The City Before the City

The City Before the City

It’s hard to think of New York as anything but the bustling metropolis we know it as today. Skyscrapers, yellow cabs, and massive bridges are all part and parcel of the NYC experience. But before NYC was the capital of the world, it was little more than a fur trading outpost for a massive global empire. By the time the English conquered the region in 1664 and christened the city New York, the island we now call Manhattan was well on its way to becoming a center of culture not only in the Americas but for the entire world.

New Arrivals

Before Europeans landed in New York harbor, the area was populated by the Lenape people. Lenape agriculture and fish harvesting supported a relatively large population, with an estimated 15,000 people in the New York City area alone. The name Manhattan originates from Manhatta, the Lenape name for the island. Early Dutch visitors to the Americas were drawn by one major commodity: furs. The most common were beaver furs which could be converted to felt for waterproof garments favored by city dwellers. Their rarity in Europe paired with huge demand brought countless explorers, adventurers, and opportunists from Europe to North America to get their piece of the pie.

From Post to Permanence

For the first nine years of its existence, New Amsterdam was little more than a trading post, a place where trappers who did the dirty work turned in their spoils to the more genteel importers. As the fur trade expanded, the outpost became a strategic location for the Dutch West India Company to oversee operations in the Hudson River region. The company built a fortification on the modern day site of Bowling Green park called Fort Amsterdam to solidify their presence. Eventually, a settlement of soldiers and farmers was built out, first as simple tents and smaller, temporary domiciles. As the settlement grew and more Europeans moved to the area, the city of New Amsterdam was established.

Conflict Shapes the Land

This growth eventually came at the expense of the Lenape, who felt the spirit of their land-sharing tradition was being violated. Additionally, diseases brought from Europe infected large swaths of their population, and Manhatta soon became the site of physical confrontations and skirmishes between natives and settlers. The Dutch built a wall to keep others from the settlement, giving the name to modern day Wall Street. Eventually, the fur trade died out and New Amsterdam was conquered by the British in a series of wars between England and the Dutch. The city changed hands multiple times, with the decisive victory won in 1674’s Third Anglo-Dutch War whereupon the city permanently became New York.

Centuries later, New York still bears many remnants of its Dutch origins, with place names like Bowery (from bouwerij, or farm), Brooklyn (breukelen), and Spuyten Duyvil, Dutch for “devil’s spout.” A city born from commerce, New York remains a center of finance and trade in an increasingly global economy. Long separated from its Dutch origins, the city is now home to over 8.5 million New Yorkers from countless ethnicities. What was once a tiny trading post has developed, over a few short centuries, into a truly international metropolis.

What The Hudson Tunnel Project Could Mean for New York

What The Hudson Tunnel Project Could Mean for New York

New Yorkers of all types have one thing in common: they’re usually on the move. The city abounds with avenues for transportation, from the numerous historic bridges to the ubiquitous subway system. While intra-city transportation dominates headlines, one important, sometimes neglected cohort are those who travel in and out of the city to conduct their business.  

If you’re not a daily commuter braving the 9-mile stretch between New Jersey and Manhattan, you might not be familiar with The Hudson Tunnel Project. While it may not attract as much attention as other infrastructure issues, the project is largely deemed the most desperately needed such effort in the country. It aims to modernize and rehabilitate New York City’s existing North River Tunnel, damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and construct a new Hudson River rail tunnel serving Penn Station. The existing tunnel connects Newark to New York City, transporting 200,000 suburban commuters daily. Running approximately 450 trains every weekday, it is the only passenger rail connection between Manhattan and New Jersey. The tunnel also enables Boston-to-Washington service on the nation’s busiest passenger rail route.

The North River Tunnel, built in 1910, consists of two, single-track, electrified rail tubes. Without the project, the tunnel will become more unreliable, with power lines and signal cables failing so regularly that at least one of the tunnels would need to be closed to undergo long-term repairs. This would force the remaining tube, assuming it could maintain operations, to accommodate two-way traffic, thus severely reducing rail service. That setback would instantly cripple the entire Northeast Corridor, forcing more commuters onto impossibly jammed roadways.

It’s easy to see the benefits of the project to New York and the country as a whole. There is an economic necessity to connect commuters to America’s finance and media capital. While the overall impact is debated between supporters and non-supporters, the tunnel is a necessary entryway into a city that accounts for 10 percent of the country’s GDP, and supporters estimate that losing the railway due to eroding concrete and short-circuiting electric cables would cost the country $100 million per day, possibly triggering a national recession. Of course, we should want to maintain and improve service on the Northeast Corridor, which has a ridership equivalent to one-third of all passengers on US domestic flights. Plus, there are the climate benefits to helping clear roads of emissions from highway traffic.

The first phase of the project includes the new railway tunnel under the Hudson, as well as a new Portal Bridge that’s high enough to accommodate passing boats. The existing swing bridge, also constructed in 1910, fails to close properly one out of every seven times it opens to allow boats to pass, forcing maintenance crews to manually bash it back into place with a sledgehammer. Larger efforts, known as the Gateway project, would repair the existing tunnels and add a second new Portal Bridge, providing the Northeast Corridor with the same four-track capacity as the rest of the line. It also includes an expansion of Penn Station, which handles more travelers than the city’s three major airports combined. The Portal Bridge already has the necessary permits, and the environmental review for the new tunnel has been fast-tracked and is awaiting approval by the Transportation Department. The current delay is the result of the project being caught up in a policy war, with the Trump Administration delaying its grants, loans, and permits, which is problematic because every year of delay for the tunnel alone is expected to add another $500 million to its price tag.

But the existing North River Tunnel is already at capacity. At rush hour there are 24-25 trains entering Manhattan, the maximum number possible. And, according to the Gateway website, a closure could reduce capacity by 75 percent. The implications of the Hudson Tunnel Project go beyond improving a painful commute. It’s about preserving a cornerstone of a thriving economy, within the city and beyond.

The City Above the City: NYC’s Air History

The City Above the City: NYC’s Air History

Everyone knows that New Yorkers are no strangers to the highest heights, but high-rise buildings certainly aren’t the only way we touch the skies. Always a center of innovation, New Yorkers have been able to take to the air since the 1920s, taking off from one of the city’s major airstrips as soon as commercial flight took hold.

Whether the big three of Newark, LaGuardia and JFK or one of the area’s smaller airfields, there’s a jetload of interesting backstory to all of the area’s major hubs. Here’s some amazing history of just how these places came to be.

Newark Liberty International Airport

As commercial air travel went from a novelty to a necessity, NYC needed an air hub suited to the needs of a global metropolis. That opportunity presented itself not in Manhattan, but across the river in Newark, New Jersey, where the necessary space was available for building a proper airport. Opened in 1928, Newark Metropolitan Airport was the busiest airport in the nation for the first decade of its existence, seeing 61 daily departures on five different airlines. Like many airfields nationwide, Newark was drafted into service during World War II, closing to commercial operation while the US Army used the land for logistics operations. Soon after the conflict ended, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took over the airport, and have operated it ever since.

Floyd Bennett Field

The same year as Newark Airport opened, a now-lesser known airfield was established at the southern end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn’s Marine Park neighborhood. NYC’s first municipal airport (smaller airfields existed before, but none were as favorably sited and well-constructed).  Floyd Bennett Field opened in 1928, and by 1933 it saw more than twice as many planes come and go than Newark’s airport. In fact, Floyd Bennett Field was the nation’s second-busiest airport behind Oakland international in California. After serving as a military air station during World War II, the airfield fell out of use, thanks to LaGuardia’s proximity to Manhattan which made it more enticing to both commercial and private air carriers. Today, the site hosts the aptly named Aviator Sports complex, home of hockey rinks and multipurpose sports fields to serve Brooklyn and the Rockaways.

LaGuardia Airport

The city’s first commercial airport opened not too long after Newark’s, and Queens has been the taking-off (and landing!) point for countless NYC dreams ever since. Dedicated in 1939 as New York Municipal Airport, it was officially renamed for former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1947. LaGuardia Airport was built out of the existing North Beach Airport, a tiny airstrip converted to a major American destination. Upon its opening, New Yorkers were so entranced by the planes that many paid the 10 cent entrance fee without a flight booked, simply to watch them land and take off for hours at a time. Today, LaGuardia is in the midst of a major renovation project that will turn the admittedly-neglected airport into an ultramodern terminal with more efficient connection to mass transit and the surrounding area, making New Yorkers better connected to the rest of the country than ever before.

John F. Kennedy International Airport

NYC’s major international airport opened in 1943 to alleviate overcrowding at LaGuardia. The sprawling, massive new airport was officially named New York International Airport, Anderson Field but was commonly known as Idlewild Airport, after a golf course that was previously on the site. It was known that way until 1963 when it was renamed after the recently slain president Kennedy. Soon after the name change, the airport had all eyes on it worldwide thanks to its status as the landing place of the Beatles in February 1964. Their grand American debut was marked by thousands of adoring fans and eager press greeting them on the runways adjacent to Jamaica Bay in Queens. JFK was also a 60s landmark thanks to the iconic neo-futurist TWA Flight Center, currently remodeled and back in use after its initial closure in 2001. After seeing nearly 60 million passengers in 2017, JFK is poised to continue on as the center of NYC’s flying culture, ensuring the city that never sleeps will never lack for new faces.

Want to read more about the ways NYC stays connected? Read our pieces on The Evolution of the Subway and The History of NYC in 6 Bridges.

Urban Gardens: They’re Not As Challenging As You Think

Urban Gardens: They’re Not As Challenging As You Think

City life is vibrant. Every street bustles with life, lights, and excitement — and in New York, that vibrancy defines day-to-day life. Like most cities, however, NYC has far more buildings than trees, leaving some residents wishing for just a little more greenery to balance out the bustle in their daily lives.

Simple gardens may be the answer for these city dwellers: according to urban mindfulness professional Dr. Jonathan S. Kaplan, having or being around plants can reduce stress, improve concentration, and better a person’s psychological health. Even apartment-bound residents can benefit from a few homegrown greens; cultivating a garden from a windowsill, balcony, or rooftop takes minimal effort and can provide that pop of calm greenery that city life sometimes lacks.

 

Starting Your Garden

There are two key limiting factors in any urban garden: space and light. If you live in a relatively dark apartment with no balcony and few windows, you aren’t out of gardening options — but the choices you do have are slimmer than those someone with an open rooftop would enjoy. Before you begin picking out plants for your garden, you need to assess your home and determine how much light and space you can realistically provide for your plants. Then, choose accordingly! Here’s a quick breakdown of what you can grow in shady, partial-light, and full sun environments:

Shady or Partially-Lit: A window sill or balcony that takes in six hours of sun per day is a partially-shady environment; any place that sees less than four falls into the “shady” category. These low-light homes are perfect for herbs and greens such as arugula, some lettuces, chives, and chili peppers. Visit your local garden store for more options! Every plant will have a tag that tells you how much light it will need to thrive.

Full Sun: Unless you are uncommonly lucky, you probably won’t find a perfect full-sun growing spot in a city. Aspects of a city’s architecture — buildings, fences, cars — naturally block light that might otherwise suit a full-sun garden. However, if you are fortunate enough to have a balcony or roof that enjoys over six hours of sun every day, you can stock up on plants such as basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, cherry tomatoes, or cucumbers.

 

Prepare Your Container

Whatever you do, don’t try to cram several plants into a single window box. Young plants need more space to grow than most new gardeners think; a five-gallon pot that might look like it offers enough space for two or three plants is truthfully only suitable for a single tomato plant. Be strategic in your planting! Assess the amount of space your chosen plants will need at maturity, and plan according. If you opt to cultivate window boxes, make sure that the seedlings you group together have similar light and water requirements — you don’t want to accidentally over- or under-water one plant for the sake of keeping another alive.

Once you choose your plants and settle on a type of garden — rooftop, window box, or even a single planter — you can start preparing for growth. A trip to your local garden store can provide you with the three main components your plants need to grow: pots, planting soil, and fertilizer. If you’re on a budget, keep it simple. You don’t need an expensively glazed ceramic pot; your herbs will flourish just as well in affordable black plastic.

City life is invigorating and exciting, but there’s something profoundly soothing about caring for plants amidst the hubbub. Regardless of whether you have a small apartment with a single free window or a home with an expansive yard, cultivating a garden is simple and relaxing. If you put time and effort into the soil, your plants will grow into a reward that goes far beyond simple leaves or fruit.

The History of NYC in 6 Bridges

The History of NYC in 6 Bridges

It’s easy to take them for granted, but New York City would be a much different place without the many bridges that connect the boroughs. Over its long history, this city has seen an incredible variety of spans go up, and these are just a few shining examples from the over two thousand bridges traversing NYC. These six are all part of a larger story, however, of the evolution of an incredible city that’s grown one connection at a time.

 

The King’s Bridge

The city’s very first bridge went up in the colonial days while the city’s namesake Duke of York (later King James II) was still alive. Built in 1693, The King’s Bridge was built in a then-remote spot of the landmass, the northern tip of the island. Spanning the Spuyten Duyvil Creek in what’s now the Marble Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, it wasn’t quite as momentous as it could have been. Contemporary accounts described the bridge as “small, very narrow, and badly built.” After a partial rebuild during the Revolutionary War, the bridge lived on into the 20th century, even serving as the starting point for the second car race in US History in 1896. Its eventual fate is somewhat of a mystery, but historians believe it was buried in construction in the South Bronx, an appropriately humble end for an underappreciated piece of New York history.

 

Brooklyn Bridge

This eternal emblem of NYC may feel timeless to us now, but it’s construction probably seemed similarly eternal to citizens of the time. The bridge’s building suffered so many setbacks, it’s a wonder it was ever finished. Before a single brick was lain, bridge designer John Roebling succumbed to gangrene from an accident and his son Washington took over the project. Washington Roebling was a hands-on manager, so much so that he was stricken with the bends from working in the dangerous caissons used to build the bridge’s massive towers (27 workers died in total from this and other maladies). Roebling was forced to dictate the building from his sickbed, and his wife Emily took the lead in managing construction. 14 long years after it was started, the Brooklyn Bridge was finally completed in 1883 to much fanfare. The massive celebration represented not only a new era in New York City’s existence but a major sigh of relief that the span was, after so many years and setbacks, finally done.

 

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

While the Brooklyn Bridge was the overpowering, impressive span of its day, it was soon joined by several other East River overpasses that went up relatively quickly: the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Queensborough (now Ed Koch Bridge) all went up in a 6-year time period from 1903 to 1909. While that area became well covered, giving easy access to Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens, the spot where New York’s waterways meet the Atlantic Ocean remained bare, leaving Staten Island again left behind. That changed in 1964 when the Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened, connected the Bay Ridge neighborhood of southern Brooklyn to the island borough just south of Fort Wadsworth. At the grand opening, the Verrazano was the longest suspension bridge in the world (it’s now 13th), but it remains the longest span in the Americas, running over two miles from end to end.

 

3 New Links to the 21st Century

It’s been over 50 years since a bridge last went up in the New York area, but that’s rapidly changed over the last couple of years. A trio of bridges now represents a new era in NYC-area architecture, replacing older connectors between Staten Island and New Jersey (The Goethals Bridge), Westchester and Rockland counties (The Tappan Zee Bridge), and Queens and Brooklyn (Kosciuszko Bridge). These new structures are all in the style known as cable-stayed bridges, a modern update on the old suspension technique that allows one main tower to sustain the entire span. It’s an elegant and simple-appearing design that’s popped up across the world and is finally making its long-awaited New York debut. For a city that’s all about making connections, these new bridges are a fittingly modern path to the 21 century for motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike.

From Horses to WiFi: The Evolution of NYC’s Subway

From Horses to WiFi: The Evolution of NYC’s Subway

There’s no more effective method of moving millions of New Yorkers around the city on a daily basis than the NYC subway. Even though it may not always run smoothly, it’s still the best way to get from Riverdale to Rockaway and everywhere in between. A look at the evolution of our mass transit system reveals an interesting journey all it’s own.

The origins of mass transit in NYC date all the way back to 1827, when a 12 seat stagecoach called “Accommodation” ran a short route along Broadway from Battery Park to Bleecker Street. Within a few years, the New York and Harlem Railroad had taken it a step further, laying down track for horse-drawn carts that covered 27 routes in Manhattan along Third, Fourth, Sixth and Eighth Avenues.

Of course, mass transit wasn’t the subway until it went underground. The first below-surface trains in NYC were actually part of a short-lived pneumatic system built in 1870, with trains pushed along a 312-foot tunnel by fan! Of course, this wasn’t feasible for a city-spanning operation, and it wasn’t until the opening of Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) in 1904 that New York had proper subway trains suitable for true citywide travel.

IRT service expanded quickly, covering all boroughs but Staten Island within a decade, but its tracks didn’t quite reach every corner of the city. Competing systems to fill those gaps popped up in the years to follow: the privately-owned Brooklyn Rapid Transit (later known as Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit or the BMT) in 1923, and the city-run Independent Rapid Transit Railroad (IND) in 1932.

These systems, while connecting with each other at some stations, were not folded into one until 1953 under the new Transit Authority, later renamed the Metropolitan Transit Authority or MTA. MTA now stands as a catchall term for every subway line, but talk to some old New Yorkers and they’ll probably still point you towards the IRT or BMT when offering up directions. Some old habits die hard.

Two years after the merger, the once ubiquitous above-ground lines in Manhattan were gone for good, though extensive elevated tracks still cover parts of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. In fact, though the subway is probably best known as an underground phenomenon, a full 40% of the system runs on elevated tracks, reaching a height of up to 88 feet at the Smith-9th Street F and G station.

By the 1970s and 80s the system was well established but aging fast. Concerns about safety, financial instability, and a citywide population decline caused ridership to hit historic lows, and observers wondered what could be done. Graffiti covered nearly every car in the system, and outside of rush hour the subway was considered to be too dangerous and decrepit for even the typical New Yorker.

It was clear that the subway was in a crisis, but in true NYC fashion it was able to bounce back after a massive infusion of capital fixed some (but not all) of the subterranean system’s issues. Today, the subway and the city as a whole are as safe as they’ve ever been, but the MTA is still plagued by delays, overcrowding and heaps of unsatisfied riders. MTA leadership is still fumbling for an answer, and even Commissioner Joe Lhota has openly declared “it ain’t gonna be easy.” Even still, when New Yorkers need to get somewhere, more often than not the MTA will be going their way, even if the ride is slower than they might prefer.

Today’s subway system serves 472 stations over 665 miles of track on 26 different lines, a far more accommodating service than the horse-drawn carriages of centuries past. Tech advancements like WiFi and cellular service along with recently installed real-time arrival signs in every station mark our modern subway as a marvel for the 21st Century, with further improvements planned for modernizing and improving the system in the decades to come.

While it may be far from perfect, the NYC Subway has certainly come a long way. For the 1.7 billion riders swiping through the turnstiles every year, a look back shows there’s reason to be optimistic about the future.