The history of New York City

A great and large history of New York City by the Museum of the city of New York (MCNY)

1898-1914 : Origins of the Progressive City

The city’s rapid growth brought new scrutiny to old but increasing urban problems – crowding in filthy tenement districts, low wages and dangerous working conditions, financial volatility, racial discrimination, and unequal concentrations of economic and political power. A generation of New Yorkers embraced a new idea. that these urban ills could be solved by collective action. Joining the reform ranks that defined America’s « Progressive Era », an alliance of union members, journalists, social workers, academics, and middle-class women rallied for a new kind of government activism to rein in private interests for the sake of the public good. In many of their crusades they were joined by radicals pressing for an even more dramatic transformation for a capitalist society into a socialist commonwealth.

Together they established New York’s reputation as a city that protected its workers, regulated its housing, and promoted public health through a legislation, and whose activists sought to control the power of « Big Money » bankers and financiers. The reform spirit seeped into every aspect of urban society. Even Tammany Hall, the city’s famously corrupt Democratic political « machine » strategically reshaped its agenda in response to the progressive movement. This coalition and its ideas about activist government would shape urban politics – and American liberalism – for most of the 20th century.

Out and Up

In the 1910s, the physical development of the five-borough city accelerated. Reformers, entrepreneurs, and politicians joined forces to spread the subway to four of the five boroughs opening new neighbourhoods to the growing population. Together with new East River crossings – the Williamsburg (1903), Manhattan (1909), and Queensboro (1909) Bridges – the subways dramatically diminished the crowding I lower Manhattan by enabling people to move to less congested areas across Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. In neighbourhoods, like Jackson Heights in Queens, Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and Riverdale in the Bronx., developers rapidly transformed farmland into residential districts for New Yorkers who now crisscrossed the city between work and home.

As the other boroughs built out, Manhattan built up. In the 1920s, New York became the great skyscraper city, surpassing its rival Chicago in the sheer number ad height of its corporate office towers. The city’s soaring skyline became a symbol of its ew supremacy as an international metropolis. By 1925 New York had replaced London as the world’s most populous city, leading port, and financial center, and was aspiring to challenge Paris as a global arts and style capital.

1914-1929: New York Roars into the Twenties

By the mid-1920s, New York was a dramatically different place than it had been a generation earlier. Although World War I and federal restrictions sent new immigration plummeting. More than one-third of the city’s population – over two million people – had been born abroad. The city was home to as many people of Italian descent as Naples, Italy, and to more Jews than any other city on earth. New York’s newest wave of arrivals were African Americans leaving the South during and after Word War I; they made Harlem the nation’s largest and most famous urban black community.

This multiethnic, multiracial city encouraged experimentation. Women stepped into the city’s public life as never before, enjoying a daring new nightlife just as men did. Openly gay men and women found enclaves of acceptance that could not be found elsewhere in America. Black and white New Yorkers, newcomers and old-timers, mingled their cultural traditions with fresh ideas to create art forms that reshaped national tastes. Together they established the city as a beacon of the edgy, the sophisticated, and the sensational. New York had become the capital of the « Jazz Age ».

Facing the Depression

Wall Street’s stock market crash in 1929 abruptly ended New York’s era of prosperity and exuberance. Radiating out from New York, the Great Depression brought economic growth to a halt across the country. By 1935 one-third of al employable New Yorkers – about a million people – were jobless.

Necessity and despair drove New Yorkers to improvise. As reformers and bankers fought to remake the city’s financial system, middle-class families saved pennies and doubled up in apartments, newly homeless people built shantytowns, and the unemployed sold apples on streets corners. Some were convinced that the economy had broken down completely and embraced the call for radical change by visionaries of the far left and the far right.

1929-1941 : New York’s New Deal

In 1933 New Yorkers elected a feisty maverick as mayor, who tackled the Depression through bold experimentation. Building on the reforms of the previous generation, Fiorello La Guardia made New York the showcase for a new kind of urban liberalism, with massively expanded government spending and services. This vision of a city transformed and uplifted by its government relied on the support of labor unions and a diverse coalition of voters – Jews, Catholics, African Americans, and others – that would sustain the liberal city for decades to come.

The Republican mayor forged a relationship with his fellow New Yorker, Democratic President Franklin D.Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs drew heavily on New York’s progressive traditions. Armed with funds from Washington, La Guardia and his parks commissioner Robert Moses put New Yorkers to work building public housing, parks, bridges, swimming pools, health clinics, concert halls, and a public university that would provide tuition-free education and upward mobility to generations New Yorkers. The New Deal did not cure New York’s economy, but in no other American city did the crisis inspire a more far-reaching government reshaping of daily life.

Changing City

World War II – and the federal government’s wartime spending – finally restored New York’s Depression-stalled economy. The city reached full employment as New Yorkers flocked into war plants. Wartime jobs also drew growing numbers of African Americans and Puerto Ricans seeking work and a better life. Their experience in the city proved complex. Many found upward mobility and established vibrant neighborhoods, even as discrimination in housing and employment hurt their ability to accumulate wealth to the same extent as their white counterparts.

As the economy boomed after the war, newly powerful unions protected the security of many of the city’s blue-collar workers, promoting an expansion of New York’s social benefits and securing a middle-class life for many people across the five boroughs. The postwar era’s ambitions also took physical form. City officials modernized the metropolis, tearing down acres of aging buildings, constructing massive apartment complexes for middle-and working- class New Yorkers, and expanding a sprawling highway system that made New York the center of a metropolitan region reaching into three states. The transformation was profound, erasing much of the 19th-century city, uprooting entire neighbourhoods , and formulating new ideas about how the density of the city could be shaped and managed.

1941-1960 : Capital of the World

Riding the wave of newfound prosperity, and with Europe’s capital cities exhausted, postwar New York became, in the words of writer E.B White, « the capital of the world ». Wall Street was the international center of banking and securities trading, Madison Avenue dominated American advertising, and Seventh Avenue had become the world’s fashion capital. Gleaming new modernist glass towers in midtown housed corporate headquarters and the offices and studios of the nation’s leading radio stations, television networks, advertising agencies, and magazines. From Broadway stages to Rockfeller Center’s broadcasting studios, money and influence fueled and followed the city’s dominance of the nation’s entertainment, news, and informations industries.

New York also became a global hub of fashion, glamour, artistic and intellectual movements, and cultural sophistication. European artists and intellectuals who had fled Nazism fostered cultural innovation in opera, dance, and fine art, as did African-American and Hispanic innovators who pioneered new forms of music and visual arts. New York City was not only the world’s largest and richest city, but its most influential.

1960-1970 : What is the city for ?

Despite its postwar ascendance, by the 1960s New York was feeling the effects of a nationwide economic shift. Manufacturers, finding the cost of doing business in the city too high, had started moving to suburbs or other states with more space, lower taxes, cheaper energy, fewer regulations, and weaker unions. New technologies (and increasing air traffic) profoundly affected the port – another pillar of employment – by eliminating thousands of jobs, a shift confirmed when the city’s shipping operations moved across the harbor to more spacious quarters in New Jersey. With century-old factories, warehouses and piers shuttered and emptied, the city’s very identity seemed open to question.

New Yorkers responded in varied ways to these changes, as diverse (and sometimes discordant) visionaries once more worked to reshape the metropolis. Some planners envisioned a white-collar economy for the city. Preservationists, cherishing the architecture, community values, and human scale of older neighborhoods, asked whether the whole thrust of postwar development, with its massive new office and apartment complexes, had sacrificed the city’s soul. Artists reoccupied former industrial spaces as lofts and studios, activists like Jane Jacobs rescued and repurposed historic sites, while business leaders reimagined downtown as a center for maintaining New York’s hold on world trade, embodied in the world’s tallest skyscrapers.

On the Brink

By the 1970s, New York City was running out of money. Vietnam-era inflation and the rising cost of city services, education, healthcare, and welfare had more than doubled the budget in under a decade. For the first time in New York’s history, its population shank significantly, as the postwar trend of white middle-class migration to the suburbs accelerated. Together with the departure of many businesses, a sharp national recession, and a shift of federal and state funds to the suburbs, this meant that New York had shrinking resources to cover escalating costs. Mayors John V. Lindsay and Abraham Beame turned to the problematic strategy of short-term borrowing to keep the city afloat.

By 1975 New York City faced fiscal catastrophe, as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The sense of urban deterioration spread well beyond the « inner city », as crime, garbage, and real estate abandonment contributed to fears that New York was on the brink of collapse. Many neighborhoods were overrun by poverty, arson, and drugs. As budget cuts reduced public services, the city seemed to be on a downward spiral. Its survival became a test of the very idea of the livable modern city.

1970-1980 : Against the Odds

Even as the city’s economy hit a low point, and as New York lost over 800,000 residents in the 1970s, many people refused too give up on urban life. Indeed many of those who remained seized upon the relatively affordable space and the freedom that New York offered. They created new opportunities, from urban homesteading to community gardens to new arts organizations. Some embraced the city’s gritty reputation itself as an opportunity for celebration and for once again making money out of culture.

Hollywood cashed in on New York’s image as a dangerous, crime-ridden place with such movies as Death Wish (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976). But television shows like Sesame Street, Barney Miller, Saturday Night Live, and even All in the Family celebrated the irrepressible urban spirit. Simustaneously, the city’s nightlife generated business and new cultural forms, from disco at Studio 54 to punk rock at CBGB on the Bowery to experimental theater at La Ma Ma in the East Village. Most enduringly, the birth of hip hop in some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods planted the seeds of one of America’s most far-reaching and lucrative cultural exports, and demonstrated the ability of diverse New Yorkers to create something new in the city’s streets.

New York comes back

By 1981 New York’s financial house was returning order, as Mayor Edward I. Koch’s fiscal restraint and budget cuts encouraged investors to lend to the city again. Along with national and global financial trends, Koch’s pro-business strategies helped spark a remarkable turnaround. This was especially notable in the growth industries of finance, insurance, and real estate, as jobs in banking increased from 97,000 in 1969 to 171,000 in 1986. By 1995 financial companies and related services made up 15 percent of the city’s workforce and almost 30 percent of its gross economic output. With concentrated flows of computerized information, credit, and investment money, New York became a global city in new ways, linked to other « world cities » like London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.

New wealth made Wall Street moguls powerful and glamorous, but it also accentuated increasingly stark social divides. In many ways, New York remained a middle-class city. Yet as manufacturing (and its unionized jobs) continued to decline in importance, many New Yorkers felt priced out of the new economy with their incomes failing to keep up with the rising cost of living in the city. And as many of New York’s poorest faced homelessness or addiction, the sense of two New Yorks – one of « have » and one of « have-nots » – resonated in ways not felt since Jacob Riis’s day a century earlier.

1980-2001 : New Immigrant City

The energies of immigrants from around the world added to New York’s turnaround in the last two decades of the 20th century. By the 1980s, the effects of more open federal immigration laws were in full force, as newcomers helped to reverse the city’s population decline. New York’s population increased from seven million people to just over eight million in only 20 years. Whereas earlier in the century most immigrants came from Europe, these newest New Yorkers came from a wide range of countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. They helped transform neighborhoods from Flushing in Queens to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, from Concourse Village in the Bronx to Tompkinsville in Staten Island, injecting fresh ambition and cultural variety into the fabric of the city, and restoring the population density that had been diminished in the preceding decades.

By the century’s end, New York was one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities, with 36 percent of its population born overseas and no one group dominating. Although the city absorbed and incorporated the new arrivals, demographic change, economic competition, and cultural tensions sometimes sparked tensions and conflicts between New Yorkers that tested the cohesion and tolerance of the city.

A safer city ?

Nothing symbolized the revival of New York more than its physical transformation. By the 1990s, New York was cleaner and safer than it had been in decades. Developers transformed Times Square from a maze of X-rated theaters into a gleaming family entertainment district; Central Park received a major physical restoration; neighborhoods of formerly abandoned buildings were repopulated, and crime fell dramatically, with the murder rate down by more than 65 percent in the 1990s alone. But the transformation of New York into the safest large city in the nation came with tensions of its own. Angry conflicts broke out over policing policy. Facing the « Disney-fication » of midtown, New Yorkers debated whether the city was losing its identity.

On September 11, 2001, arguments over the city’s character were abruptly silenced – and the city’s sense of invulnerability shattered – when terrorists piloted two airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center killing 2,753 people, including over 400 first responders: firefighters, police, and paramedics. As New Yorkers grieved, they reconsidered the meanings of urban safety and wondered how the city’s spirit – and economy – would recover.

2001-2012 : Debating the city

Despite the terrible setback of September 11, 2001, New York City experienced dramatic growth in the new millennium, as ambitious new development swept all five boroughs. Signs of change were everywhere throughout Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s 12 years in office. New York’s density underwent a dramatic change, as bicycle lanes and pedestrian plazas transformed the streets; new parks, housing, and businesses reclaimed the waterfront; and property values (and the cost of living) soared in neighborhoods that some had written off just a generation earlier, causing some to wonder whether the city might become a victim of its own success.

Money, density, diversity, and creativity remained distinguishing features of life in New York. But pressing questions remained about the city’s future: How should money be spent ? Who would benefit from new developments ? Among the city’s diverse communities, who would control the direction of change ? Who would be able to afford to live in the city ? These questions became even more urgent after October 2012, when a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions – Hurricane Sandy – exposed the city’s vulnerability to the very waters that had once made the port so successful.

New York has faced challenges throughout its history and New Yorker’s creative responses to those challenges have propelled the city forward.

Publié par Aurélien Sarrosquy

Fondateur d'Ausarchitect

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