History of New York City (1898–1945)

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The history of New York City (1898–1945) began with the formation of the consolidated city of the five boroughs in 1898. New transportation links, most notably the New York City Subway, first opened 1904, helped bind the new city together. Increased European immigration brought social upheaval. Later, in the 1920s, the city saw the influx of African Americans as part of the Great Migration from the American South, and the Harlem Renaissance. The Roaring Twenties were years of glamour and wealth, highlighted by a construction boom with skyscrapers dueling in the skyline. New York's financial sector came to dominate the national, and indeed the world economy.

The city suffered during the Great Depression, which saw the election and repeated reelection of reformer Fiorello La Guardia, who ended the long dominance of Tammany Hall. La Guardia's success in getting new deal relief funds helped convert the city to a stronghold of the New Deal Coalition.[1] The city recovered economically during World War II. After 1945, the city gradually lost its industrial base and shifted to service industries.

Ragtime Era[edit]

The Woolworth Building, built in 1913

The modern city of New York—the five boroughs—was created in 1898, with the consolidation of the cities of New York (then Manhattan and the Bronx) and Brooklyn with the then largely rural areas of Queens and Staten Island.

Horses were used for transportation in 1900, as they had been throughout the history of the city. There were 200,000 of them in the city, producing nearly 2,500 short tons (2,300 t) of manure daily. It accumulated in the streets and was swept to the sides like snow. The smell was quite noticeable. Introduction of motor vehicles was a profound relief.[2]

The municipal consolidation would also precipitate greater physical connections between the boroughs. The building of the New York City Subway, as the separate Interborough Rapid Transit Company and Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation systems, and the later Independent Subway System, and the opening of the first IRT line in 1905 marked the beginning of what became a force for further population spread and development. The Williamsburg Bridge 1903 and the Manhattan Bridge 1909 further connected Manhattan to the rapidly expanding bedroom community in Brooklyn. The world-famous Grand Central Terminal opened as the world's largest train station on February 1, 1913, replacing an earlier terminal on the site. It was preceded by Pennsylvania Station, several blocks to the west.

Crime rates increased as the city grew. Newspapers made household names of sensational criminals, such as Harry Thaw, Peter Hains and Josephine Terranova.

These years also saw the peak of European immigration and the shifting of that immigration from Western Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe. On June 15, 1904, over 1,000 people, mostly German immigrants, were killed when the steamship General Slocum caught fire and burned in the East River, marking the beginning of the end of the community in Little Germany. The German community was replaced by growing numbers of poorer immigrants on the Lower East Side. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village took the lives of 145 mostly Italian and Jewish female garment workers, which would eventually lead to great advancements in the city's fire department, building codes, and workplace regulations. It also spurred the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and took place in the context of broader unionist and leftist movements and the popularity of figures like Emma Goldman.

New York City was the main point of embarkation for U.S. troops traveling to Europe during World War I. There was much fear of German sabotage, highlighted by the Black Tom explosion in 1916.

Jazz Age[edit]

Lower Manhattan in 1931. Note that the American International Building, which would become lower Manhattan's tallest building in 1932, is only partially completed.
The aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing on September 16, 1920.

Immigrant families continued establishing themselves, and more started moving into the neighborhoods outside Manhattan; in a sign of municipal maturation, the 1920 census showed Brooklyn for the first time overtaking Manhattan as the most populous borough. But the great period of European immigration which had only just passed its peak was halted abruptly by the Immigration Act of 1924 which severely limited further immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. This period instead saw a major domestic movement to the city, as the Great Migration of African Americans from the South resulted in a flowering of African American culture in the Harlem Renaissance.

Fun-loving Tammany mayor Jimmy Walker for most of his term presided over a period of prosperity for the city, with the proliferation of the speakeasy during Prohibition.

On September 16, 1920, radicals in the city perpetrated the Wall Street bombing, a terrorist attack outside the headquarters of the House of Morgan, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds. The bombing, timed for the busy lunch hour, was unusual for targeting larger numbers of ordinary people. It was the most deadly act of politically motivated terror on American soil until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and took place in the context of the 1919 discovery of two series of deadly mail-bombs. Officials blamed anarchist and communist elements, fueling the ongoing Palmer raids. Shortly before the bomb went off, a warning note was placed in a mailbox at the corner of Cedar Street and Broadway. The warning read: "Remember we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchists Fighters." After twenty years investigating the matter the FBI rendered the file inactive in 1940 without ever finding the perpetrators.

Tin Pan Alley developed toward Broadway, and the first modern musical, Jerome Kern's Show Boat opened in 1927 as the theater district moved north of 42nd Street.

In 1931, a workman helps raise the Empire State Building 25 floors higher than the Chrysler Building (seen to the right), completed just one year before.

New York City became known for its daring and impressive architecture, most notably the skyscrapers which transformed the skyline, with the race to the sky culminating in the dueling spires of the Art Deco icon the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building of the late 1920s, which were not topped off until a period when their soaring heights seemed rather overoptimistic. The city grew outward, too, replacing most of the farmland of eastern Brooklyn and eastern Bronx, and much of Queens, with residential development.

In the 1924 presidential election, New York City voted for Calvin Coolidge, the last time it ever was won by a Republican presidential candidate.

Great Depression and WWII[edit]

Lower Manhattan, as seen from a ferry, December 1941

The Great Depression, which was to affect the rest of the world, began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The Depression was both a time of unemployment and poverty, and a period of increased government involvement in the economy.

With the economic decline, criticism of Mayor Walker grew, from Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes and then from New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who broke with Walker and Tammany. Mayor Walker came under increasing pressure in the midst of FDR's 1932 Presidential campaign, and resigned to relocate to Europe fleeing potential criminal charges.

When FDR was elected, the Hooverville shacks named after his predecessor dotted city parks, but the city would benefit from the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration, which among other things financed much public art locally. The recently completed Empire State Building would be known as the "Empty State Building" for many years because it could not attract sufficient tenants in the bleak business climate.

In 1933, Republican reformer Fiorello La Guardia was elected mayor. La Guardia, sometimes considered New York's greatest mayor, was of both Italian and Jewish descent and acted as an exuberant populist with a multi-ethnic sensibility. La Guardia's term also saw the rise of the long-careered planner Robert Moses, bridges, parks and parkways coordinator, and great proponent of automobile-centered modernism, whose legacy of massive construction projects is controversial today. The last large expansion of the subway system and municipal ownership of the previously privately owned subway companies gave the system its final shape.

In 1938 the political designation "ward" was abolished. New York City had used this designation for the smallest political units since 1686, when Governor Thomas Dongan divided the city, then entirely in Manhattan, into six wards. In 1791, wards were given numerical designations. The First Ward was the tip of Manhattan, and the wards going north were given consecutive numbers with new ones added as the city expanded. Older wards were also subdivided as their populations swelled. Brooklyn was also composed of wards since it became a city in 1837. It originally had nine, and by the time of the 1898 consolidation it had 32.

New York, long a great American city with many immigrants, became a culturally international city with the brain drain of intellectual, musical and artistic European refugees that started in the late 1930s.

Students study first aid to support the war effort, 1942

The 1939 New York World's Fair, marking the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration in Federal Hall, was a high point of technological optimism, meant to mark the end of the Depression. After the start of World War II, though, the theme was changed from "Building the World of Tomorrow" to "For Peace and Freedom", and a shadow affected the proceedings.

Aircraft engine at Naval Training School in The Bronx

The economy of New York City was affected by the military conflict; shipping was hurt by the U-boats, many windows were blacked out for fear of German bombing that never materialized due to failure of the Amerika Bomber project, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard again increased its production of warships.

For the duration of the war, the Port of New York handled 25% of the nation's trade. Much of this passed through the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By the war's end, the Navy Yard was the world's largest shipyard with 75,000 workers. At the end of the war, the city was pre-eminent in the world, the only major world city unscathed by the war.[3]



  1. ^ Thomas Kessner, Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York (1989)
  2. ^ Stephen D. Levitt; Stephen J. Dubner (18 October 2009). "What Should You Worry About". Parade. The Washington Post. p. 9. 
  3. ^ Yardley, Jonathan (25 April 2010). "When war made the city sizzle (book review of Hellava Town". Washington, DC: Washington Post. pp. B8. 

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