Colonial Days (1524–1776)
The area that became New York City was the home to many Native Americans before Giovanni da Verrazano arrived in 1524. And it wasn’t until 1609, when Henry Hudson, while searching for the Northwest Passage, claimed it for the Dutch East India Company, that New York was recognized as a potential, profitable settlement in the New World. (And it’s 1609 that the city uses as its founding date.)
Hudson (the river that separates Manhattan from the mainland is named after him) said of New York, “It is as beautiful a land as one can hope to tread upon.” The treading didn’t really start until years later, but by 1625, Dutch settlers established a fur trade with the locals and called their colony New Amsterdam. A year later, Peter Minuit of the Dutch West India Company made that famous deal for the island. He bought New Amsterdam from the Lenape Tribe for what has widely been reported as $24.
New Amsterdam became a British colony in the 1670s, and during the Revolutionary War it was occupied by British troops. England controlled New York until 1783, when it withdrew from the city 2 years after the end of the American Revolution.
Two years after that, New York was named the first capital of the United States. The first Congress was held at Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789, and George Washington was inaugurated president. But New York’s tenure as the capital didn’t last long. A year later, the government headed south to Philadelphia, eventually finding its permanent home in the newly created District of Columbia.
A Melting Pot City
By 1825, New York City’s population swelled to 250,000, rising to a half-million by midcentury. The city was a hotbed of Union recruitment during the Civil War; in the 1863 draft riots, Irish immigrants violently protested the draft and lynched 11 African-Americans.
With industry booming, the late 19th century was termed the “Gilded Age.” New York City was an example of this label in action; millionaires built mansions on Fifth Avenue, while rows of tenements teeming with families (made up of the cheap, mostly immigrant laborers who were employed by the industrial barons) filled the city’s districts. In 1880, the city’s population boomed to 1.1 million.
More European immigrants poured into the city between 1900 and 1930, arriving at Ellis Island and then fanning out into such neighborhoods as the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and Harlem. With the city population in 1930 at seven million and a depression raging, New York turned to a feisty mayor named Fiorello La Guardia for help. With the assistance of civic planner Robert Moses, who masterminded a huge public works program, the city was remade. Moses did some things well, but his highway, bridge, tunnel, and housing projects ran through (and sometimes destroyed) many vibrant neighborhoods.
Post–World War II Through Today
While most of the country prospered after World War II, New York, with those Moses-built highways and a newly forming car culture, endured an exodus to the suburbs. By 1958, the Dodgers had left Brooklyn and the Giants had left the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. This economic slide climaxed in the late 1970s with the city’s declaration of bankruptcy.
As Wall Street rallied during the Reagan years of the 1980s, New York’s fortunes also improved. It was a heady time to be living here. Ed Koch was the one and only mayor for the entire decade. It takes a tough man to govern New York; you have to have skin of titanium, and Ed—as everyone called him—proved this, alienating as many people as he endeared. There was no middle ground with Mr. "How'm I doin'?"
A book that captures well the excesses of the period, as typified by the frenetic downtown club scene, is Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984), with its urban equivalent of eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die (read "snort" for "drink" here). The movie Wall Street came out in 1987 with its now notorious, and sadly prescient, line, "Greed is good." Studio 54 was flourishing right up to 1986, when its infamous doors finally closed.
Not all was about surfeit, though. In the early 1980s, a college student named Barack Obama lived in an apartment on East 94th Street in Manhattan. He wrote about it in his memoir, Dreams from My Father: "It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for the rest of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work."
The future president graduated from Columbia University in 1983.
In the 1990s, with Rudolph Giuliani as the mayor, the city rode a wave of prosperity that left it safer, cleaner, and more populated. The flip side of this boom was that Manhattan became more homogenized. Witness the Disneyfication of Times Square—the ultimate symbol of New York's homogenization—and the growing gap between the rich and poor.
Everything changed on September 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. But New York’s grit and verve showed itself once more, as the city immediately began to rebound emotionally from that tragedy. The financial aftermaths of the attacks were also short-lived, and the city has experienced an unprecedented building boom in the first two decades of the 21st century. The city you'll visit today is named by the FBI, year after year, as the safest large city in the United States. It's also one of the most prosperous, as you'll note while walking around its buzzy streets.