Manhattan, New York: from Marsh to Metropolis

by Denise Marie

The New York history books are filled with exciting events, changes and developments but it is Manhattan who’s history is the most interesting. It’s hard to imagine looking at Manhattan’s sea of skyscrapers, monuments and famous New York City hotels that the island was once largely marsh, forest and farmland. The island has been the site of a Dutch trading port, a British outpost during the Revolutionary War, and the first capital city of the United States. Today, the twelve-mile long island, bounded by the East, Hudson, and Harlem Rivers, is home to over 1.5 million residents, making it the most densely populated county in the United States. Manhattan is home to the United States’ financial markets, the largest theater district in the world, the United Nations Headquarters, many of the world’s most recognized cultural institutions and some of the most fantastic hotels available.

New York City – The Early Days

Manhattan was first “discovered” in 1607 by explorer Henry Hudson, who was working for the Dutch East India Company to find a northwest passage to India and Asia. According to the New York history books the island was dubbed Manhattan after the Dutch name for the native inhabitants, was purchased from the Lenape Indians in 1626 for sixty guilder (approximately $500 in today’s currency). The settlement, located at the southern tip of the island, became New Amsterdam, after the Dutch capital city. The British took the strategically located city in 1664 and renamed it New York, after the Duke of York. Control of the city switched back and forth once more before it became a permanent part of the British colonies in 1674.

The Revolution

An important phase in New York ‘s history the colony thrived under the British, becoming a major US port and commercial center. However, Manhattan suffered greatly during the Revolutionary War and was the site of several armed conflicts between General Washington and his Continental Army and the British forces. In fact, New York City and Manhattan were occupied by the British for the duration of the war and New York City was the last port evacuated by the British at the end of the war, in 1783. New York City served as the capital of the newly formed United States from 1788 to 1790, before the creation of Washington DC.

The Gilded Age

One of the greatest moments in New York history was the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which connected the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, helping to take New York City from a medium-sized town to a booming commercial center, surpassing Boston and Philadelphia in importance and size. The large number of European immigrants, arriving weekly in New York in the late 19th century and early 20th century, helped to provide labor for the increasing number of factories and businesses in the city.

New York history indicates that life before unions and taxes was a distinct two-class system, with a few very wealthy men, such as John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, controlling the fates of tens of thousands of poor workers. For those with money, the late 19th and early 20th century was a gracious and elegant age. Many of the city’s most venerable institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, and the New York City Library, were created through the generosity of wealthy New York business leaders of that era.

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Manhattan Today

Although New York is made up of five boroughs (Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island), Manhattan is undoubtedly the most famed. In fact the borough of Manhattan is synonymous with New York City itself.

Manhattan today is a vibrant metropolis, composed of distinct New York neighborhoods that still retain a taste of the city’s rich ethnic heritage. Manhattan is home to the world’s largest theater district (Broadway), the world’s largest and most important financial markets, is the fashion capital of the United States, and is home to important museums, cultural events, concert venues and some of the greatest New York City hotels on offer. The city is still a mecca of all sorts of travelers and fortune-seekers, from around the United States and the world.

New York Neighborhoods

One of the Big Apple’s greatest strengths and one of the things that makes the city interesting are the diverse New York neighborhoods and ethnic fabric. Among the most notable of the New York neighborhoods in this borough are:

TriBeCa is an acronym for “triangle below Canal (Street),” first came to prominence in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as young professionals sought more affordable housing in Manhattan. This New York neighborhood is notable for its 19th century warehouses that have been converted into loft apartments. Trendy shops and restaurants followed the renovators and today TriBeCa is one of the more chic in Manhattan. Robert DeNiro launched the TriBeCa Film Festival in 2002 to bring visitors back to the New York neighborhood after 9/11. The Festival is now one of the nation’s most popular film events.

Greenwich Village, the area in southern Manhattan is bounded by Broadway, Houston St, 14th St., and the Hudson River, developed from marsh and grassland, outside of the settlement of New Amsterdam and later New York. The hamlet became popular during the yellow fever epidemic of 1822 when residents fled to more open, healthy air of Greenwich Village. Many of these refugees stayed in this New York neighborhood.

The late 19th and early 20th century brought an influx of artists, writers and actors to the area, drawn by the cheap rents and free-thinking attitudes of the residents. Among the most notable of these are Eugene O’Neil, Jack Reed, and Marcel Duchamp. Later, the “Beat Generation” of the 1950’s would find the neighborhood and it became a haven for writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

Today this popular New York neighborhood is a combination of the trendy and the avante-garde, with cobblestone streets lined with ethnic restaurants, interesting boutiques, and cutting-edge jazz clubs.

New York’s Chinatown nestled between TriBeCa, Little Italy, and Broadway, is the largest Chinese community in the United States. First settled in the late 1880’s, Chinatown today is home to approximately 300,000 residents. The vibrant residential and commercial district is a fun place to wander, shop for specialty Asian foods, and enjoy a Dim Sum brunch.

Early Chinatown was populated with, mostly male, immigrants who came to America to work in the garment factories. As the area grew, it incorporated adjacent New York neighborhoods, such as the notorious Five Points (now the site of Columbus Park) and most of Little Italy. The neighborhood, today, centers around Mott Street, home to many of the area’s 200 restaurants.

SoHo, an acronym for “south of Houston (Street)” is nestled between Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and Chinatown. This New York neighborhood is noted for its late 19th century Gothic-style cast-iron buildings and came to prominence in the 1970’s and 1980’s as young professionals discovered the unique (and affordable) buildings. Many artists moved to the neighborhood and carved loft studios and apartments out of the historic spaces.

Today, most of the “true” artists have departed in search of affordable housing. The loft apartments are now some of the most sought-after in Manhattan. The interesting area is also home to dozens of art galleries, boutiques, trendy New York City hotels and a myriad of restaurants, such as the famous Katz Delicatessen, shown in the film “When Harry Met Sally”.

Manhattan’s “Lower East Side,” has traditionally been synonymous with “working class neighborhood.” Though becoming increasingly gentrified, the area – bounded by Houston and Canal Streets, the East River, and the Bowery – is one of the oldest of New York neighborhoods. The Lower East Side was a refuge to thousands Eastern European immigrants, many of them Jewish, that arrived in New York during the early 1900’s. In fact, the area is still the Manhattan ‘s center of Eastern European and Jewish culture.

Historically, the Lower East Side has been home to leftist and counter-culture activists, including Emma Goldman and Leon Trotsky in the 1900’s, Allen Ginsberg in the 1950’s, and Abbie Hoffman in the 1960’s. Today, many of the early 20th century tenements have been restored and converted into upscale lofts and apartments. This New York neighborhood is also home to a number of nationally recognized music clubs, including the Bowery Ballroom and CBGB’s.

Hell’s Kitchen, located in Midtown West, refers to the area bounded by the Hudson River, 8th Avenue, 34th and 57th Streets. Historically, the area was home to the hospitals, transportation companies, and warehouses that supported midtown Manhattan. Consequently, the rents in Hell’s Kitchen tended to be lower than in the other new York neighborhoods. That fact, plus the neighborhood’s close proximity to the Broadway theater district, made it a convenient and affordable home to actors, dancers, and theater people. Past residents have included Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Hope, and Madonna. The renowned Actor’s Studio is located in Hell’s Kitchen as are the CBS Broadcast Center and the Alvin Ailey Dance Studio. The area was traditionally a working-class Irish-American neighborhood and is depicted in the musical “West Side Story” and in Damon Runyan’s tough New York City stories.

Today, Hell’s Kitchen is one of the most popular New York neighborhoods as new development, spurred by relaxed zoning laws after 9/11, has led to new businesses, office towers, and apartment buildings. Among the most spectacular of these is the Heart Tower at 56th St. and 8th Ave.

Harlem, long associated with African-American culture and commerce, is a Manhattan neighborhood, nestled between the Hudson and East Rivers, from 155th Street to Washington Heights. The area was first settled by the Dutch in 1658 and named “Harlem,” after a prominent Dutch city. The area was also the site of a major Revolutionary War battle against the British. Harlem during the 18th century was home to several large estates, such as that of Alexander Hamilton.

Harlem remained a largely undeveloped New York neighborhood until the mid-19th century. The easy access of the elevated trains, built in the 1880’s, helped to draw Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants to Harlem. It was the early 1900’s, though, that saw the great migration of African-Americans from the American south and blacks from the West Indies, seeking opportunity and employment in the north. Black churches and black real estate operators moved into the area and helped to spur development. By the 1920’s, the residents of Harlem were more than 90 percent African-American. Black art, music, and culture thrived in this New York neighborhood, during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and such institutions as the Apollo Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Cotton Club were born.

The 1990’s saw the beginning of a second Harlem renaissance. Blocks of row houses and apartments were renovated. Businesses and high-profile tenants, including former President Bill Clinton, moved into the area, and Harlem property values have soared, up an average of 300 percent during the 1990’s.

Chelsea, located south of Manhattan’s garment district and north of Greenwich Village was largely orchard and farmland until the Hudson River Railroad ran its lines through the neighborhood in the mid-19th century. Work on the railroad and the docks along the Hudson River brought scores of immigrants to the Chelsea, most of them Irish. Early 20th century Chelsea is aptly depicted in the film “On the Waterfront” and by George Gershwin’s haunting music in “Slaughter on 10th Avenue.”

Today this New York neighborhood is home to over 200 art galleries, converted warehouse lofts, brownstones, and dozens of restaurants of all genres. One of the landmarks of the area is the Hotel Chelsea, a private apartment building turned hotel, built in 1884. A list of past residents of the hotel reads like a who’s who of New York writers, artists, and musicians. It includes Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, O Henry, Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Stanley Kubrick, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory Girls.”

Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, bounded by 42nd and 29th Streets and Fifth and Second Avenues, is named for its first non-native residents, an 18th century Quaker merchant family named Murray. Until the end of the 19th century, Murray Hill was considered “uptown,” the northernmost developed portion of Manhattan. Today, the area is a quiet, residential neighborhood, home to many older New Yorkers as well as Bryant Park, the New York City main research library and many fantastic New York City hotels.

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