New York City

The first native New Yorkers were the Lenape, an Algonquin people who hunted, fished and farmed in the area between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. Europeans began to explore the region at the beginning of the 16th century–among the first was Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian who sailed up and down the Atlantic coast in search of a route to Asia–but none settled there until 1624. That year, the Dutch West India Company sent some 30 families to live and work in a tiny settlement on “Nutten Island” (today’s Governors Island) that they called New Amsterdam. In 1626, the settlement’s governor general, Peter Minuit, purchased the much larger Manhattan Island from the natives for 60 guilders in trade goods such as tools, farming equipment, cloth and wampum (shell beads).
Fewer than 300 people lived in New Amsterdam when the settlement moved to Manhattan. But it grew quickly, and in 1760 the city (now called New York City; population 18,000) surpassed Boston to become the second-largest city in the American colonies. Fifty years later, with a population 202,589, it became the largest city in the Western hemisphere. Today, more than 8 million people live in the city’s five boroughs.

New York City in the 18th Century

In 1664, the British seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch and gave it a new name: New York City. For the next century, the population of New York City grew larger and more diverse: It included immigrants from the Netherlands, England, France and Germany; indentured servants; and African slaves.

During the 1760s and 1770s, the city was a center of anti-British activity–for instance, after the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, New Yorkers closed their businesses in protest and burned the royal governor in effigy. However, the city was also strategically important, and the British tried to seize it almost as soon as the Revolutionary War began. In August 1776, despite the best efforts of George Washington’s Continental Army in Brooklyn and Harlem Heights, New York City fell to the British. It served as a British military base until 1783.

New York City in the 19th Century

The city recovered quickly from the war, and by 1810 it was one of the nation’s most important ports. It played a particularly significant role in the cotton economy: Southern planters sent their crop to the East River docks, where it was shipped to the mills of Manchester and other English industrial cities. Then, textile manufacturers shipped their finished goods back to New York.

But there was no easy way to carry goods back and forth from the growing agricultural hinterlands to the north and west until 1817, when work began on a 363-mile canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The Erie Canal was completed in 1825. At last, New York City was the trading capital of the nation.

As the city grew, it made other infrastructural improvements. In 1811, the “Commissioner’s Plan” established an orderly grid of streets and avenues for the undeveloped parts of Manhattan north of Houston Street. In 1837, construction began on the Croton Aqueduct, which provided clean water for the city’s growing population. Eight years after that, the city established its first municipal agency: the New York City Police Department.

Meanwhile, increasing number of immigrants, first from Germany and Ireland during the 1840s and 50s and then from Southern and Eastern Europe, changed the face of the city. They settled in distinct ethnic neighborhoods, started businesses, joined trade unions and political organizations and built churches and social clubs. For example, the predominantly Irish-American Democratic club known as Tammany Hall became the city’s most powerful political machine by trading favors such as jobs, services and other kinds of aid for votes.

New York City in the 20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century, New York City became the city we know today. In 1895, residents of Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn–all independent cities at that time–voted to “consolidate” with Manhattan to form a five-borough “Greater New York.” As a result, on December 31, 1897, New York City had an area of 60 square miles and a population of a little more than 2 million people; on January 1, 1898, when the consolidation plan took effect, New York City had an area of 360 square miles and a population of about 3,350,000 people.

The 20th century was an era of great struggle for American cities, and New York was no exception. The construction of interstate highways and suburbs after World War II encouraged affluent people to leave the city, which combined with deindustrialization and other economic changes to lower the tax base and diminish public services. This, in turn, led to more out-migration and “white flight.” However, the Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made it possible for immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America to come to the United States. Many of these newcomers settled in New York City, revitalizing many neighborhoods.

New York City in the New Millennium

On September 11, 2001, New York City suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United States when a group of terrorists crashed two hijacked jets into the city’s tallest buildings: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The buildings were destroyed and nearly 3,000 people were killed. In the wake of the disaster, the city remained a major financial capital and tourist magnet, with over 40 million tourists visiting the city each year.

Today, more than 8 million New Yorkers live in the five boroughs–more than one-third of whom were born outside the United States. Thanks to the city’s diversity and vibrant intellectual life, it remains the cultural capital of the United States.

Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge looms majestically over New York City’s East River, linking the two boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since 1883, its granite towers and steel cables have offered a safe and scenic passage to millions of commuters and tourists, trains and bicycles, pushcarts and cars. The bridge’s construction took 14 years, involved 600 workers and cost $15 million (more than $320 million in today’s dollars). At least two dozen people died in the process, including its original designer. Now more than 125 years old, this iconic feature of the New York City skyline still carries roughly 150,000 vehicles and pedestrians every day.

The Man with the Plan

John Augustus Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge’s creator, was a great pioneer in the design of steel suspension bridges. Born in Germany in 1806, he studied industrial engineering in Berlin and at the age of 25 immigrated to western Pennsylvania, where he attempted, unsuccessfully, to make his living as a farmer. He later moved to the state capital in Harrisburg, where he found work as a civil engineer. He promoted the use of wire cable and established a successful wire-cable factory.

Meanwhile, he earned a reputation as a designer of suspension bridges, which at the time were widely used but known to fail under strong winds or heavy loads. Roebling is credited with a major breakthrough in suspension-bridge technology: a web truss added to either side of the bridge roadway that greatly stabilized the structure. Using this model, Roebling successfully bridged the Niagara Gorge at Niagara FallsNew York, and the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In 1867, on the basis of these achievements, New York legislators approved Roebling’s plan for a suspension bridge over the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. It would be the very first steel suspension bridge, boasting the longest span in the world: 1,600 feet from tower to tower.

Just before construction began in 1869, Roebling was fatally injured while taking a few final compass readings across the East River. A boat smashed the toes on one of his feet, and three weeks later he died of tetanus. His 32-year-old son, Washington A. Roebling, took over as chief engineer. Roebling had worked with his father on several bridges and had helped design the Brooklyn Bridge.

A Perilous Process

To achieve a solid foundation for the bridge, workers excavated the riverbed in massive wooden boxes called caissons. These airtight chambers were pinned to the river’s floor by enormous granite blocks; pressurized air was pumped in to keep water and debris out.

Workers known as “sandhogs”—many of them immigrants earning about $2 a day—used shovels and dynamite to clear away the mud and boulders at the bottom of the river. Each week, the caissons inched closer to the bedrock. When they reached a sufficient depth—44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the Manhattan side—they began laying granite, working their way back up to the surface.

Underwater, the workers in the caisson were uncomfortable—the hot, dense air gave them blinding headaches, itchy skin, bloody noses and slowed heartbeats—but relatively safe. The journey to and from the depths of the East River, however, could be deadly. To get down into the caissons, the sandhogs rode in small iron containers called airlocks. As the airlock descended into the river, it filled with compressed air. This air made it possible to breathe in the caisson and kept the water from seeping in, but it also dissolved a dangerous amount of gas into the workers’ bloodstreams. When the workers resurfaced, the dissolved gases in their blood were quickly released.

This often caused a constellation of painful symptoms known as “caisson disease” or “the bends”: excruciating joint pain, paralysis, convulsions, numbness, speech impediments and, in some cases, death. More than 100 workers suffered from the disease, including Washington Roebling himself, who remained partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. He was forced to watch with a telescope while his wife Emily took charge of the bridge’s construction. Over the years, the bends claimed the lives of several sandhogs, while others died as a result of more conventional construction accidents, such as collapses, fires and explosions.

By the early 20th century, scientists had figured out that if the airlocks traveled to the river’s surface more gradually, slowing the workers’ decompression, the bends could be prevented altogether. In 1909, New York’s legislature passed the nation’s first caisson-safety laws to protect sandhogs digging railway tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers.

A Bridge Unveiled

On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River opened, connecting the great cities of New York and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Thousands of residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan Island turned out to witness the dedication ceremony, which was presided over by President Chester A. Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. Emily Roebling was given the first ride over the completed bridge, with a rooster, a symbol of victory, in her lap. Within 24 hours, an estimated 250,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, using a broad promenade above the roadway that John Roebling designed solely for the enjoyment of pedestrians.

With its unprecedented length and two stately towers, the Brooklyn Bridge was dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” For several years after its construction, it remained the tallest structure in the Western hemisphere. The connection it provided between the massive population centers of Brooklyn and Manhattan changed the course ofNew York City forever. In 1898, the city of Brooklyn formally merged with New York City, Staten Island and a few farm towns, forming Greater New York.

The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty was a joint effort between France and the United States, intended to commemorate the lasting friendship between the peoples of the two nations. The French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi created the statue itself out of sheets of hammered copper, while Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, the man behind the famed Eiffel Tower, designed the statue’s steel framework. The Statue of Liberty was then given to the United States and erected atop an American-designed pedestal on a small island in Upper New York Bay, now known as Liberty Island, and dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in 1886. Over the years, the statue stood tall as millions of immigrants arrived in America via nearby Ellis Island; in 1986, it underwent an extensive renovation in honor of the centennial of its dedication. Today, the Statue of Liberty remains an enduring symbol of freedom and democracy, as well as one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks.

Origins of the Statue of Liberty

Around 1865, as the American Civil War drew to a close, the French historian Edouard de Laboulaye proposed that France create a statue to give to the United States in celebration of that nation’s success in building a viable democracy. The sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, known for largescale sculptures, earned the commission; the goal was to design the sculpture in time for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. The project would be a joint effort between the two countries–the French people were responsible for the statue and its assembly, while the Americans would build the pedestal on which it would stand–and a symbol of the friendship between their peoples.

Due to the need to raise funds for the statue, work on the sculpture did not begin until 1875. Bartholdi’s massive creation, titled “Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” depicted a woman holding a torch in her raised right hand and a tablet in her left, upon which was engraved “July 4, 1776,” the adoption date of the Declaration of Independence. Bartholdi, who was said to have modeled the woman’s face after that of his mother, hammered large copper sheets to create the statue’s “skin” (using a technique called repousse). To create the skeleton on which the skin would be assembled, he called on Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, designer of Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Along with Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Eiffel built a skeleton out of iron pylon and steel that allowed the copper skin to move independently, a necessary condition for the strong winds it would endure in the chosen location of New York Harbor.

Statue of Liberty: Assembly and Dedication

While work went on in France on the actual statue, fundraising efforts continued in the United States for the pedestal, including contests, benefits and exhibitions. Near the end, the leading New York newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer used his paper, the World, to raise the last necessary funds. Designed by the American architect Richard Morris Hunt, the statue’s pedestal was constructed inside the courtyard of Fort Wood, a fortress built for the War of 1812 and located on Bedloe’s Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan in Upper New York Bay.

In 1885, Bartholdi completed the statue, which was disassembled, packed in more than 200 crates, and shipped to New York, arriving that June aboard the French frigate Isere. Over the next four months, workers reassembled the statue and mounted it on the pedestal; its height reached 305 feet (or 93 meters), including the pedestal. On October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland officially dedicated the Statue of Liberty in front of thousands of spectators.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

In 1892, the U.S. government opened a federal immigration station on Ellis Island, located near Bedloe’s Island in Upper New York Bay. Between 1892 and 1954, some 12 million immigrants were processed on Ellis Island before receiving permission to enter the United States. From 1900-14, during the peak years of its operation, some 5,000 to 10,000 people passed through every day.

Looming above New York Harbor nearby, the Statue of Liberty provided a majestic welcome to those passing through Ellis Island. On a plaque at the entrance to the statue’s pedestal is engraved a sonnet called “The New Colossus,” written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus as part of a fundraising contest. Its most famous passage speaks to the statue’s role as a welcoming symbol of freedom and democracy for the millions of immigrants who came to America seeking a new and better life: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Statue of Liberty Over the Years

Until 1901, the U.S. Lighthouse Board operated the Statue of Liberty, as the statue’s torch represented a navigational aid for sailors. After that date, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. War Department due to Fort Wood’s status as a still-operational army post. In 1924, the federal government made the statue a national monument, and it was transferred to the care of the National Parks Service in 1933. In 1956, Bedloe’s Island was renamed Liberty Island, and in 1965, more than a decade after its closure as a federal immigration station, Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

By the early 20th century, the oxidation of the Statue of Liberty’s copper skin through exposure to rain, wind and sun had given the statue a distinctive green color, known as verdigris. In 1984, the statue was closed to the public and underwent a massive restoration in time for its centennial celebration. Even as the restoration began, the United Nations designated the Statue of Liberty as a World Heritage Site. On July 5, 1986, the Statue of Liberty reopened to the public in a centennial celebration. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Liberty Island closed for 100 days; the Statue of Liberty itself was not reopened to visitor access until August 2004. In July 2009, the statue’s crown was again reopened to the public, though visitors must make a reservation to climb to the top of the pedestal or to the crown.

 

New York City is my favorite city in the world, it’s majestic buildings, lively streets and vibrant energy will capture you forever.

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