New York City
The Big Apple. The Melting Pot. The Empire City. The Metropolis. The City that Never Sleeps. Gotham.
By any name, New York City is a celebration of diversity, creativity, and possibility.
In a nutshell, New York is the most populous city in the United States with over 8 million residents. It is made up of five boroughs, or counties, all packed with people: Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. One of them, Manhattan, is more jammed than any other place in the country. Manhattan squeezes in almost 70,000 people per square mile! Over a hundred different languages can be heard spoken on the streets. Imagine that.
Speaking of people, New York has the largest Chinese population of any city outside of Asia, the biggest Jewish community outside of Israel, and an African-American population larger than any other city in the country. New York City is our nation’s theatrical and financial center. It has been home to some of our greatest citizens and a few of our worst scoundrels. What a place.
New York’s history is revealed in the names of its features, human-made and natural. For instance, the name of the city’s most famous island pays homage to its original Native American inhabitants, the Lenape. Man-a-hat-ta, which means “Island of Hills,” was the Lenape name for the region. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, is named for Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who in 1524 was the first European to sail into New York Harbor. The Hudson River, which separates Manhattan from New Jersey, is named for the English navigator Henry Hudson. In 1609, Hudson, exploring for the Dutch, reached Manhattan and sailed up the river for 150 miles. The Netherlands claimed the territory he found as its own.
In 1624, the Dutch West India Company sent some 30 families to form a settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan. As the story goes, Peter Minuit, the director-general of the colony, later bought the island from the Lenape for goods worth about $1,000 in present-day U.S. dollars. The settlers built a wall at the northern edge of town to protect it from attacks. The wall fell after a few years, but the road that settlers built in its place became known as Wall Street, now synonymous with the city’s financial district and financial industry.
All through the 17th century, colonists continued to arrive… and spread out. The Bronx is named for Jonas Bronck, who established a 500-acre farm in that area. Dutch and English colonists set up small villages in Queens and Breuckelen, Dutch for Brooklyn.
In 1664, England invaded New Amsterdam and quickly took over from the Dutch who put up almost no resistance. With that, New Amsterdam became New York, renamed for the Duke of York, the King of England’s brother.
New York later played an important role in the American Revolution. The city was the site of two important firsts in America’s fight for freedom from England. The Stamp Act Congress, the first organized resistance to British rule, took place in New York. (The Congress met to protest unfair taxation.) When America’s original 13 colonies finally won independence, New York served as the new nation’s first capital and the site of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789.
As time passed, immigrants poured in from all over Europe. By 1800, New York already had a population of about 60,000 people, more than any other city in the country. And still they came.
Castle Garden, a circular fort at the southern tip of Manhattan, became the city’s first official immigration center in 1855. Later, when the federal government took control of the process, Ellis Island, a bump of land in New York Harbor, became the point of entry.
In 1892, the first year Ellis Island was open, almost half a million people passed through. It was the country’s busiest immigration center. From 1892 until 1954 when it closed, over 12 million people entered the United States through Ellis Island. Chances are more thanone in three that someone in your family was among them. (Today, immigrants from all over the world still come to New York. Over one-third of the city’s residents were born outside the United States.)
Many early immigrants had a hard time getting used to the city. They lived in crowded tenements and had trouble finding jobs. Who came to help them? None other than a corrupt group of politicians from the powerful political machine known as Tammany Hall. The politicians traded jobs, gifts, and money in exchange for loyalty and votes. The corruption continued virtually unchallenged until 1871 when Tammany boss William Tweed and others were exposed, arrested, and charged with cheating the city out of millions of dollars. Years later, New York’s mayor Fiorello La Guardia permanently weakened Tammany Hall and restored employment by merit (not in exchange for favors) to city government.
The turn of the century was a time of tremendous change in New York. First came the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, a monumental project that provided the first direct link between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Then came consolidation. In 1898, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the communities that would become Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island united to form Greater New York, a metropolis of more than 3 million people. Next came the subways in 1904. The first line was 9.1 miles of track cut into the streets under Manhattan. The fare was a nickel. On opening day more than 100,000 people rode the train. Today, over 5 million people ride on 656 miles of track every day, and pay upwards of two dollars for the “privilege.”
You can ride the subway to practically every part of New York City, including some of its most famous landmarks: the Empire State Building, the United Nations, Central Park, Times Square, the ferry landing for the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the 9/11 Memorial.
In New York, there’s almost no place you can’t go, literally and metaphorically. Urban historian and editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City, Kenneth Jackson observes that Americans, wherever they live, need New York because of what it is: A place where people are free to be themselves, where they will find others like them, and where they will have the distinct possibility of reaching their full potential, whoever they are. Are you ready to take a bite of the apple?Written by Marjorie Frank.