Law and Order in the City

The New York Police Department (NYPD) works to uphold the law in all 300+ square miles of the city.  The NYPD has 49,500 officers (additionally there are 120 equine officers and 34 canine officers) working out of 77 precincts, 12 transit divisions, and 9 public housing division districts.  The NYPD has been portrayed in countless books, movies, and television shows.  While the department has come under fire from time to time, “New York’s Finest” help to protect the city for native and visitor alike.  Eleven other city agencies and several state and federal law enforcement agencies also have a presence in the city (including the Port Authority Police officers you will see at airports, and around Port Authority property such as the World Trade Center complex and the bus station).

In the 1600s, the Dutch organized a night watch to patrol the city.  Judgment was often fierce and brutal–with banishment a particularly favored penalty.  Law enforcement remained a very informal affair until the 1840s, when the city organized a municipal police force.  For a time, there were two police forces: the municipal force and a New York State-dominated Metropolitan police force in the 1850s.  As a result of a massive riot between the two police forces and street gangs in 1857, the municipal police were disbanded and law enforcement reformed into the NYPD.  There have been ups and downs in the department’s history: Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner in the late 1800s.  Endemic corruption n the department was an issue of concern in the early 1930s and in the 1970s.  Starting in the 1990s, the NYPD has been lauded in its role in helping to make New York one of the safest large cities in the country.

The NYPD maintained a small but fascinating museum in Lower Manhattan that documented the history of the department and hosted several events—including an auto show consisting of old police cars and the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit (SWAT team) vehicles.  This museum was sadly damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and is looking to reopen in the near future.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

An Olympic Performance for New York

The Olympic games occur every four years and are not surprisingly a symbol of great prestige for the host city.  In recent years, the cost of hosting the game has attracted great scrutiny due to corruption scandals in international athletic federations and the willingness of authoritarian regimes to spend money on sporting mega events with little to no public accountability.  In the U.S., Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Lake Placid, NY, and St. Louis have all hosted the games.  Denver turned down the offer of the games after taxpayers in Colorado turned down a tax increase while Chicago failed in its bid to get the 2016 Olympic Games.  New York also failed to get the Olympics in 2012, but the ramifications of the failed bid are still felt in the city today—and not in a negative way.

For the 2012 bid, the initial plan was to have the Olympic Stadium on the West Side over the Penn Station rail yards—to be turned over to the New York Jets NFL team after the games (and to be used as the site for several Super Bowls).  When this failed to get approval, the city decided to move the stadium to Queens—on the site of where Citi Field is now.  The Olympic Village was to be constructed in Queens as well.  Several areas such as Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and the Javits Convention Center were to be used as well.  Bids were submitted in 2003 to the International Olympic Committee.  New York ended up placing third on the list of Olympic finalists—ultimately losing to London in 2005.  Opposition to the original Olympic stadium location was led by the owners of Madison Square Garden, who feared that a new stadium would take away from their venue.  It was argued by opponents of the bid that the games would have brought greater traffic and worries about terrorism in one of the most crowded cities in the world already.

The city reaped several intangible and tangible benefits from its abortive bid to host the games—an extension of the 7 Line, the development of millions of square feet of commercial and retail space in the Hudson Yards complex, and new residential space in Queens.  Additionally, a massive rezoning of the city in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan that was approved at the same time helped to develop derelict areas.  While this is commendable in working to house new residents and help the tax coffers of the city, longtime residents of some of the areas have been priced out of their neighborhoods.  The Olympic games may yet be hosted in New York as there is talk that the state government is exploring a bid for a future games.  Already an international city as the headquarters of the United Nations and with people from every corner of the world, the Olympics may bring even greater prestige to the city—or more traffic depending on the opinions of some.

While hosting an Olympic event can bring great prestige to a city (and also great challenges), it has been argued that New York’s failed bid helped to bring improvements to the city.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Graffiti in NY: Art or Vandalism?

Graffiti and street art in New York is a controversial subject among many.  Graffiti is unsanctioned by a government or property owner.  Some graffiti is associated with gang and criminal culture, creating law and order issues.  While some see it as expressing their freedom of speech, others see it as willful vandalism of private (and sometimes public) property.  Before you pick up that spray can, unauthorized painting of a building or other piece of property is a violation of NYC law § 10-117, punishable by fines into the hundreds of dollars if caught..

Graffiti has existed since the days of ancient civilization.  It has often carried a political message, but also can be of a more personal nature, with taggers painting their name or a “tag” in a public area.  It is believed that Philadelphia was the birthplace of the modern graffiti movement  (which has led that city to have one of the largest graffiti abatement/public mural programs in the world).  The center of graffiti in the U.S. shifted to New York by the 1970s.  With declining municipal resources to go after graffiti artists and deferred maintenance, graffiti exploded all over the city and into every borough, especially in the Bronx, Upper Manhattan, and some neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side and Manhattan Chinatown.  Many graffiti painters worked alone, but some worked in groups called crews. It became a frequent source of pride to have a graffiti’ed piece somewhere high up (a water tower for example), on a landmark, or for a crew that could paint the most intricate piece in the shortest amount of time.

Perhaps the most endemic example of graffiti in the city were subways that were covered in paint by taggers and artists from the 1970s through the late 1980s.  As with other areas of the city, deferred maintenance and a lack of funds led to many subway trains becoming covered in graffiti—many trains were single pieces of art done by a crew.  While many of the artists thought that this allowed for their art to be seen throughout the city, others saw it as a visible symbol of the city’s decline and a growing sense of lawlessness (accompanied by a rise in crime in the subway system).  By the end of the 1980s, a concerted effort by the city government and the MTA led to all graffiti’ed cars being pulled from service, repainted a deep red (the classic “redbird” paint job that was harder for spray paint to adhere to), or put through a chemical wash in Coney Island (called the “orange crush” by graffiti artists).  While there is still graffiti in the city, it has not approached the nearly endemic levels that it once did.

In the contemporary era, many famous artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat originally painted graffiti murals before gaining fame.  The British artist Banksy is a continuation of this trend and painted several pieces on the streets of New York in October 2013 (many of which in turn were vandalized by local taggers).  Those looking for graffiti should head for areas such as the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and Bushwick, which are three of the more recognized sites in the city for graffiti and sanctioned street art—but graffiti can be found in all parts of the city today.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour, in addition to probably seeing some graffiti during your stay.

Professional Baseball in the City

The American Pastime has always been well represented in New York City.  The game was invented by Alexander Cartwright in the 1840s.  Cartwright’s team, the New York Knickerbockers, were even believed to be the first team to wear uniforms.  Teams from the city have been represented in the National League (1876), the American League (1901), and the two attempted competitors to the Major Leagues—the Federal League in the 1910s and the Continental League in the 1960s.  Major League Baseball’s headquarters is located on Park Avenue in Midtown while the Hall of Fame is only a four-hour drive away in Cooperstown.

In terms of the two main major leagues, New York used to be a National League stronghold.  The city had two teams: the New York Giants (who played at the Polo Grounds in Washington Heights) and the Brooklyn Dodgers (who would be most remembered for playing at Ebbets Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn).  The Giants were one of the most dominant teams in the game early in its history, while the Dodgers were not so dominant in their early history, but came to personify the Borough of Brooklyn through their hard style of play, fiercely loyal fans, and the first team in the modern era to have African-American and Latino players.  Changing population patterns and market realities would lead the Giants to relocate to San Francisco and the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958.  The absence of a National League team would lead (after abortive attempts to bring the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Philadelphia Phillies to the city) to businessmen led by William Shea trying to form a third major league (the Continental League) to bring a second team to the city.  Major League Baseball, wanting to protect its hold on professional baseball, gave the city the New York Mets as an expansion team (you can see where Shea Stadium’s name came from now).  The Mets have often been the also-rans in their history, but have had several memorable seasons, including in 1969, 1986, and in 2015.   The Mets now play at the new Citi Field in Flushing, Queens. The Mets have an A-level minor league team in Brooklyn, the Cyclones, who play at a stadium in Coney Island, and a AA-level team in Binghampton.

The American League team of the city has been the New York Yankees.  Relocated from Baltimore in 1903 and originally called the Highlanders (because they played at Hilltop Park in Upper Manhattan), the team changed its name to the Yankees in 1913 when they moved to the Polo Grounds.  After nearly 10 years, the Yankees had outdrawn the Giants in their own stadium and were evicted.  The owners of the Yankees built Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, directly across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds in the Bronx.  The Yankees were the team of Babe Ruth, one of the first superstars of the sport.  Through astute management and cultivation of talent (and what detractors would argue as underhanded tactics and buying out the best players from other teams), the Yankees have managed to build on a winning legacy, winning 27 World Series, 40 American League Pennants, and being in the postseason at least once in every decade since the 1920s.  The Yankees play at a new Yankee Stadium that was built across the street from the old park.  The Yankees have an A-level team, the Staten Island Yankees, that play near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in the St. George neighborhood, as well as their AAA-level team near Scranton,PA, and their AA-level affiliate in Trenton, NJ.

New York has been host to several “Subway Series” World Series, most recently in 1999, but also throughout the 1950s.  Recent studies have shown that despite the increasing popularity of basketball and football, baseball still remains the most popular sport in the city (one of the few regions of the country where this is true).  Given that every borough except for Manhattan has a major or minor league team, the game remains very accessible to the general population.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Water Water Everywhere

On a hot day, it becomes apparent that water, needed to sustain all life, is essential for any city to function.  New York is no different.  Every day, the city consumes 1.1 billion gallons of water.  For the great city to survive, water is needed.  It should be noted that most of the water is not consumed by people or animals, but used for food preparation, cleaning, industry, or by home appliances (such as washing machines, toilets, and baths/showers).

From Native American settlement to the early antebellum eras, people depended on water from wells, freshwater lakes (the Collect Pond), or freshwater streams (Minetta Creek).  When industries in the city expanded, mills needed water to run turbines and breweries and tanneries needed water for industrial purposes, contaminating the Collect Pond and other freshwater sources.  The development of the city also caused streams such as Minetta Creek to be built over.  With the nearby rivers undrinkable because they are estuarine (salt and freshwater mix) and with the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery, water needed to be found.  Many citizens dug their own wells, paid water vendors who trucked in water from other areas (at an exorbitant cost), or drank beer (which is fermented and cleaner compared to normal water back then).  Something had to be done as the city kept growing.

In 1842, the Croton Reservoir opened at the current location of the New York Public Library’s Main Building in Midtown.  This structure was in use between 1842 and 1899 and held 20 million gallons that entered the city using a gravity-fed aqueduct system from Westchester County, NY.  Access to a reliable water supply also led to Brooklyn joining New York City in 1898 as the City of Brooklyn’s aquifers became contaminated and undrinkable.  With the city still growing, a more permanent solution was found—three water tunnels were completed in 1917, 1936, and the third one (a supporting actor in the 1995 film Die Hard With a Vengeance) is to be completed some time in the 2020s.  The water comes from reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains and is drawn to the city by gravity for hundreds of miles before being disinfected and entering the city’s general water supply.  In order to help maintain the supply of water, a city ordinance mandates that all buildings over six stories have wooden water tanks (so as not to taint the water).  These tanks can often hold 10,000 gallons and are often hidden in skyscrapers and tall buildings (such as the spires on the San Remo residences in the Upper West Side).  Until very recently, the reservoir in Central Park served as a back up water supply in case of an issue with the city’s water.

Water quality is maintained via testing sites at the reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains, the city’s water treatment plants, and along the water pipes themselves (those are the gray/silver boxes that say “NYC WATER” on them).  In order to keep the city hydrated, the city government has invested billions of dollars to upgrade water infrastructure and stop leaky pipes and incentivize more efficient fixtures.  In the meantime, natives and visitors enjoy what is widely considered to be the finest tap water for a major city in the U.S.—if not the world (some people feel this is why the bagels, pizza, and doughnuts taste better in New York when compared to other cities).  The next time you drink a glass of tap water, think of the journey the water has made and the role it has in keeping the city and its people alive.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Fiorello LaGuardia: Mayor for the Ages

Fiorello H. LaGuardia stood at only 5’2”, but still casts a shadow over New York today.  His nonstop boosterism for his hometown and his unyielding tenacity helped the city weather the Great Depression better than most.  LaGuardia will be long remembered as one of the greatest, if not the most colorful mayor the city has seen.

LaGuardia was born in Greenwich Village in 1882.  With his father being in the army, he moved around when he was young—first to Arizona and then to Florida before settling in Trieste, Italy, for a time.  He worked for the U.S. State Department before returning to New York to earn a law degree, supporting himself by working at the U.S. immigration station at Ellis Island.

Entering politics, LaGuardia was an anomaly: a half-Jewish Italian Episcopal Republican.  He once joked that he was a balanced ticket all by himself.  LaGuardia served in Congress in two non-consecutive stints—broken up when he volunteered for service in World War I in the Army Air Corps.  In Congress, LaGuardia amassed a liberal record, speaking out against prohibition and allied with progressives of both parties.

After being defeated for reelection to Congress in 1932, LaGuardia ran for mayor of New York in 1933 (city elections are held in off years).  He was able to win the election as a Republican in one of the most heavily Democratic cities in the country due to ongoing corruption scandals within the Tammany Hall machine and the fact that there was more than one Democrat running in the election.

The time to celebrate the victory was short lived as New York was suffering through the Great Depression.  LaGuardia worked tirelessly to help direct federal relief funds to the city.  In no small part due to fellow New Yorker Franklin Delano Roosevelt being president, New York was lavished with funds during the Depression, which allowed new infrastructure to be built and existing civic amenities repaired.  LaGuardia also revolutionized the way mayors did business by appealing directly to the federal government for aid (previously, state governments had to make the appeal), traveling by airplane, and communicating with constituents on radio (LaGuardia’s Sunday radio show on WNYC drew over 2 million listeners at its height).  He was also known for riding fire engines to fires in progress, leading marching bands in parades, and declaring a war on organized crime in the city.

LaGuardia had a great national profile as well.  In the lead-up to World War II, he was named by President Roosevelt as the chief civil defense coordinator for the country.  While he tried to do this responsibility along with being the mayor, it was impossible to do both jobs and he resigned his federal post once the U.S. entered the war.  LaGuardia was an outspoken opponent of Nazi Germany and their anti-semitic policies.  LaGuardia’s sister would be imprisoned by the Nazis in a concentration camp during the war, adding to his reasons for opposing the Nazi regime.

After declining to run for a 4th term for mayor in 1945, LaGuardia stepped down.  He briefly served as a director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for a short time.  He also had a syndicated newspaper column, working hard until he died of pancreatic cancer in 1947.  His presence is still felt in the city—from the airport named after him to the parks, roadways, and numerous other pieces of infrastructure created during his mayoralty.  The “Little Flower” as he was called, exemplified the colorful city he so loved.  Facts about LaGuardia and places associated with his life will be shown on Sights by Sam tours.

Act of Consolidation

Although there are larger cities in terms of area in the U.S. than New York (Jacksonville, Florida, covers more area), and there are other cities around the world that have more inhabitants, New York remains the largest city in population in the U.S. and still covers a large area (at over 300 square miles).  The current boundaries of New York date back to 1898.  The ramifications of this merger (called the Act of Consolidation) are still felt today.

New York eclipsed Philadelphia as the largest city in the U.S. by the time of the first census.  As New York grew, the neighboring cities also increased in population.  This was most notable in Brooklyn, which would eventually become the country’s fourth largest city.  As the population of the region increased, it was becoming apparent that one city government would function in a more efficient manner.  After the Civil War, Brooklyn and New York had combined fire and police departments.  The addition of the Brooklyn Bridge also helped to draw the two cities together even more.

Much of the opposition to consolidation came from Brooklyn politicians, who naturally feared their loss of control in the new city.  Their protests were drowned out by citizens in Brooklyn, who were upset about corruption scandals in the City of Brooklyn and that the municipality was having trouble finding clean water—while New York had a reliable source of fresh water piped in from the Catskill Mountains.

In 1896 the State of New York approved a consolidation of the City of New York (which included Manhattan and the Bronx), the City of Brooklyn, Richmond County (Staten Island), and Queens County.  Areas of Queens County rejected the consolidation and split off (with state approval) to become Nassau County.  The Bronx would be spun off into its own borough before World War I.  Under a new city charter, the city council would acknowledge the roles of the separate boroughs with an upper house called the Board of Estimate, which included the mayor, city council president, comptroller, and the five borough presidents.  This chamber was declared unconstitutional in the 1980s and abolished.

While some say that the Act of Consolidation marked a great decline for many years for Brooklyn (the city lost its professional baseball team and independent newspapers in the ensuing years) and Staten Island (which has unsuccessfully tried to separate from the city several times due to a perceived indifference from the city government), it has been argued that the consolidation was beneficial as it helped to streamline government throughout the region and helped to develop the metropolis into what it is today.  Information such as this is explained on every Sights by Sam tour.

What’s in a Name: A Brief History of the Borough Names

Traversing through New York City, named after King Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York, many new arrivals and some long time residents have wondered why the boroughs have their names.  This short guide should explain why the boroughs are called what they are:


The origins of the name are not agreed upon.  The name Manhattan could be a Dutch corruption of a Lenape or Munsee word for “Place of Many Hills”, “Place Where One Gathers Bows,” or the oft-quoted “Place of General Inebriation.”


Brooklyn is named after Breukelen, a Dutch village.  Various sources say this further translates into “the Broken Land.”


This borough was named for Queen Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II, who was the sovereign when the English took what became New York from the Dutch.


This area was named after Jonas Bronck, a Scandinavian settler (who was believed to be Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian, depending on who you ask) who was a major landholder in the area in the 1600s.

Staten Island

Staten Island was named by Henry Hudson for the Staten Generaal, then the name of the Parliament for the Netherlands.  In 1683, the island was reorganized into Richmond County, named after the Duke of Richmond, illegitimate son of King Charles II.

The naming of the city itself and the outer boroughs follows a consistent pattern with the Age of Discovery in naming areas after important people or landowners (this pattern is repeated all across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), or as a linguistic corruption of already existing local names (which was common at one point in India and is still common in many New York neighborhoods).  Another entry regarding some of the neighborhood names will come at another time.  You are able to learn this and other history like it on a Sights by Sam tour.

Staten Island: Forgotten New York?

As you learned in a previous entry, Staten Island was named for the parliament of the Netherlands.  The population of the borough stands at under 500,000 and is about 60 square miles.  Despite being part of the city, the island can sometimes seem like a world apart from the rest of the hustle-and-bustle of the city.

Staten Island was discovered in 1524 by Giovanna da Verrazano (for whom the bridge linking Brooklyn and the island was partially named).  The island was lightly settled by the Dutch.  A wave of more settlers came to the island under the British, who incorporated it into the Province of New York and named it Richmond County (for the noble title of one of King Charles II’s sons).  The island was the site of a failed negotiation between British General Howe and several Continental Congressmen at the Conference House in 1776.  A peace settlement in exchange for withdrawing the Declaration of Independence failed, leading to the British invasion of New York.  The island was consolidated in 1898 with the other four boroughs to form present-day New York City.  The borough was also linked to New Jersey by three bridges (Bayonne Bridge, Outerbridge Crossing, and the Goethals Bridge) and to Brooklyn (the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) in the 20th Century.

While a part of the city, Staten Island residents have not always seen eye-to-eye with the rest of the city.  Some residents feel neglected by the local government—with this having to do with political differences, a much smaller population on the island, and the siting of a large garbage dump on the island between 1947 and 2001.  Additionally, residents have expressed opposition to the lack of zoning restrictions on the island (which the city government hopes will encourage development on the island while some residents believe this will destroy the low-rise character of the area).  A secession vote passed in the 1980s, but was not approved by the State of New York.  Despite this checkered past, Staten Island is very much a part of the city.

During your visit to New York, consider taking in some sights on the island such as the Tibetan Art Museum, Conference House, Old Richmond Town, or a game at the Staten Island Yankees’ home stadium.  At the very least, the Staten Island Ferry is the best bargain in town—it’s free and riders are able to take in New York Harbor at a relaxing pace.  In time, Sights by Sam hopes to be able to add Staten Island to its array of tour destinations.  In the meantime, this is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.