New York: Biography of a City


There’s no place in the world quite like New York City.  From Broadway to Wall Street, Little Italy to Central Park, New York has a history and an energy all its own.  Join Active Minds as we virtually visit one of the world’s most important cities.  We’ll explore the city’s past and present, as well as the important people and places that have shaped this unique city.

Key Lecture Points

  • Long the most populous city in the US, New York City is a hub of American economic, financial, political and cultural history.  Located generally in a sheltered harbor where the Hudson River meets the Atlantic Ocean, New York is ideally located for trade and enterprise.
  • Once occupied by tribes of the Delaware Native American population, the area that is today New York City was first sited by Europeans in 1524 but not settled formally for another century when the Dutch established the colony of New Amsterdam in 1624.  In 1664, rival English forces took the promising colony by force and re-named it for the Duke of York.
  • English colonization (and continued Dutch commerce) brought to New York a bustling plantation economy (and the slave population associated with it) as well as a burgeoning trade in colonial goods (and the piracy associated with it).  By the mid 1700s, 20% of the colony were slaves.
  • During the American Revolution, the strategically located New York was swiftly occupied by British forces in 1776 and became a hotbed for Revolutionary spy activity, including Nathan Hale.  After victory, the American Commander George Washington re-occupied New York in 1783.  It would be the Capital of the fledgling United States from 1789-1790.
  • While not the seat of government, New York would come to be the hub of American trade and enterprise in the 19th Century.  By 1860, New York was exporting $150 million in goods per year, more than any other American port (New Orleans was second at about $110 million).  The bustling economy made New York the destination for millions of immigrants, predominantly from Europe.  Beginning in 1892, those immigrants would first land at the Federal facility at Ellis Island.  Immigrant populations in New York would struggle in impoverished enclaves of the city, but would also give New York much of its international flair.  Additionally, waves of African Americans would pour into the city seeking opportunity, bringing with them a culture that influences the city.
  • After WWII, New York would be the beneficiary of the United States’ unique position as the sole standing democratic industrial economy.  By 1950, 135 of the 500 largest corporations in the US were based in New York, including GE, US Steel and IBM.  Solidifying New York’s status as an international city was the placement of the United Nations headquarters in the city in 1952.
  • 2016 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center.  The attacks remain fresh in many people’s minds, as does the challenge of how to memorialize such a tragic event.  Two reflecting pools were approved upon the sites of the footprints of the former buildings, along with gardens and walking paths.  The 9/11 memorial was completed in 2011.  The 1,776 foot Freedom Tower was completed in 2013.

Exploration Questions

  • How will New York handle the ongoing legacy of 9/11?
  • Do you think that cities should manage their resources to support economic and racial diversity?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Reflective Questions

  • What portion of New York’s past and present most intrigue you and why?
  • Do you think that New York’s past and present is an accurate measuring stick for understanding the rest of the nation.

More to Explore

  • Photos of building of Freedom Tower and 9/11 Memorial Click here
  • Gentrification in New York Click here
  • Maps of New York's changes over time Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Cronon, William Changes in the Land.  Hill and Wang, 2003. 288 pages. Tells the story of the relationship between white settlers, Indians, and natural resources when European settlers arrived in New York and New England.
    Click here to order
  • Peiss, Cheap Amusements.  Temple University Press, 1986. 244 pages. A great book about how working class women in New York around 1900 engaged the new leisure opportunities in the city.
    Click here to order
  • Rosenzweig, Roy.  The Park and the People.  Cornell University Press, 1998. 640 pages. A social, political, and environmental history of New York’s Central Park.
    Click here to order