Native People

America’s native people were living where New York City is now for more than 11,000 years before the Europeans arrived; they spoke a language called Munsee, which was in common use in the area all the way down to Delaware, and were known to themselves as the ‘Lenape’, or ‘People’ of the region.

The Munsee language had several names for the area, including ‘Manahatouh’ which means ‘place of gathering bow wood’; ‘Manahactanienk’ which means ‘place of general inebriation’ and ‘Menatay’, which means ‘the island’. The current name of ‘Manhattan’ can be traced to any one of these words. Archaeologists have found numerous settlement remains in today’s New York, and from the accounts of the early 16th century European explorers, historians have pieced together a picture of how the native Lenape lived.

They were a transient people who lived off the land, dwelling along the banks of the local rivers during the summer months, and then moving inland to live in the woods during the colder months. They hunted the plentiful small native turkeys, rabbits and deer and dined pleasantly on oysters, berries and corn. They utilized bow and arrow to hunt their food and thought little of the heavier planting and cooking equipment that the Europeans offered them in trade.

New York still has some roadways that follow the old Lenape paths; it is for this reason that Broadway cuts diagonally across the island and continues all the way to Albany, in one form or another.

The Europeans

The first European to see what is now New York City was Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine who, in 1524, was hired by the French to explore the coast of North America. The English explorer Henry Hudson became the first European to document the topography of the area and its peoples in 1609. Hudson had been hired by the Dutch to find the Northwest Passage, a supposed route to the East Indies via northwestern North America. He anchored his ship the Half Maen (Half Moon) in New York Harbor for ten days before continuing up the river that now bears his name, taking the time to write such things about the region as, ‘It is as beautiful a land as one can hope to tread upon.’

The first Dutch settlers were dispatched in 1625 to establish a trading post. This was eventually called New Amsterdam, and was the seat of a much larger colony called New Netherland. Historians believe that the Dutch purchased the island we now know as Manhattan from the neighbouring tribes for about 600 American dollars, quite a bargain, though not as astonishing as the price of 24 American dollars that has survived as a myth.

Peter Stuyvesant became governor of New Amsterdam in 1647. He considered the Dutch colonists to be unruly, and took it upon himself to impose order upon them. He banned alcohol and curtailed religious freedoms, making him very unpopular with the Dutch colonists.

Meanwhile, the English had claimed New Netherland based on the discoveries made by John Cabot. In 1664, Charles II gave all of the land from Connecticut to Delaware to his brother James, Duke of York, despite the fact that the Dutch already had a colony there. To support the English claim, Richard Nicolls of the Royal Navy set out for New England, where he was joined by several hundred of the English colonial militia of Connecticut and Long Island. Together, they sailed for the mouth of the Hudson. Nicolls demanded that Stuyvesant surrender.

Stuyvesant initially refused. However, the people did not support him, and New Amsterdam was surrendered to the British in 1664 without bloodshed. New Amsterdam was renamed New York, in honour of the Duke of York. The city at first became a proprietary colony. When James became king of England, it became a royal colony, and Nicolls became its first governor.

Even after it fell into the hands of the English, the town of New York retained much of its Dutch character well into the middle of the 18th century, when, like colonists in other parts of America, many New Yorkers began to oppose the excesses of English colonial rule. There were also a great number of influential New Yorkers who did not want independence from England. For most of the Revolutionary War, New York was controlled by British troops. They did not withdraw until 1783, two years after the war ended.

New York Blooms

New York was a thriving seaport with 33,000 people by the time George Washington was made the United State’s first president on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789. New York was abandoned after the freshly established US Congress formed the District of Columbia in 1790. The founding fathers’ took a strong dislike to the city, the main reason attributed to the move away from New York, and Thomas Jefferson reputedly said of the city that it was a ‘cloacina (sewer) of all the depravities of human nature.’

Despite the misgivings of certain individuals, New York boomed during the early 19th century and its population had grown to a mighty 250,000 by 1830, all of which were ungoverned by any kind of notable police force – there wasn’t in fact an official force until the Civil War period in the 1860s.

New York had its own supply of fresh water (72 million gallons a day) that was directed into the city via the phenomenal Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842 for a staggering $12 million. The general health of the citizens was enhanced by the aqueduct through drinking clean water every day and having access to regular bathing.

After the Union returned victorious from the Civil War there came a time of increased prosperity for both private and public figures. The infamous boss of the city’s Tammany Hall Democratic organization, William Magear Tweed, used public works to swindle millions of dollars from the hard working people before he was toppled from power. At the same time robber barons, like the railroad speculator Jay Gould, were able to collect enormous sums of tax-free cash approaching $100 million.

The Turbulent Growth of New York

During the mid 1800s there was growing animosity between the city’s poorer and richer residents and different racial groups, sometimes exploding into violence. The richer folk were able to avoid being drafted into the Civil War by paying a fee of $300, much to the angst of the less fortunate, which culminated in the ‘draft riots’ of the poor Irish immigrants. Things got out of hand and the anger was turned onto black citizens whom many of the unfortunate poor people blamed for the Civil War, and considered them their main competition in the job market. During these riots at least 11 men were lynched in the streets and a home for black orphans was burned to the ground.

The tensions in the city rose as the amount of poor immigrants from Ireland and Europe increased; New York’s population doubled in size from 515,547 in 1850 to 1,164,673 in 1880, as black people from the south fled north for a better life and other unfortunates from overseas flocked to the famed city with ‘streets of gold’. For many though the dream was not to be, all that lay waiting for them was a life of gruelling manual work in grimy conditions and a tenement life in rundown apartments. The city’s middle classes had their eyes opened to the way the ‘other half lived’ by a forward-thinking journalist by the name of Jacob Riis, bringing about new workplace reforms and an independent health board. At the same time very wealthy people such as John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and John Jacob Astor injected large sums of money into public works and created famous institutions like the New York Public Library in 1895.

During the last years of the 1800s New York City began to outgrow its own borders, leading to the consolidation movement as the city’s population overflowed into adjoining districts – in 1898 the people of Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx and the desperately poor Brooklyn voted to become boroughs of New York City.

A second huge influx of immigrants from overseas poured into the new larger metropolis, ballooning the population once again from 3 million in 1900 to 7 million in 1930. It was during this second boom that New York dropped the use of horse-drawn carriages and implemented a huge network of underground railroads and elevated trains (‘els’), making the new outlying districts more accessible and the city itself easier to reach from them.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia battled against municipal corruption during the Great Depression of the 1930s and built up the social services network. There was also the not so popular civic planner Robert Moses operating at this time as the parks commissioner with the power to implement architectural changes to the city without voter consent. He used his power to create car-oriented highways that shunned a public transportation system and was responsible for aesthetically abhorrent schemes such as the Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Center, several highways and the Lower East Side project, often destroying entire residential areas and uprooting countless homes.

The Descent of New York

After World War II New York emerged as one of the few leading world cities completely unharmed, making it the ideal place to host the newly formed United Nations; it was still a major port and was also the capital of the world’s blossoming television industry. Unfortunately though, the wealthy middle-classes began to abandon the city throughout the 1950s, moving out to the suburbs; New York’s economy was in a steady decline as heavy industry, TV production, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants baseball teams all moved away to the West Coast. It was a very long time before the service industry took over from manufacturing as New York’s breadwinner; it was seemingly every month that a factory or public institution, a nightclub, department store or architectural landmark was closed down and boarded up, the situation went on for years.

New York became world famous for its graffiti-strewn rail network during the 1970s, the rundown trains were almost an icon of the city’s rundown condition; New York was saved from total bankruptcy by a huge federal bank loan. New York reached absolute rock bottom during the summer of 1977, during this time the city was stalked by a serial killer and a tremendous heat wave – Son of Sam, the name given to the killer, stalked and killed the city’s young people. Also at this time New York suffered from a major power outage only days after a power company official swore that such a thing was impossible; thousands of looters stole millions of dollars worth of goods from stores during the power blackout, the city was out of control, crime ridden and a scary place to visit – from here the only way was up.

New York’s saviour was being at the forefront of the world’s financial dealings, which made it the ideal player for the money oriented 1980s. The city had already begun a cultural revival in the form of movies being shot on the streets of New York soon after the low point of 1977, Broadway musical were also making a comeback and the New York Yankees won the World Series two years running. There was still worse to come though during the 1980s with the emergence of AIDS, and crack cocaine leading to a further rise in crime – both of which overstretched the city’s welfare and law enforcement agencies.

This era of uncertainty saw Ed Koch presiding over all as three-term mayor of New York; he was an opinionated yet vibrant fellow who seemed to be the epitome of the New Yorker’s ability to irritate and charm at the same time. Billions of dollars were made on Wall Street during the devil-may-care years of Ronald Reagan, bringing new life to the city. Koch’s reign ended in 1989 when he was defeated by New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins; however the new mayor was criticized for merely looking on and watching as the city’s government was in need of reform – Dinkins was denied a second term by a marginal defeat to moderate Republican Rudolph Giuliani.

New York Flourishes

Mayor Giuliani and a nationwide economic boom were responsible for the rise of New York City and have transformed it into the splendid place of culture and excitement that we all know today. Giuliani cracked down on so called ‘quality of life offences’ such as urinating in public and sleeping rough on the streets; the rail transit system runs efficiently and cheaply and New York is now thought to be the safest large city in the entire US.

The 1990’s stock market boom helped fund building and general public spending, there have been numerous extensions and added services to the New York transit system throughout the 1990s and onward into the present century, incorporating close ties between subway, trolley and bus services, system-wide metro cards and low pollution fuel buses.

New York is not perfect though, it is a big city after all with all the usual problems, the gap between the poorest people and the richest is larger than ever and some people believe that the city has become meaner because of its hard line on homelessness during Giuliani’s reign.

There is also a slowing down of people moving into the area due to the phenomenal rise in house prices. Nevertheless, New York is still considered one of the best places to go for great culture, bargain shopping and excellent food choices in the world.