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History of New YorkNew York, a city of staggering contrasts, diversity and culture, occupies a unique place among world's great cities. Standing equal with, if not surpassing, today's great metropolises (Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, London) New York also ranks among the great trade and cultural centers of history (Rome, Cordoba, Beijing, Athens).
From Wall Street to the The United Nations, the world's most powerful and influential men and women prize success in New York above all other places. Nevertheless, the top echelons of New York City society make up only a small part of its essence. The city's population hails from every country on the globe, bringing variety of culture and viewpoints. Despite these differences, most all share a common goal of economic self-betterment. Critics say that while Boston was settled to escape religious persecution and Philadelphia was founded as a City of Brotherly love, New York has always been about money. That, however, is the small picture; the big picture is ambition. Immigrants are as likely to be from Ohio as from the Caribbean or Eastern Europe. They come for Wall Street, for Broadway, to work for the world's great fashion houses, publishing companies and broadcast networks. From the Korean grocer who will deliver an apple at 11pm to Donald Trump, New Yorkers work hard, challenge themselves and strive to be better.
Europe's first contact with the land that became New York occurred with the arrival of an Italian, Giovanni de Verrazano, sailing for the king of France. In April of 1524, his ship, the Dauphine, viewed New York from Narrows where the Lower Bay and Upper Bay meet. What would become Brooklyn was on the right, Staten Island on the left and straight-ahead, Manhattan. He named the land Angouleme, the title held by the king before his ascension to the throne. The name didn't stick, but the bridge that would later cross the Narrows took its name from the explorer.
The following year a Portuguese black explorer sailing for King Charles of Spain, Esteban Gomez, reached the Hudson River. The day was January 17th, the feast of San Antonio, so Gomez named the river the San Antonio.
Despite these early encounters, the Dutch settled New York first, after explorer Henry Hudson lent his name to the world's largest tidal river. He sailed up to present day Albany and his report would spur his Dutch employers to colonize the land from New York City to Albany. The early colonists recognized Manhattan's value as a watering station on the way north. In 1625 six farms called "bouweries" were started, and a handful of streets - Pearl, Broad, Beaver and Whitehall - were laid out. Broadway already existed, as a trading path, before the arrival of the Europeans.
The next year, Peter Minuet, the first governor, arrived and purchased Manhattan for the bargain price of $24 worth of trinkets. The Native American sellers too, were happy with the price, as they didn't live there. In fact, no Native Americans lived on Manhattan, though tribes from neighboring lands used Manhattan as a hunting ground and a place to meet for trade.
In 1640, the predominately Dutch New Amsterdam, as it was then named, was teeming with the diversity of the New World. Travelers could hear eighteen European languages spoken in the city. The tolerant Dutch welcomed all, eventually allowing the New World's first Jewish congregation to form. At this early date, Manhattan boasted its first tavern (now paved under for parking at City Hall) and its first recorded lady of the night (Griet Reyniers). Dutch colonists would settle the surrounding lands that would make up New York's boroughs, parts of Long Island and much of New York State. In 1647, the Dutch appointed the stern Peter Stuyvesant as Director General in an effort to bring order to the city's chaos. Stuyvesant was successful and the city thrived under his rule, but his efforts were not enough to stop the inevitable dominance of the English.
Rapid expansion coupled with perceived immorality soon pitted early Manhattanites against the English Puritans of New England, who had migrated south to the Dutch colony. Less than tolerant, the Puritans had banned bowling and shuffleboard and even the celebration of Christmas. They shocked New Yorkers with fines for singing and public whippings for more serious offenses. While initially seen as outsiders, the prosperous and hardworking Puritans soon had the political and economic upper hand. In 1663, an enormous meteor was seen in the sky, the city suffered earthquakes from February to August and unusually warm weather until January. These strange portents preceded the end of New Amsterdam as an Anglo-Dutch treaty handed the city over to the English the following year.
Under British rule, the renamed New York City saw its population grow from 6,000 to 20,000 by the end of the seventeenth century. Already burdened with its overwhelming growth and a culturally diverse population, events in Europe brought turmoil to the city. Religious wars brought enmity among Christians, and a man named Jacob Leisler led the city into revolt against James II of England and Catholics in general. For a brief time, he controlled the city and expelled Catholics. Eventually defeated, his rule ended with him and his son-in-law being hung at what is now the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. The same religious wars gave birth to privateering, or legalized piracy, that allowed the likes of Wall Street resident William Kidd go to sea intending to capture enemy ships. Not content with just enemy booty, Kidd seized English ships as well and eventually found himself at the end of a rope.
During this time, New York City tolerated (and in some circles encouraged) the slave trade; a large and prosperous slave market was located on Wall Street. Black Africans had first arrived on Dutch ships, and thus they became the city's second major ethnic group. Both the English and the Dutch freed many slaves, but those free blacks often lived in fear of harassment, worked menial jobs and struggled in poverty. Many other blacks remained in bondage.
Inevitable tension built up over many years and led to a series of atrocities against New York's black population. In 1712 a vicious slave uprising and an equally vicious reprisal compounded already present hostility towards and fear of blacks. In 1741 non-black citizens blamed a series of petty thefts then a rash of fires on both freed and enslaved blacks. The lieutenant governor offered a bounty for evidence against offenders: 40 pounds sterling for freed blacks, 20 pounds for slaves. Evidence, the majority of it false, mounted quickly. New York's version of the Salem Witch Trials saw many blacks hung, burned at the stake, jailed and deported.
As the eighteenth century wore on, England's passage of restrictive acts of trade and imposition of tariffs brought about protest and ultimately revolution. New York City was strategically vital during the American Revolutionary War. Early on, from Brooklyn to Harlem, General George Washington's army suffered a series of defeats and barely escaped capture. The British took the city and stationed itself there in an attempt to divide the colonies. At the end of the war, the victorious Washington was sworn in as the first president on the steps of New York's Federal Hall.
New York's stint as the United States capital was short lived. Political wrangling dictated the newly created District of Columbia would be the new nation's capital. However, the 1792 founding of the New York Stock Exchange and the prospering of Alexander Hamilton's Bank of New York launched the city as a financial capital. At this time immigrant Jacob Astor made his first real estate deal, predicting that New York City would quickly move up Manhattan.
The explosive expansion and revolutionary invention of the nineteenth century forever transformed New York City. The Erie Canal, in its day the world's greatest engineering feat, had New York's ports at its terminus and strengthened the city's position as a national trade center. Later, the city commissioned Central Park, designed and planned to save breathing space as the population boom moved uptown.
The American Civil war brought much sorrow and misery to New York, but also great prosperity as war profits soared. By this time New York had outlawed slavery and was a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment. Yet, New York's status as a Union stronghold became threatened with the passage of the nation's first conscription act. Poor immigrants, angered that the wealthy could buy their way out of the draft, rioted violently ' often targeting the city's blacks, whom they blamed for the war. The riots were put down, but some demands were met, proving that immigrants had become a strong political force in New York. When President Lincoln was assassinated, devastated New Yorkers of all races and classes turned out in record numbers to view his casket.
As the century passed, New York displayed more technological marvels. A workforce thousands strong constructed The Brooklyn Bridge, then the tallest and longest in the world. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and with JP Morgan's backing built a power plant that would bring electric streetlights to lower Manhattan. Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone and Wall Street had its first in 1879. The Statue of Liberty was given by France, shipped in crates and re-erected near the Battery. The present St. Patrick's Cathedral and an early incarnation of Madison Square Garden were built. At the turn of the nineteenth century, a string of palatial mansions rose along New York's Fifth Avenue, with half of the nation's millionaires living in New York.
Economic conditions in Europe brought massive immigration to New York City, primarily consisting of Irish, German, Italian and Eastern Europeans. Immigrants arrived penniless, worked long hours under harsh conditions for minimal pay, and lived in unhealthy tenements and crime ridden neighborhoods. Labor Unions formed, with the most militant branches often made up of factory girls who spoke no English. In 1910, 20,000 female shirtwaist workers staged a massive strike for better working conditions.
Reformers, galvanized by the success of the abolitionist movement as well as the gaining momentum of the suffragist and temperance movements, actively joined the fight to assist the immigrant poor. Writer and photographer Jacob Riis focused attention on the unspeakable filth of the tenements, and his work helped push the city's first housing laws through the legislature. Irish politician Al Smith, himself a product of the Irish slums, would strive to improve the lot of the immigrant worker. Writer Elizabeth Cady Stanton agitated for suffrage, and Margaret Sanger fought to make birth control legal.
Despite the labor movement's strikes and talk of reform, it took tragedy to bring about change. In 1911, 146 people died horribly when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company caught fire. Most of the victims were teenage girls. The doors had been locked to prevent the entrance of union organizers. The factory owners' trial and subsequent acquittal galvanized the legislature (led by Al Smith) to pass numerous labor laws.
By the 1920s all of Manhattan was populated. Harlem, which had started as a Dutch farm, and later became a Jewish neighborhood, now attracted New York blacks as well as blacks migrating North from the South. Jazz and blues and Prohibition-era speakeasies made the neighborhood an entertainment mecca for all races. Black musicians, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and a fertile crop of black artists and writers, including Langston Hughes, together formed a movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.
On Broadway Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and George and Ira Gershwin led the popular music industry. Meanwhile, Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Roundtable grew famous for urbane wit and wisecracks. On Broadway, the Marx Brothers set a high standard for lowbrow humor and became darlings of New York society.
The hedonistic decade of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, however, ended with a crash on Wall Street and ushered in the Great Depression. Construction on the Triborough Bridge was halted because of lack of funds, the number of active taxicabs dropped in half, homes were repossessed, and Ph.D.'s became elevator operators.
A backlash against corrupt politics ushered Fiorella LaGuardia into the mayor's office. Only five feet tall, La Guardia brought a New York toughness to the job. One minute after being sworn in, he ordered gangster Lucky Luciano arrested and began cleaning up corruption. The city began to work its way out of the depression. Robert Moses built parks and the Rockefellers built Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. The New York World's Fair marked the end of the decade. At its grand opening Mayor LaGuardia declared that the greatest exhibition was New York City itself.
New York emerged from the Depression and World War II with a new fervor for industry and building. The United Nations complex started the post-war Boom and was completed in the 1950s. The World Trade Center was built between 1966 and 1973 at a cost of $700 million. What to do with 1 million cubic yards of dirt unearthed for the foundation? Fill in the harbor to build nearby Battery Park City.
As New Yorkers face the new millennium, much has changed and much remains the same. Fifth Avenue is still a bastion of New York's wealthy, and numerous other neighborhoods are home to yet another wave of immigration, from Columbia and Guatemala, the Far East and Eastern Europe. New York still attracts ambitious people, clamoring to improve their lot in life. Historian Peter Quinn, commenting on New York's nature, said the city that started with Peter Minuet's $24 purchase is still the same, and if possible, even more so; "Donald Trump would have tried to pay $22."
The real spirit, in spite of the cynics, can be seen in a person wishing to make her mark, or to make his living. From the new New Yorkers like Mario Batali of Pó and Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu who came to New York to showcase their talents to Bronx-born Jennifer Lopez and Brooklyn-born Jerry Seinfeld who bring their talents to the world. And to the 7 million others who were born here or came here to do better, reach higher or just to marvel at the capital of the world.
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