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New York: A Documentary Film | Article

Historic New York

George Schlegel New York 1873, Courtesy of Library of Congress

The country's first capital, the site of America's first explosive urban expansion, and the place where modern media was invented, New York has been host to historic events that have had an unforgettable impact on the rest of America. Following are a few of the most notable.

A Capital City
New York was the first capital of the United States -- George Washington was sworn in as the first President on the balcony of New York City's old City Hall on April 30, 1789. But New York's enormous Revolutionary War debt had the federal government hovering on the brink of bankruptcy, so Alexander Hamilton struck a momentous deal with Thomas Jefferson. The nation's new capital would move to a rural setting just across the Potomac River from Jefferson's native Virginia. New York, with its debt forgiven, would go on to consolidate its power as the country's financial capital. 

The Inception of Industrialization
Alexander Hamilton's extraordinary early vision helped invent the economic future not only for his adoptive city, but also for the rest of the United States. Although the country was 90% agrarian, Hamilton understood that the future lay in manufacturing. As the first Secretary of the Treasury in New York City in 1789, he mapped out a blueprint for a new kind of nation -- one based not on plantations and slave labor, but on commerce, manufacturing, and immigrant toil.

The River to Riches
When New York governor De Witt Clinton pushed through the building of the Erie Canal, he sparked an economic revolution that forever transformed life in New York City and its relation to the American continent. Completed in 1825, the 363-mile ditch was the greatest engineering feat of its day. Connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and beyond, it brought seaborne Atlantic trade right into the heart of the Great Plains. It spurred on tremendous growth in New York City, New York State, and throughout the Middle West.

A Home to Commerce
By 1830, commercial activity in Lower Manhattan had exploded, and the narrow lanes of the old Dutch village were transformed with astonishing speed into the first district in the world devoted exclusively to commerce. Perhaps for the first time in human history, there existed a business area where people did not live. The people with money began to move away, the journey to work began to increase, and the American city would never be the same. A different kind of city was evolving -- an industrial city -- and New York was leading the way.

Modern Media
With the creation of the NEW-YORK HERALD in 1835, James Gordon Bennett invented modern journalism. Up until the 1830s, newspapers had small circulations, were often owned by political parties, and were very expensive. The HERALD cost only a penny, was politically independent, and instead of instructing, it gave readers what they wanted -- eye-catching stories of crime, vice, and sex often drawn from the city streets. It soon became the most popular paper in the country, and dozens more penny papers began springing up all over the island. By 1841, New York City had become the center of news and information for the entire nation.

The Earliest Ad Game
In 1841, P. T. Barnum opened an establishment that embodied the kind of brashness that has been a critical component of New York -- and American -- advertising and public relations ever since. The American Museum on Broadway featured eclectic attractions including a mermaid from Fiji, a dog that operated a knitting machine, and a Moral Lecture Room for New York's upright middle-class establishment. Barnum exhibited monstrous curiosities -- and reveled in inciting public outrage to heighten the museum's notoriety. From the day the American Museum opened it was a stunning success.

The Making of a President
New York propelled Abraham Lincoln into the national spotlight -- in fact, he credited a three-day visit to the city for his winning the presidency of the United States. Little known outside of his home state of Illinois, he traveled to New York City in 1860 to help bolster his slim chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination. Although no one met him upon his arrival, he quickly became engulfed in the city's media machine. He checked in to the Astor Hotel, where clerks tipped off the local press to his visit. He purchased a shiny silk top hat on Broadway and sat for a formal portrait at Mathew Brady's daguerreotype studio. By nightfall, an enormous crowd gathered to hear his unforgettable, impassioned speech at the Cooper Institute. By the next morning, every newspaper in New York had covered Lincoln's speech and the attention he received turned him into a national celebrity overnight. Lincoln never forgot what his sojourn in New York City had done for him: "Brady and the Cooper Institute," he said simply, "made me President."

Before Skyscrapers
The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge marked the beginning of what would become the vertical rise of New York and, later, of cities all over the country. The bridge was a structure far larger than anything ever before attempted. Its span was substantially longer than any bridge in existence, and its 275-foot-tall towers were seven times higher than the four-story skyline of Manhattan. When the lights were switched on across the Brooklyn Bridge's massive suspension cables in the spring of 1883, New Yorkers were seeing the future of America: electricity and steel.

A Massive Melting Pot
New York was the first American city to deal with a massive influx of immigrants. The city had only 100,000 people in 1800. By 1900, it had 50 times that number. No city in America had ever grown so rapidly, or so large. No metropolis on earth had ever brought so many different kinds of people together, in one place, at one time. The Statue of Liberty, emblazoned with the words of Emma Lazarus, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," stood as a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples around the world, with Ellis Island poised to accept them. Soon, the entire United States became a vast melting pot of the world's cultures, and the welcoming of immigrants became one of America's greatest ideals.

Pioneers in Public Health
In 1893, a 26-year-old nurse named Lillian Wald moved into a tenement to care for sick and injured slum dwellers in their homes. Soon after, she created the Henry Street Settlement to reach out to people suffering from diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria and to educate immigrants about childcare and sanitation. She discovered that many problems could not be solved locally, that government had to become involved in pushing through reforms. Because of her and others like her, Americans came to feel entitled to government-protected public health.

A Government for the People
As head of the New York State Assembly in 1913, Al Smith pushed through a flood of legislation that was nothing less than epoch-making. These landmark laws affected every aspect of factory life: child labor, women's labor, wages and hours, safety, and more. In all, 56 bills were passed. Al Smith became governor of New York in 1918 and, as a product of the Lower East Side, represented the triumph of immigrants all across America. In the ensuing years, no politician in New York history would do more to make government answerable to the needs of all the people.

The Great Depression
It began October 1929 in New York City at the time of the stock market crash. With the population of the United States at about 125 million, in 1929 fewer than two million people were unemployed countrywide; in 1930, eight million had no jobs; in 1931, thirteen million were without work. The jobless rate would peak in 1932-33 at sixteen million men, or about one third of the national labor force, as the economic crisis rippled from banking to manufacturing. Many New Yorkers lost their jobs, savings, and property. There was no unemployment insurance. Almost no government relief reached the people of New York. Some New Yorkers -- even those who had made a fortune in the stock market's heyday -- now struggled simply to survive. Many stood in bread lines.

War on Crime and Corruption
Directly after coming to office, Mayor La Guardia purged the city government of thousands of workers who had gained jobs in exchange for favors and votes. He replaced the old system of corruption with a new civil service, guided by men of expertise and merit. He also appointed good, tough, honest cops whom Tammany had pushed aside. With the city watching, he starved the Tammany machine. La Guardia did not just clean house inside his government, he set to work on cleaning the entire city of crime and corruption. He had run on a platform that included a war on crime and, when he fought against crime, he did it publicly. Theatrically, he raced around in squad cars while accompanying the police on official raids.

Playgrounds, Parkways, and Politicians
La Guardia appointed Robert Moses as City Park Commissioner. Using federal monies channeled to New York by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Moses rebuilt the crumbling Central Park Zoo, renovated all 1,700 of New York City's playgrounds, finished the Triborough bridge -- construction of which had been suspended years earlier -- and began the huge West Side Improvement project.

Harlem Riot
Underscoring the discontent of the city's largest minority group, and resulting from years of discrimination, a riot breaks out in Harlem following a relatively trivial event. Black New Yorkers during the Great Depression faced greater employment discrimination than did their white counterparts, and had poor access to health care and education. Under Robert Moses, few public parks and playgrounds were provided to the residents of black neighborhoods.

1939 New York World's Fair
Built on the outskirts of the city, and accessed by two new parkways, the fairground was built by Robert Moses and an army of men, who transformed a 1200-acre ash heap called Corona Dump, into an arena of shining models of the city of tomorrow. The Trylon, a huge white spike, and the Perisphere, the huge white dome next to it, as well the fair's sleek gates, were built in Art Deco style, a style associated with the celebration of city life. But, Democracity, the model of the futuristic city contained inside the Perisphere, like most of the exhibits at the fair, emphasized the triumph of commerce over art, highway over city.

End of World War II
When Harry S. Truman, then President of the United States, announced the end of the Second World War, the people of New York descended on Time Square for the celebration of their lives. New Yorkers were not only reveling in the fact that the United States and its allies had won the war, but that their brothers, fathers, sons, and neighbors would now be coming home. The soldiers themselves were even more excited to return. When the two great ocean liners, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, steamed into New York's port their decks brimmed with returning soldiers. Once they saw the breathtaking skyline of New York, the soldiers would let out a gigantic cheer: it had never seemed more precious or more the symbol of promise.

Capital of the World
With the building in 1949 of the United Nations' headquarters on Manhattan's East Side, New York truly became the world's capital. The United Nations, an international alliance for peace, was brought into existence in October 1945 without a permanent home. Multicultural New York, with more than sixty ethnic groups living closely together, seemed the perfect location for the international organization, a model for the new world order.

The Destruction of Neighborhoods
The Cross-Bronx Expressway was a tremendous feat of engineering on an almost unprecedented scale. At 225 feet wide and seven miles long, its builders had to demolish many six- and seven-floor apartment houses to build it. On December 4, 1952, those who lived where Moses would build the Cross-Bronx Expressway were sent a letter telling them that their homes were in the paths of progress and that they had 90 days to get out. Built on a straight line, the shape of the expressway did not accommodate existing neighborhoods and the people who lived in their way. The Cross-Bronx Expressway was the most destructive expressway-building project in the city but it was not the last.

Riots Again!
In the summer of 1964, an off-duty police officer shot and killed a fifteen-year old boy, James Powell, in Harlem. For two days the protests were peaceful, but on the third day, July 18, 1964, the crowds outside the 123rd police station became violent. They threw rocks, bricks and bottles, lit garbage cans on fire, and looted stores, including those selling guns. A police officer on a megaphone said, "Go home! Go home!" A voice in the night cried back, "We are home, baby!" The riots went on for five days, in both Harlem and in Bedford-Stuyvesant. One person died, 520 were arrested. The FBI classified the riots as an attack on "all constituted authority."

Inventive Accounting
As Mayor of New York City during some of its most bleak years, John Lindsay had to be inventive when it came to balancing the city's enormous budget with its dwindling tax dollars. During his administration, the city borrowed heavily from banks until, in 1975, the lenders demanded payment, or else. When Lindsay asked President Gerald Ford to guarantee New New York's loans, the president declined. He thought his stance would force New York to become more fiscally responsible. The next morning, THE DAILY NEWS headline covering the story read, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

Financial Ruin
The banks that had lent New York money cut off its ability to borrow. They asked that the city repay them six billion dollars before they would lend it money again. The city government turned to the federal government to ask for 2.3 billion dollars in loan guarantees, but President Gerald Ford said he would not agree to guarantee New York's loans. Less than a month later, however, he changed his mind and agreed to help New York.

The Road to Recovery
With time to put its finances in order, city officials moved with startling dispatch -- cutting services, repaying its outstanding loans, and balancing the city budget by 1981 -- a full year ahead of schedule.

Economic Boom
With the advent of electronic fund transfers, unimaginably huge sums of money began circulating around the globe -- 24 hours a day. By the mid-1980s, 40 percent or more of those electronic transactions were passing through New York. The influx of money and financial institutions triggered a phase of dramatic growth in employment and new construction for New York.

New Immigration
After a brief recession in the early '90s, New York's boom begun in the '80s continued, and waves of immigrants from virtually every country in the world poured into the city. By the end of the decade, more than a third of all New Yorkers had been born abroad, and nearly 180 languages could be overheard on the streets.

The Melting Pot
For the first time in its history, New York's population grew to more than eight million, with whites constituting the largest racial group, nearly 3.6 million, and the Hispanic population swelling to nearly 2.2 million. The city's black population rose to more than 2.1 million and the Asian population peaked at a bit less than 800,000. 393,959 New Yorkers identified themselves as multiracial.

Attack on New York
On September 11, 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed in the most devastating terrorist attack in the history of the United States. Two jetliners were crashed into the towers, causing both to collapse. New York City suffered a loss of over 6,000 people. Despite the enormous pain and sadness, these difficulties will only make New York stronger, giving it the impetus to reinvent itself yet again in it's 400 year history.

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