History of New York City (1946–77)

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The history of New York City (1946–1977) saw the emergence of New York immediately after World War II as the unquestioned leader among major cities of the world. However, after peaking in population in 1950, the city began to feel the effects of white flight to the suburbs, a downturn in industry and commerce as businesses left for places where it was cheaper and easier to operate, an increase in crime, and an upturn in its welfare burden, all of which reached a nadir in the city's fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when it barely avoided defaulting on its obligations and declaring bankruptcy.

Postwar: Late 1940s through 1950s[edit]

As many great cities lay in ruins after World War II, New York City assumed a new global prominence. It became the home of the United Nations headquarters, built 1947–1952, inherited the role of Paris as center of the art world with Abstract Expressionism, and became a rival to London as an international art market. Yet the population declined after 1950, with increasing suburbanization in the New York metropolitan area as pioneered in Levittown, New York.

November 15, 1948 marked a significant turning point in the city's economy, when the Interstate Commerce Commission began allowing barges to charge fees for transporting goods from rail terminals in New Jersey to piers in Manhattan.[1] This led to the decline of the port, the piers, and places such as Washington Market in Lower Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Midtown Manhattan was experiencing an unprecedented building boom, fueled by postwar prosperity. This led to a drastic change in the appearance of Midtown, where glass and steel office towers in the new International Style began to replace the ziggurat-style towers of the prewar era. Also rapidly changing was the eastern edge of the East Village close to the FDR Drive. Large-scale public housing projects supplanted many traditional apartment blocks. In Lower Manhattan, urban renewal began to take shape at around 1960, led by David Rockefeller with construction of his One Chase Manhattan Plaza building.

In a built-out city, construction always entailed destruction. After the old Beaux Arts Pennsylvania Station was torn down, growing concern for preservation led to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission Law of 1965. The city's other great train station, Grand Central, was also threatened with demolition but was eventually saved. Meanwhile, New York City's network of highways spread under the guidance of Robert Moses, with consequent increased traffic congestion, but the defeat in 1962 of Moses' planned Lower Manhattan Expressway by community activists led by Jane Jacobs was an indication that Moses would no longer have the free hand he had enjoyed in the past.


Pennsylvania Station in 1962, two years before it was torn down, an event which jump-started the historic preservation movement.

During the '60s, a gradual economic and social decay set in. A symptom of the city's waning competitiveness was the loss of both its longtime resident National League baseball teams to booming California; the Dodgers and the Giants both moved after the 1957 season. A sports void was partially filled with the formation of the Mets in 1962, who played their first two seasons at the Polo Grounds, the former home of the Giants, before moving to Shea Stadium in Queens in 1964.

The passage of the federal Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished national-origin quotas, set the stage for increased immigration from Asia, which became the basis for New York's modern Asian American community.

On November 9, 1965, New York endured a widespread power blackout along with much of eastern North America. (The city's ordeal became the subject of the 1968 film, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?) The postwar population shift to the suburbs resulted in the decline of textile manufacturing and other traditional industries in New York, most of which also operated in extremely outdated facilities. With the arrival of container shipping, that industry shifted to New Jersey where there was more room for it. Blue-collar neighborhoods began to deteriorate and become centers of drugs and crime. Strip clubs and other adult businesses started filling Times Square in the late '60s.

In 1966, the US Navy decommissioned the Brooklyn Navy Yard, ending a command going back to the early 19th century. It was sold to the city. The Yard continued as a site for shipbuilding for another eleven years.

Strikes and riots[edit]

A raid on the Stonewall Inn provoked riots which became a defining moment in the modern gay rights movement

The Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) led by Mike Quill shut down the city with a complete halt of subway and bus service on mayor John Lindsay's first day of office. As New Yorkers endured the transit strike, Lindsay remarked, "I still think it's a fun city," and walked four miles (6 km) from his hotel room to City Hall in a gesture to show it.[2] Dick Schaap, then a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, coined and popularized the sarcastic term in an article titled Fun City.[2][3] In the article, Schaap sardonically pointed out that it was not.[2][3]

The transit strike was the first of many labor struggles. In 1968 the teachers' union (the United Federation of Teachers, or the UFT) went on strike over the firings of several teachers in a school in Ocean Hill and Brownsville.[4] That same year, 1968, also saw a nine-day sanitation strike.[5] Quality of life in New York reached a nadir during this strike, as mounds of garbage caught fire, and strong winds whirled the filth through the streets.[6] With the schools shut down, the police engaged in a slowdown, firefighters threatening job actions, the city awash in garbage, and racial and religious tensions breaking to the surface, Lindsay later called the last six months of 1968 "the worst of my public life."[7]

The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. They are frequently cited as the first instance in American history when people in the homosexual community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.


The World Trade Center, completed in 1973
The 1970s were a low point in the city's modern history, and one of the lowest moments came when the New York Daily News reported what appeared to New Yorkers to be the federal government's lack of interest in bailing out the nation's largest and most populous city.

The 1970s are regarded by some[by whom?] as New York's nadir. The city had become notorious the world over for high rates of crime and other social disorders. A popular song in the autumn of 1972, "American City Suite," by Cashman & West, chronicled, in allegorical fashion, the decline in the city's quality of life. The city's subway system was regarded as unsafe due to crime and suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns. Prostitutes and pimps frequented Times Square, while Central Park became feared as the site of muggings and rapes. Homeless persons and drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings. The NYPD was subject to investigation for widespread corruption, most famously in the 1971 testimony of whistle-blowing police officer Frank Serpico.

US economic stagnation in the 1970s hit New York City particularly hard, as trading on the New York Stock Exchange fell while the city's welfare spending continued. The city neared bankruptcy during the administration of Mayor Abraham Beame but avoided that step with the aid of a $2.3 billion federal loan. A statement by Mayor Beame was drafted and ready to be released on October 17, 1975, if the teachers' union did not invest $150 million from its pension funds in city securities. "I have been advised by the comptroller that the City of New York has insufficient cash on hand to meet debt obligations due today," the statement said. "This constitutes the default that we have struggled to avoid."[8] The Beame statement was never distributed because Albert Shanker, the teachers' union president, finally furnished $150 million from the union's pension fund to buy Municipal Assistance Corporation bonds. Two weeks later, President Gerald R. Ford angered many New Yorkers by refusing to grant the city a bailout, a decision famously summarized by the New York Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Ford would later sign the New York City Seasonal Financing Act of 1975 which extended $2.3 billion worth of federal loans to the city for three years.[9][10]

The New York City Blackout of 1977 struck on July 13 of that year and lasted for 25 hours, during which black and Hispanic neighborhoods fell prey to destruction and looting. Over 3,000 people were arrested, and the city's already crowded prisons were so overburdened that some suggested reopening the recently condemned Manhattan Detention Complex.

A rare highlight was the opening of the mammoth World Trade Center complex in 1972. Conceived by David Rockefeller and built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the site of the Radio Row electronics district in Lower Manhattan, the Twin Towers briefly displaced the Empire State Building in Midtown as the world's tallest before being displaced in turn by Chicago's Sears Tower in 1973.

However, the financial crisis, high crime rates, and damage from the blackouts led to a widespread belief that New York City was in irreversible decline. By the end of the 1970s, nearly a million people had left since the '50s, a population loss that would not be recouped for another twenty years. The more fiscally conservative Ed Koch was elected as mayor in 1977.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Glanz, James and Eric Lipton (2003). City in the Sky. Times Books. p. 48. 
  2. ^ a b c The Fun City, New York Herald Tribune, January 7, 1966, , pg. 13:
  3. ^ a b DANIEL B. SCHNEIDER ,F.Y.I. , NY Times, January 3, 1999
  4. ^ Damon Stetson A Most Unusual Strike; Bread-and-Butter Issues Transcended By Educational and Racial Concerns, NY Times, September 14, 1968
  5. ^ STETSON, DAMON (February 11, 1968). "GARBAGE STRIKE IS ENDED ON ROCKEFELLER'S TERMS;; MEN BACK ON JOB". New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved May 19, 2009. 
  6. ^ PERLMUTTER, EMANUEL (February 5, 1968). "SHOTS ARE FIRED IN REFUSE STRIKE; FILTH LITTERS CITY; Shotgun Blasts Shatter 2 Panes at Home of Foreman Who Continues to Work MAYOR TOURS STREETS Mounting Garbage Is 'Very Serious,' Lindsay Says -Pact Talks Due Today Garbage Piles Up in Streets as Strike Grows 'Very Serious'". New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved May 19, 2009. 
  7. ^ McFADDEN, ROBERT D (December 21, 2000). "John V. Lindsay, Mayor and Maverick, Dies at 79". New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2009. 
  8. ^ The New York Times. "When the City’s Bankruptcy Was Just a Few Words Away." Dec 31, 2006.[1]
  9. ^ Russell, Mary (December 10, 1975). "Ford Signs Bill To Aid N.Y.C.". The Washington Post. p. B9. 
  10. ^ S.2725 "New York City Seasonal Financing Act" [2]


  • Burns, Ric, and James Sanders. New York: An Illustrated History (2003), large-scale book version of Burns PBS documentary, New York: A Documentary Film an eight part, 17½ hour hour documentary film directed by Ric Burns for PBS. It originally aired in 1999 with additional episodes airing in 2001 and 2003.
  • Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale University Press, 1995) 1350 pages; articles by experts; 2nd expanded edition 2010, 1585pp

External links[edit]