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New York 1900-1950

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D.W. Brogan offers a panoramic view of the Big Apple's architecture, society and recent economic history.

To a legal purist, New York City as we know it today, was only three years old as the last year of the nineteenth century ran out. For it was in 1897 that “greater New York” was constituted and given a federal type of government. It was a system of five boroughs, the two old centres of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the new suburbs of Queens (on Long Island side by side with Brooklyn), Richmond on Staten Island down the Bay and the Bronx, then a vague hinterland stretching northward from the Harlem River. The municipal structure is much the same today, but Manhattan has lost its old pre-eminence; Brooklyn and the Bronx exceed it in population; some of its traditional industries are leaving it. Its inhabitants curse its noise, its dirt, its winter winds and summer dripping heat; but for them Manhattan is New York, as it is for the rest of the world. And, characteristic point, it is the only American city that boasts of being little. “Little, Old New York,” like “Dear, Dirty Dublin,” is a term of endearment that its most harassed inhabitants give it with irritated affection. And so it is with the Manhattan of 1900 that we should begin.

“England is an island”: in this phrase the great French historian, Michelet, explained all that most puzzled his fellow-countrymen in the behaviour of the English. Manhattan is an island still, though, like Britain, it is less of an island than it was. The traveller coming to Manhattan in 1900 would have found that of the two great arms of the sea and the river, the North River (the Hudson) was not bridged at all and the other, the East River, the arm of Long Island Sound running up the east side of Manhattan, was only bridged in one place— by that new wonder of the world, the Brooklyn Bridge, opened to an awe-struck public in 1883. Then, for the first time, were Manhattan and Brooklyn linked, and now tunnels and more bridges make the crossing of the frontier very easy indeed. Yet, a sign that even in America not everything changes, it is still a frontier. There are plenty of Manhattanites (or, as they would say, New Yorkers) who have never been in Brooklyn; and though most citizens of Brooklyn have been in Manhattan, it is rather in the spirit of a solid British tourist paying an obligatory visit to sinful Paris than in the easier, more uncritical way that a South Londoner crosses the Thames.

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