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.