So we’re finally coming to the end of our exploration of one of the greatest cities in the world. At the beginning of the 19th century, New York City officials sought to put a level of order on the northerly spread of their growing metropolis, and to divide off the land to sell. To achieve this, they nominated a commission in 1807 who presented their design four years later. In this 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.
Prior to the Commissioners Plan, the majority of Manhattan Island was still hilly and wooded, with numerous farms, country estates and small holdings dotted throughout it. In a nutshell, the job of these three men was to impose a simple grid system onto this blank canvas, with numerical names given to all the streets and avenues, in order to make it easy to navigate and to parcel off the land in easy to sell sections. There was also a belief that a more ordered and spread out city would help to prevent disease as people would not have to live in cramped and close conditions, which was especially pressing as more and more immigrants poured into New York during the 19th century, settling in squalid areas such as the Five Points and the Bowery.
However, it would take most of the 19th century to transform Manhattan into a fully urban landscape. Land had to be levelled and huge rocks broken up and removed to allow for New York streets to be laid down. Even late in the century, there were numerous farmhouses or vacant lots around the island, such as the Brennan homestead above at 84th and Broadway. One of the biggest tasks in the entire project was the creation of the 840 acre Central Park beginning in the late 1850s, as it had not been part of the original Commissioners Plan, and it was not officially opened until 1876.
By the end of the 19th century therefore, following waves of immigration from Ireland and Germany, along with eastern and southern Europe, the population of New York City stood at over two million. In 1895, residents of neighbouring cities Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island voted to merge with Manhattan to form one city. On January 1st 1898, therefore, Greater New York City with its five boroughs came into being on the cusp of the 20th century.
Prior to the amalgamation of the five boroughs, significant changes had already begun to appear in New York. In 1883, a huge suspension bridge was opened across the East River to Brooklyn, while 3 years later the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on Bedloe’s Island by President Grover Cleveland, a gift from France to the United States as a symbol of friendship between the two nations.
In 1900, the new century began with another hugely significant moment in the city’s development as ground was broken for New York’s first subway line. With the metropolis now covering an area of 360 square miles, and a population of over 3 million, a transit system was required to allow people to travel quickly and cheaply. The subway began operating in 1904, with the first nine mile line running from City Hall north to 145th Street in Harlem.
This was also the beginning of the era of the skyscraper (defined as a building more than 40 storeys high), starting with the Flatiron (1902) and Woolworth Building (1913) and peaking with the Chrysler (1930) and Empire State (1931) Buildings, the latter seeming to have been built by lads with a serious death wish, if the pictures below are anything to go by. As someone who struggles with going up a ladder, I salute the crazy bastards.
By the middle of the 20th century, the skyline of Lower Manhattan was quite well established and recognisable, though New York still had not started to build the huge glass skyscrapers that would soon come to define Lower and Midtown Manhattan, particularly its two most iconic buildings that would dominate the island until the tragic events of 2001. Construction began on the Twin Towers in 1968, and they were completed by 1973. This development led to a further extension of the island, as the one million cubic yards of landfill removed to build the foundations of the two towers was used to reclaim land from the Hudson River to create Battery Park City in the 1980s. Today, there are approximately 250 skyscrapers in the city.
Of course, just like when JFK was assassinated and the recent tragic disappearance of Fungie the Dolphin, everyone remembers where they were when they heard of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, while another plane was flown into the Pentagon in Washington, DC., and a fourth plane, presumably headed for the White House or the US Capitol, ended up crashing in Pennsylvania. The attack cost the lives of approximately 3000 people, and once more altered the famous skyline of Lower Manhattan, which has happened numerous times since the early 1600s, though usually less dramatically and tragically.
Today New York City is home to almost 9 million people, meaning it’s the most populated city in the United States. As has been the case since it was New Amsterdam, the diverse metropolis is inhabited with nationalities from all over the world. It is visited by an estimated 65 million tourists each year, who come to see iconic locations such as Central Park, the Empire State Building, Broadway, the Brooklyn Bridge, and many many more. To walk its streets is the closest most of us get to being on the set of a movie. For 400 years, the Big Apple has been romanticised and idolised by people from all over the globe……rightly so, in my opinion, as New York City is the true capital of America and the greatest city on the planet.