited fires that brought the towers down. Nearly 2800 people, including both New Yorkers and visitors to the city, perished in the attack, including several hundred police officers and firefighters.

On February 27, 2003, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), after receiving input from thousands of people all over the world, revealed a design for the World Trade Center site. Designed primarily by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the plans envision a 1,776-foot-tall tower to help restore the Manhattan skyline to its former grandeur. The site pays homage to the tragedy by leaving intact the slurry wall (which withstood the force of the destruction and held the waters of the Hudson river back), and by keeping the footprints of the towers available as a memorial site.

An electrical blackout rolled through the Northeastern United States and Southern Canada on August 14, 2003 at 4:11 PM, leaving many areas, including NYC, without electricity for over a day. There was no major looting or other crime, unlike in the blackout of 1977 (see 2003 U.S.-Canada blackout).

Historical population

For each year, this list shows the total number of inhabitants of the five boroughs of New York.

1800: 79,200 inhabitants
1830: 242,300
1850: 696,100
1880: 1,912,000
1900: 3,347,000
1928: 6,018,000

See also histories of New York City neighborhoods, such as
Harlem, San Juan Hill, Upper West Side Lower East Side and others. See also entries for New York's most famous thoroughfares, including Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Broadway and others.

Compare history of Brooklyn, New York.