The Big Apple is famous worldwide for its vibrant atmosphere, towering skyscrapers, and an enviable list of tourist attractions. But there’s so much more to discover about this thrilling city!
The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. There’s no place in the world quite like New York City. Far from being just America’s largest and most culturally urban center, New York boasts some of the world’s most recognizable buildings and landmarks.
Thousands of people flock to see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building each year, but they may not always know the who, what, why, and where behind the sights and sounds of the world’s financial capital. Here are twenty historical facts for New York City to shed light on the iconic cityscape.
Photo: Kevin York
The first New Yorkers were the Lenape people, an Algonquin-speaking tribe who lived on Manna-hata Island. The arrival of European explorers Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 and Henry Hudson in 1609 transformed the Lenape lifestyle from hunting and gathering to fur trading with the European nations.
Photo: Kevin Walsh
For a teeming metropolis, New York City had humble origins. The Dutch West India Company established a small trading village called New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River in 1626. The Dutch colonial governor, Peter Minuit, bought Manna-hata Island from the Lenape people for two boxes of trade goods worth 60 guilders – equivalent in value to about $24.
Photo: Ryan DeBerardinis/Shutterstock
New York City has been a polyglot community from the beginning. Because the West India Company had trouble recruiting Dutch settlers to come to the New World, it imported workers from other European countries.
At least 18 different languages were spoken here by 1640. Today – after more waves of European immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries – New York is the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with more than 700 languages and dialects spoken.
King James II of England
New York got its name from James, the Duke of York, and the brother of England’s King Charles II. In 1661, Charles granted a vast territory in the New World to his brother. The Duke of York arrived to claim the land – which included New Amsterdam – in 1664. The last Dutch governor surrendered with a fight. James later swapped his title of Duke of York for the throne, becoming King James II of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
New York City played a key role in the events which led to the American Revolution. Delegates from nine American colonists gathered for the Stamp Act Congress in the city in October 1765. The congress protested the British Parliament’s taxation of printed documents.
Parliament repealed the Stamp Act one year later, but the colonists’ rallying cry – “No taxation without representation!” – marked one of the fractures in the relationship between the colonies and the British Empire.
George Washington’s Inauguration at Federal Hall in 1789
Before there was Washington, D.C., New York City served as the temporary capital of the new United States. In fact, the first American presidency began there. General George Washington failed in an attempt to prevent British occupation of NYC in 1776, but he had returned to a hero’s welcome in the city when the Revolutionary War ended seven years later.
Washington came back to NYC one more time – to be sworn in as the nation’s first president, from the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street on April 30, 1789.
The New York Stock Exchange traces its origins back to the Buttonwood Agreement of 1792 – a set of rules for how stocks should be traded in the United States, signed by 24 stock dealers under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street. (The famous Wall Street was named for a stockade which the Dutch colonists had built there much earlier.)
In 1853, New York City held a competition to design a public park to solve the problem of urban overcrowding. Frederick Law Olmstead, writer and architect, submitted the winning design for Central Park – a “democratic space” in which people from all social classes could enjoy bucolic clearings and wooded areas. Olmstead could not envision that Central Park would serve as the background location for some 530 feature films and countless TV shows.
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We know her as the Statue of Liberty, but her original name was much more regal: Liberty Enlightening the World. Frenchman Edouard de Laboulaye wanted to donate a colossal statue to the United States to commemorate the Declaration of Independence’s centennial in 1876.
The copper statue – designed by sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi – was crafted in France, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in pieces, and finally assembled on New York’s Liberty Island in 1886. Her familiar green patina – called verdigris – came about later as the copper reacted to oxygen in the air.
About 150,000 cars, bicycles, and trains cross the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn daily on the world’s first steel-cable suspension bridge – 140 years after its construction. New York contracted bridge innovator John Augustus Roebling to design the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867, but he did not live to see its completion, leaving the project to his son, Washington Roebling, to complete.
Trumpeted as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened to traffic in 1883, the bridge allowed Brooklyn to merge with the other four boroughs of Greater New York City in 1898.
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About 40 percent of Americans can trace their family trees back to an ancestor who passed through the immigration station at New York’s Ellis Island. Prior to 1890, about 8 million European immigrants were processed at Castle Garden in Manhattan.
When Castle Garden could no longer handle the waves of immigrants fleeing political instability in Europe, the U.S. government built a new station at Ellis Island. In 1892, Annie Moore, a teenager from Ireland, became the first of some 12 million immigrants who would enter the country through Ellis Island over the span of six decades.
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Rivalry with Chicago, Illinois prompted New Yorkers to approve a consolidation plan in 1898 which added Staten Island, the independent city of Brooklyn, portions of Queens County, and an area of Westchester County called the Bronx to Manhattan Island.
(The Bronx was named after an early Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck.) The consolidation resulted in the five boroughs we know today. boroughs are sort of like smaller cities within a city – except that these smaller cities are also counties of the state of New York.
Historians are uncertain who sold the first pizza in the United States, but they agree that it happened in Lower Manhattan. Popular legend holds that Geno Lombardi opened the first pizza place in 1905.
However, Lombardi might have taken over a pizzeria which had been started by Filippo Milone, who immigrated to New York in 1892. Whatever the case, Lombardi’s Pizza is still in business – one of more than 1,600 pizzerias in New York City today.
Photo: Tinnaporn Sathapornnanont/Shutterstock
Times Square has been known for its electrical signage and raucous New Year’s celebrations, almost from the beginning. Prior to the 1880s, the intersection of Broadway, 42nd Street, and Seventh Avenue was known as Long Acre Square, and it had a rough reputation.
The arrival of electrical streetlights and theater marquees persuaded New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs to build the iconic Times Tower there in 1904. Ochs started the tradition of lowering a glass sphere down the Times Tower flagpole to mark the New Year in 1907 – a tradition that continues today.
Photo: Nadya Kubik/Shutterstock
The Harlem district of Lower Manhattan became the epicenter of vibrant artistic expression as Black writers, musicians, and performers converged there from the 1910s to the 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance grew out of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South into Northern cities during and after World War I.
Poets like Langston Hughes drew on blues to write about the lives of the Black working class. Jazz flourished in Harlem nightclubs, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington playing there in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance brought Black artistic expression to mainstream America and has had an enduring influence on the country’s art and literature.
The Empire State Building is no longer the tallest skyscraper in the world, but it remains one of the most iconic. Inspired by the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, the 102-story, steel-framed, Art Deco structure was intended to surpass the height record of New York City’s Chrysler Building, built in 1929.
Constructed in 410 days from 1930-1931, the Empire State Building has become embedded in the popular imagination through films like King Kong (1933) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), although it ceased to be the world’s tallest building when the World Trade Center was constructed in 1970-1971.
Photo: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock
The most famous street in entertainment had its first live performance theater as early as 1735 and its first musical production, The Black Crook, in 1866. After the Civil War, touring companies began to advertise their shows as “direct from Broadway.”
Manhattan’s Theatre District enjoyed peaks of creative output in the 1920s, 40s, and 50s. Today, historic venues like the Lyceum and New Amsterdam theatres continue to stage revivals and new productions ranging from Oklahoma! to Hamilton.
New York City is called “The Big Apple” because of the popularity of horse racing there in the 1920s. Apples were awarded as prizes at the races, and sportswriter John J. Fitz Gerald popularized the nickname after he overheard New Orleans jockeys referring to New York City as “the big apple.”
New York jazz clubs adopted the moniker in the 1930s. The nickname might have faded into obscurity if not for a tourism promotional campaign launched in the 1970s by the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, which slapped “The Big Apple” on everything from T-shirts to pins, ensuring its longevity.
New York City has been home to the United Nations since 1946. The international peace-keeping body met in its first General Assembly in London in February 1946 and accepted an invitation from the U.S. Congress to establish it permanent headquarters in America.
A site committee looked at several major cities – including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California – before deciding to purchase a site in New York City from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for $8.5 million. Construction did not begin on the four UN buildings until 1949. The tallest of these – The Secretariat – stands 500 feet tall and houses the UN executive offices.
Photo: Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock
The eyes of the world were on New York City on September 11, 2001, when airline hijackers brought down the World Trade Center towers in the most lethal terrorist attack in American history. In 2003, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation held an international competition to choose a design for the 9/11 memorial.
Architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker submitted the winning entry – Reflecting Absence – which features two square-shaped pools in the footprints of the twin towers, each with a cascading waterfall in the center, surrounded by bronze parapets inscribed with the victims’ names. The National September 11 Memorial opened to the public on the tenth anniversary of the attacks in 2011. The memorial museum opened near the site in 2014.
Photo: Allen G/Shutterstock
From colonial trading post to the nation’s temporary capital, to the epicenter of musical theater and global peacekeeping – with a few engineering marvels woven into the story – New York’s past is unique among all other major cities.
Knowing the key role New York City has played in America and world history – and the stories behind some of its most famous landmarks – can make visiting the Big Apple a more rewarding experience.
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