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New York: History


Islands Draw Native American, Dutch, and English Settlement

Imagine a New York City lacquered in ice, specifically the last ice age that covered a good part of the continent more than 15,000 years ago. As the ice began to retreat, it simultaneously scraped minerals out of the earth and deposited rocks and soil in its path. Two of the terminal moraine deposits eventually became present-day Staten Island and Long Island. Early inhabitants were drawn to the fertile ground, the abundant fauna, and the clean rivers; archeological evidence suggests that the area was first peopled around 6,000 years after the retreat of the glaciers. The abundant waterways surrounding modern-day New York eventually made the area an ideal base for Algonquian tribes, who lived on the banks of the harbor at the time of initial European discovery.

Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano was the first European to arrive in the region, landing at Staten Island in 1524 and mapping the region. Henry Hudson, however, became the first European to reach Manhattan in 1609 and then sailed up the river that would later bear his name. Hudson's mission had been to look for the fabled Northwest Passage to the Orient. Although English, Hudson represented a Dutch concern. The Dutch West India Company dispatched the first permanent settlers to Manhattan Island in 1624. They established Fort Amsterdam, which grew into the town of New Amsterdam as more settlers arrived. In 1626, the fledgling town's governor, Peter Minuit, bought Manhattan—meaning "Island of Hills"—from the Canarsie tribe for 24 dollars' worth of beads and trinkets; locals sometimes cite this transaction as one of the last real estate bargains in New York.

New Amsterdam's population grew to roughly 1,000 people by the 1650s, but strife between Europeans and local Native Americans—who resisted being taxed by the settlers—also escalated. The Dutch West India Company, fearing the strife could hurt its economic interests, selected the autocratic Peter Stuyvesant to end the troubles. Stuyvesant, who was fitted with a decorated wooden leg and known as "Hardheaded Pete," was able to restore peace locally, but during his seventeen-year rule the Dutch and the English fought three naval wars. The English early recognized the trading potential of the site. Finally, in 1664, English war ships arrived in New York Harbor. Stuyvesant surrendered and the town was renamed New York in honor of the Duke of York. New York prospered under English rule, as the population swelled to 7,000 people by 1700. The first newspaper, The New York Gazette, was published in 1725 and King's College, now called Columbia University, opened in 1754.

New York has always thrived on rough-and-tumble politics, beginning as early as the Revolutionary War era. The Stamp Act Congress, which protested unfair taxes levied by the British rulers, met there in 1765 and five years later New Yorkers first clashed with British troops. American forces took control of New York at the start of the war, but British troops recaptured the area after the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 and held New York until the end of the war in 1783. Two years later, New York was made the temporary capital of the new nation and was the seat of Congress until 1790. New York City hosted the first presidential inauguration, as George Washington was sworn in there in 1789.

New Residents Bring Growth, Challenges

New York was once smaller than the other two colonial centers, Philadelphia and Boston. But its importance as the major East Coast port brought millions of immigrants, many of whom settled in ethnic ghettos. German, Irish, and other northern European immigrants flocked to the city throughout the 1800s, drawn by the lure of working on the city's docks and in its mills. By the last two decades of that century, Italian and many eastern Europeans also began arriving. With them came a variety of religions, including Catholicism, which heightened cultural and racial tensions between old and new residents. The immigrants, a number of whom did not speak English, came to depend on the Democratic Party-controlled Tammany Hall, a political machine that dispensed jobs and advice to immigrants in return for their votes. Led by William "Boss" Tweed, Tammany Hall eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruption, and Tweed himself was arrested in 1871 on charges of cheating the city of as much as $200 million.

At the same time, nationwide unrest was fomenting around the issues of states' rights and slavery. New York was not a center of abolitionist sentiment during the Civil War, despite joining the Union; merchants feared trade with important Southern industries would be damaged. When army conscription was established in 1863 to fill dwindling Union ranks, riots broke out that eventually killed about 1,000 people, including many African Americans who were lynched. Order was not restored until troops arrived from Gettysburg to quell the disturbances.

Various political coalitions struggled to rule the city until Fiorello LaGuardia, nicknamed "The Little Flower," was elected mayor in 1934. LaGuardia, for whom one of the city's two major airports is now named, brought a spirit of reform to a city $30 million in debt in the middle of the Great Depression. He restored fiscal stability during his tenure, which ran until 1945, fought growing crime, and also introduced public welfare services to the city. New York's place as a world capital was bolstered in 1946 by its selection as headquarters for the United Nations. World Fairs held in New York City, the first in 1939 featuring the introduction of television and a second in 1964, further enhanced the reputation of the metropolis.

Growth Balanced by Reform

As the science of civil engineering grew, so did the city. Brooklyn for example was fairly isolated from the rest of the area until the Brooklyn Bridge was finished in 1883. But Brooklyn and three other then-separate boroughs—the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island—did not join with Manhattan to become New York City as it is known today until 1898. Manhattan then counted the largest population, but the expanding network of bridges and tunnels leading to and from the island allowed New York City workers to spread to outlying areas.

By the 1960s, though, the city seemed nearly ungovernable. Striking transit workers shut down all subway and bus service—in a city dependent on mass transit—in 1966. A 1968 garbage workers' strike left mountains of trash to pile up on hot city streets for nine days. Police and firefighters struck in 1971 and by 1975 the city faced bankruptcy or a default on its bond payments. A bailout from the federal government helped stabilize the crisis. Into that void stepped Edward Koch. Elected mayor in 1978, Koch helped return the city to a delicate balance between competing social forces and introduced his trademark phrase: "How am I doing?" In 1989 David N. Dinkins became New York City's first African American mayor, inheriting the steward-ship of a city mired in the worst recession in the post-World War era and the demise of which was predicted daily, as has been the case throughout its history. The tenure of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s saw a historic reduction of the city's crime rate, several years of balanced budgets, and a much-hailed improvement in the overall quality of life of city residents. Mayor Giuliani had entered office on the heels of the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993, in which six people were killed, thousands more were injured, and extensive property damage was incurred. Before leaving office in January 2002, he was faced with an unimaginable tragedy—September 11, 2001.

9/11: Sadness and Solidarity

Most citizens of the United States remember exactly what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, when they heard the news—a plane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) complex in New York City. Initial reports were that it was an accident until many of those same people watched, stunned and horrified, as live television chronicled the second plane crashing into the south tower. Thirty-five minutes later, word came that a third plane had hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., followed by the downing of a fourth plane in a Pennsylvania field. Compounding the tragedy was the stark realization that the weapons used against the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon were hijacked U.S. commercial airliners, full of travelers. The magnitude of lost lives was overwhelming, nowhere more than in the streets of New York where citizens witnessed the crashes with their own eyes. Within minutes, emergency personnel from across the massive city were mobilized to respond to the WTC crash sites.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were dependent on a central structural core, and the impact and jet fuel fires from the planes had first sent shockwaves down the length of each building and then compromised the supporting structure. At 9:59 a.m., as office workers, janitors, and executives fled the World Trade Center—while rescue workers filed in to help them to safety—the south tower suddenly collapsed into a heap of rubble. The north tower followed a half-hour later. Hundreds of rescue workers and thousands of WTC workers and visitors were killed or injured. The U.S. Government ultimately determined that the four attacks on 9/11 were a symbolic strike at the financial and military emblems of the country and were coordinated through a Muslim terrorist group, al-Qaeda, under the leadership of a man named Osama bin Ladin.

In the days after 9/11, New Yorkers pulled together with a new appreciation for each other and their city. Thousands of volunteers hailing from the city and far beyond gathered to offer aid for rescue, recovery, and clean-up efforts, while donations avalanched in from across the country to support the injured and bereft. Mayor Giuliani was onsite at Ground Zero soon after the attacks, and he stayed onsite to boost the morale of workers and volunteers. The city as a whole vowed that it couldn't be brought to its knees by fear-based tactics, and plans were almost immediately put into effect to prove just that.

While the smoke was still rising, New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Giuliani created the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to oversee the design and construction of a lasting memorial to the victims of 9/11, while also generating a plan to rebuild and revitalize the area most profoundly affected by the horrific events. Mere months later, mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg continued the momentum and supported the previous administration's steps to remediate the damage.

Spontaneous memorials had been started soon after the collapse of the towers, and the need for a more permanent observation of the events and recognition of the victims was quickly deemed necessary. A design competition for the memorial was held in 2002, with the idea of architect David Childs being selected as the favorite. The "Freedom Tower," as redesigned in 2005, will eventually surpass the height of the original Twin Towers and will feature an observation deck, office space, listings of the names of victims of the tragedy, and a spire of light beaming endlessly into space from the top of the structure. Groundbreaking for the Freedom Tower is scheduled for 2006, with completion expected by 2010. In the meantime, Governor Pataki announced in June 2005 that construction would start on two interim memorials to the victims, survivors, and rescue workers affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. One of the memorials is an oral history project located at the Port Authority Transit Hub near the WTC site, where people can record their recollections of that day and of the loved ones they lost. The second interim memorial is the Tribute Center located across from the WTC area, housing the collected items left at the site after the tragic occur-rences of 9/11.

After the smoke cleared, New York City remained the financial powerhouse of the world. The city won't forget the sacrifices made by its citizens on September 11th and on many previous occasions, and it's a city that realizes that the best memorial is to live on. The tourist trade rebounded with surprising speed, and New York City's gritty determination has pulled it through tough economic times not necessarily related to the events of 9/11. The biggest city in the country was built on the diversity of its citizenry—Irish, Jewish, Palestinian, Russian, Italian, Muslim, African, Portuguese, and so many more—and it will continue to be the cultural, financial, and educational heart of the nation.

Historical Information: New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024-5194; telephone (212)873-3400


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