New York, New York, Part One

In this blog post, I’ll continue examining how cities physically grew and developed from basic settlements to massive metropolises over time. This week (and next) it’s the turn of one of the world’s greatest cities – New York – and how it grew from a tiny trade centre in the New World into the sprawling urban landscape so familiar to us today. Again I am interested in photographs and maps which highlight a particular street or area of a city and how it has changed as time has elapsed.

In the case of New York City, the best place to focus on is where it all began – the southern tip of Manhattan Island, known today as Lower Manhattan, which I’m using as a focal point of reference throughout. In this post let’s just concentrate on the period from the city’s foundation up until what became known as the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which established the grid pattern on Manhattan Island that we see to this day…..NYC is a bit too big to cover in just one fascinating (yes it is) post. 

New York Harbour was first seen by European eyes in the person of Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524, but it was the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 which was much more significant. Hudson, after whom the river on the New Jersey side of Manhattan is now named, was scouting trade routes for the Dutch East India Company, and his descriptions of New York Harbour led to the Dutch settling the region in 1624 and establishing the colony of New Netherland, which included the town of New Amsterdam. As in the previous case of Sydney, indigenous settlers had preceded them by thousands of years and were not too keen on being “discovered”…….unfortunately as usual nobody gave a shite how they felt. The new colony though was quite multicultural, with many different languages being heard in the streets of Manhattan from the off.

Warranty Search Application, 25 March 2010 | Nyc history, Map, Historical  maps
Lower Manhattan/New Amsterdam in 1660

By the 1660s, the Brits had their eyes on the place (there’s a shock) and in 1664 they took control of the settlement without a shot being fired. The colony was renamed New York in honour of the Duke of York, brother to King Charles II. The map above was drawn in 1660 and is the first known accurate map of the town of New Amsterdam. The wide street to the left had been part of an old Native American trail that stretched up along the island and was incorporated into the town. The British later christened it the Broad Way, and today it is simply Broadway. At the northernmost extent of the town can be seen a wall than ran across the length of Manhattan Island, built by the Dutch to keep out the British and Native Americans. It was levelled in 1699, and now the street where it was located is famous worldwide as Wall Street.

1741 New York Conspiracy Overview
1741 New York City superimposed on modern day Lower Manhattan

The map above shows the extent of the city’s growth by 1741, the year of an infamous slave uprising in New York. It is striking how much smaller and narrower the island of Manhattan was at this time – though New Amsterdam governor Peter Stuyvesant had begun the process of reclaiming flooded land as early as 1646, it wouldn’t be until the 20th century that this expansion would really accelerate. By 1741, the city had extended well north of Wall Street and past the area of the modern day Freedom Tower and Brooklyn Bridge into the neighbourhood now known as Tribeca. Beyond that was still open countryside.

Vintage Maps / Antique Maps - New York City map ca. 1776 Stock Photo - Alamy
Lower Manhattan 1776

By the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776 when the above map was created, the city had moved slightly further north, approximately as far as the modern day Bowery. Broadway has not extended any further north and is now called the Broadway Street. Out in the countryside there are farms and estates to be seen, as well as new buildings that have not yet been completed. There is still no bridge connecting Manhattan Island with its surrounding areas so people relied on ferries to cross the river. New York City was the site of the biggest battle of the American War of Independence. The British attacked in August 1776 and took the city, driving George Washington and his army into New Jersey. For the rest of the war New York was a Loyalist stronghold, until George Washington and the Continental Army re-entered the city on November 22nd, 1783, ending the British occupation.

204 years ago today, the Manhattan Street Grid became official - Metro US
The beginning of the Manhattan grid system

New York had become capital of the newly independent United States in 1785, a role it served for only 5 years. George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States at the Federal Hall in Wall Street in 1789. As the 18th century came to an end, city officials sought to put a level of order on the northerly spread of the burgeoning metropolis, and to parcel off the land to make it easier to sell. To achieve this, they nominated a commission in 1807 who would present their design four years later. In the next post, I’ll look at this Commissioners Plan of 1811 and the rapid growth of New York throughout the 19th and 20th centuries up to the modern day. Try to contain your excitement until then.

4 thoughts on “New York, New York, Part One

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