New Amsterdam: A Primer

At the end of the 1600s, the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam—the forerunner of what is now New York City—was largely similar to what we see today in that it was built on commerce and that it hosted a religiously- and ethnically-diverse population. Because New Amsterdam (part of the larger colony of New Netherlands) was at the literal end of the known world, it was somewhat lawless, allowing economic activity to thrive and a mixture of different types of people to live amongst each other in relative peace.

When the Dutch sailed into what is now New York in 1624, they discovered a large natural harbor and plentiful natural resources in the area. The primary focus of the colony, like the city we know today, was commerce. The Dutch were looking to trade with the local Native Americans in exchange for manufactured goods from Europe. Commerce in New Amsterdam was centered around Fort Amsterdam, located in Lower Manhattan near where Battery Park is today. In addition to the business done in the city, it had a varied (and business oriented) population.

Starting off with a small population, the colony would have a few thousand when the English conquered 40 years later, with the colonists speaking many languages and practicing several religions. The population included people mainly from the Netherlands, but also from other European countries. In addition to this population, there were both free and slave black residents. The residents of the city also spoke many languages and practiced many faiths. While the Dutch Reformed Church was the main religion, other groups, such as Catholics, Jews, and other Christians were tolerated and allowed to practice their religions, albeit in private homes.

When the British invaded in 1664, they allowed the Dutch settlers to maintain their customs and some of their laws. The residents continued living in a very cosmopolitan settlement that endures to this day. While there are no surviving buildings from this time period, there are several Dutch-style buildings on side streets in Lower Manhattan (built in the 1800s) and some old farmhouses in Manhattan and the other boroughs. This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam Walking Tour.

Environment in New York

Being one of the largest cities in the U.S. since it was established, New York City owes its popularity to its large port. The city also benefits from the fact that it is not in an area of climate extremes (barring the occasional hurricane). However, throughout most of the city’s history, pollution and sanitation were major issues. While at one point New York was more polluted, the city has today literally and figuratively cleaned up its act.

As mentioned in a previous entry, sanitation was and is a major concern in New York, with the city creating over 10,000 tons of refuse every day. The bringing of water into town (also the subject of a previous entry) is important, as the city (or life) cannot be sustained without the billions of gallons of water that are piped into the city daily. In terms of emissions, air pollution has been on a downward trend for decades due to stringent federal, state, and local regulations, the purpose of which is supported by increasingly lower asthma rates among New Yorkers. As an added aside, a large portion of the city’s electricity comes from hydroelectric or nuclear power from facilities far outside of the city. Additionally, many structures in the city are built to be “green” to reduce pollution. Many older buildings (and famous landmarks such as the Empire State Building) are being updated with more environmentally-friendly fixtures.

Due to the low presence of heavy industry and a large reliance on public transportation, New Yorkers tend to emit a lower carbon footprint when compared to the denizens of most other American cities. This is helped by many taxicabs, city buses, and municipal vehicles (along with many environmentally conscious residents’ private vehicles) being powered by hybrid engines or low pollution vehicles. The city, under the auspices of the municipal Department of Environmental Protection, works to remediate pollution and other environmental concerns. Other areas, such as Newton Creek or Gowanus Creek (both in Brooklyn) are being returned to a more pristine state with state and federal assistance. While there are still ongoing environmental issues, New York City (despite some surface appearances) is a much cleaner city per capita compared to many across the country and world.

This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam walking tour, where guests can always experience good, clean fun.

The Race to the Top

In large clusters in Lower and Midtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City in Queens, there are skyscrapers.  The quintessential New York architectural form rises up all over the city.  A casual observer can tell the era a skyscraper was built in by its height and ornamentation.  This entry will give a basic history of the skyscraper.

The skyscraper is a perfect building for New York as it rises vertically from a sometimes small parcel of land.  It also allows a company to locate its offices together and for a landlord to rent out to many tenants to collect more rent for one building.  The invention of the safety elevator and steel in the 1800s allowed structures to rise higher than six or seven stories (what the average person can tolerate walking).  Other advances in mechanical technologies such as pumps to bring water up and sewage down, as well as more recent technologies such as solar panels and water recycling systems make the skyscraper desirable.  New York is also geologically fortunate in that there is good bedrock to anchor these massive towers into the Earth.

The first skyscrapers were built in Chicago after that city’s great fire.  The skyscraper first appeared in Lower Manhattan with many newspapers building skyscrapers along Park Row near City Hall.  Others, such as the Equitable Life Building in Lower Manhattan was one of the first to have features of being a skyscraper; the structure had elevators and a high floor count.  Many, including this building, had a Gilded Age/Beaux Arts style to them.  This structure stood from 1870 to 1912, when it burned down.  The company would build a much taller and larger building that would lead to a distinctly New York style.

The new Equitable Building was completed in 1915 and covered an entire city block, rising up to 40 stories and 538 feet.  It ended up casting a shadow over the surrounding blocks.  In response, the New York City Council passed the Zoning Ordinance of 1916, which required that skyscrapers adopt setbacks until the floor area matched 1/4 of the building’s site.  At this point, the 1/4 segment could rise as far as was feasible or profitable to build.  Many art deco-era skyscrapers in the city such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building apply setbacks in their form. This same era saw a “race to the top” where skyscraper builders competed to have the world’s tallest building.  Since the end of World War II, there has been a trend toward glassed-in International Style and contemporary-style buildings.  Many of these rise straight up as they do not occupy the entire plot of land they are on (in compliance with the 1916 law) and have windows that reflect light down onto the streets below.

Although major building of skyscrapers still continues today, the tallest buildings are now located in the Middle East and Far East, where other countries are trying to pierce the heavens with taller and taller buildings.  With this said, New York is still graced by some of the tallest buildings in the world, including 1 World Trade Center, the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.  You will be able to see skyscrapers on any Sights by Sam tour.

The Second Avenue Subway

One of the most commonly-talked about subjects among residents of a certain part of Manhattan is the Second Avenue Subway line.  First postulated in the late 1910s-early 1920s, the first section of this long-awaited line is scheduled to open by 2017.  This will not arrive a moment too soon for residents of East Harlem and the Upper East Side—where the Lexington Avenue IRT Lines carry more riders per day than the subway systems of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco combined.  The slow pace of construction has been lampooned on the show Mad Men and even is the subject of several popular blogs.

Originally conceived to be part of the city-owned IND Subway system, the Second Avenue Subway was to originally be built in the 1930s at a cost of $86 million, but halted due to the Great Depression and World War II.  After the war, the city had difficulty getting the project approved as costs continued to mount.  At the same time, elevated rail lines along Second and Third Avenues were torn down, creating the crowded conditions along the Lexington Avenue IRT Lines today.  In the 1960s and 1970s, bond issues were approved and federal funding was secured, but in 1975, the project was cancelled as the city’s financial condition deteriorated rapidly—leaving several uncompleted sections of tunnels under Manhattan.  Construction resumed in the mid 2000s, but has been beset by delays since.  As finances for the subway line have become more precarious over the years, a planned express configuration with three tracks has been reduced to two tracks up and down the entire line.

While the Second Avenue Subway is scheduled for partial completion soon, it is really anyone’s guess as to how long it will take to finish the complete line from Upper Manhattan to near the South Street Seaport.  The line continues along, constructed with a mix of cut-and-cover construction and a tunnel-boring machine (so that residents and business along Second Avenue are ideally not adversely impacted by construction).  The is the type of information that you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Manhattan Civic Center

New York has been the largest city in our country since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.  The city covers over 300 miles and has over eight million people within its borders.  Governing this city is no easy task.

In addition to an elected mayor, comptroller, and public advocate (who acts as a watchdog/ombudsman for the citizens of the city), a 51-member city council governs the city.  The council meets in a stately building located at the heart of the Manhattan Civic Center.  Built in 1811, the building was designed by Joseph-Francois Mangin and John McComb Jr..  City Hall was built at the then Northern edge of the city.  It was originally clad in marble on three sides–the northern side used another type of stone as some in the city government felt the city would never expand far enough north where people would notice (the building was restored in Alabama limestone in the 1950s).  The building is done up in a French Renaissance style on the outside.  The interior has a more English Georgian style.  The building also has a portrait collection worth millions of dollars.  The governor’s room, originally for use when the governor of New York was in the city, now houses a desk used by George Washington and a desk used by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (if you take my tours, you will know he is my favorite mayor).  The building is the meeting place for the City Council and used to have a second chamber for the Board of Estimate, which was declared unconstitutional in the 1980s.  The Board’s chambers are now used by the Mayor of New York.

Across City Hall Park from the City Hall is the Municipal Building.  This hulking edifice containing 1 million square feet of office space and housing a couple thousand workers was built to consolidate numerous city departments.  The building, opened in 1916 and designed by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White, is 580’ tall, has a subway station built into it, and arches made out of Guastavino tiling on the outside.  The building also has a statue at the top, the gold-covered Civic Fame, sculpted by Adolph Weinman, which symbolizes the union of the five boroughs in 1898.  The five pointed crown is evident of this.

The Municipal Building also contains one of the most unique gift shops in the city–the CityStore, which being run by the city, has gifts such as park signage, taxi medallions, and municipal books that are difficult to obtain elsewhere.

There are numerous court buildings in the area, but that will be the subject of another entry at another time.  You can learn about these on a Sights by Sam tour of Lower Manhattan.

Real Estate in the City

One of the great foundation myths/stories of New York is that Dutch governor Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island, a narrow, rocky island at the edge of the known world in 1625, for the equivalent of $26 of glass beads and clocks given to the Leni-Lenape tribe.  Some say the Native Americans won out on the deal as they had no concept of ownership or that the land was that of another tribe and happily walked away with their new goods.  Either way, it cemented the notion that real estate in New York is one of the most important parts of the city’s history and economy.  While this entry attempts to explain some of the history and trends with real estate in the city, it is by no means authoritative.

As the supply of land is finite and New York has been the preeminent city and entrepôt for the U.S. since the 1800s, having enough room to house people who want to and have to live in the city has been one of the most pressing issues in the city’s history.  Because of these factors, the price of housing in New York is among the highest in the country.  It is estimated that there are nearly 3.4 million units of housing in the city (ranging from single room apartments to mansions).  A 2016 survey conducted by the city showed that Queens had a vacancy rate in housing of around two percent while Manhattan had a four percent housing vacancy (the Bronx and Brooklyn fell between these two while Staten Island’s was not reported).  The supply of housing is controlled by various factors such as land use regulations and if a property may be in a historic area (as landmarked properties cannot be redeveloped).  The increasing gentrification of certain neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens has also created pressure on housing in the city as lower income individuals have a harder time finding housing.  Additionally, the arrival of many super tall residential structures in Midtown Manhattan where many units are occupied only part time by their owners has created controversy as well.

In terms of commercial real estate, the prices of commercial real estate has mirrored greater economic trends.  The firm of Prudential has shown that real estate prices (for commercial structures)  in New York have followed greater economic trends over time (rising in boom times and falling during recessions or depressions) but have continued to inch upward.  In terms of commercial real estate, the city also has to compete with other American and global cities to provide the best amenities for businesses, resulting in the building and renovating of many commercial buildings.  Although debated hotly in academic circles, some social scientists feel that a boom of commercial skyscraper construction is the sign of an impending recession or depression.

To many around the world, New York represents not only freedom, but also a safe haven—as shown in the amount of real estate holdings by individuals or corporations based outside of the city and the country.  It has been calculated that the average price per square foot in Manhattan is around $1400—with some areas of the island reaching double that amount.  Both real estate and associated construction are also an important economic generator for the city and thousands of workers.  This is the type of information that you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.