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CITIZEN COLUMN: My favorite U.S. cities: New York City

CITIZEN COLUMN: My favorite U.S. cities: New York City

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New York City is America’s largest city with more than 8 million people divided over five districts/counties, called boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. Believe it or not, New York started out as Dutch territory. My first visit was in 1972, and I have been there approximately 30 times since.

Actually, the first Europeans were the French (1524) followed by the Spanish (1525), but the Dutch built the first lasting settlement in 1624, following on the work of Englishman Henry Hudson (1609), sailing for the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch bought Manhattan for 60 guilders ($1,000) from the indigenous Algonquin Nation (the local Lenape tribe).

The English finally did come and in 1774 established enduring English control after the Dutch-English wars, part of the Treaty of Westminster. The name was thus changed from New Amsterdam to New York, named for James Stuart, who was both the Duke of York and the English King James II.

The city became a trade and shipping center, employing a huge number of African-American slaves. In fact, by 1730, 42% of New Yorkers employed slaves, second only to Charleston, working on the docks and in the factories, not in homes.

The British made it a major base during the Revolution, once they had run off Gen. George Washington’s army. Much of the city was British Loyalist, thus also a haven for thousands of escaped slaves, later repatriated around the British Empire. It became the capital of the United States (first the Confederation) after the war’s end. President Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, in New York, and most of the early Constitutional documents were written at Federal Hall along Wall Street.

The city saw tremendous growth in the next century, expanding to more than 3 million people. Slavery was abolished in 1827. Irish and German immigrants poured in to establish important business and political control, called Tammany Hall.

By 1860, half of the city was German or Irish. The Erie Canal completion in 1825 fed growth in commerce and finance, enabling business empires to move upriver to the Great Lakes, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to America’s midwest breadbasket and recently discovered oil.

With wealth came fine mansions, culture, arts and literature. Great parks were built, including Central Park in 1857. But also, with rapid growth and wealth came social problems: civil unrest, worker riots and factory decay. The Irish were in revolt but finally made peace with the Germans and English elites, leading to Irish control of the police department and ward politics.

A subway system in 1904 helped to heal the city and to bring all classes to mingle in Manhattan. A huge Southern Black migration in the early 1900s, fleeing the excesses of a post-reconstruction South, brought racial balance and challenges to Irish supremacy, punctuated with the election of Fiorello La Guardia (Italian) in 1934 as a reformer.

Italian immigration was also huge in the first part of the 20th century, with Italians making up 17% of the city by 1930. The Italians at first gathered according to their cities of origin but are now scattered all across the boroughs. Family, food and religion held them together, and even today Columbus Day, several feasts of St. Anthony and several feasts of Our Lady are well attended and highly venerated.

Italians from Sicily and Naples, in particular, organized groups to protect from each other and the Irish, with nicknames such as the Black Hand or the White Hand, later evolving into well-organized criminal families or gangs during Prohibition. Mob families remain important today, although like in Chicago, they are now more sophisticated and probably loosely organized across the country. Mayor La Guardia was able to curtail Tammany Hall and replace it with a “new” Democratic Party.

Asian immigration was also large. New York now far outstrips San Francisco with more than 1 million Asian origin inhabitants. Hispanic immigration also has changed the demographics of the City. The current city data is 33% non-Hispanic European (about half Jewish), 29% Hispanic, 26% Black and 13% Asian. By 1940, New York was the biggest city in the western world, outpacing London. A post World War II housing boom continued to feed growth. Even so, Mexico City and many Asian cities are now larger.

Several movies and plays capture the evolving Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, Black and Asian cultures, including “The Gangs of New York,” the “Godfather” trilogy, “West Side Story,” “The Jazz Singer,” “The Chosen,” “Harlem Nights,” “Jelly’s Last Jam” and several Jackie Chan movies, although movies mostly ignore the many positives.

Since 1930, New York has surpassed Chicago with high rises and skyscrapers. Much of the city’s wealth has been driven by the ports and international finance. Fashion, publishing, accounting and legal, advertising, banking, media, insurance, retail and real estate all have major national and international corporate headquarters in New York.

Wall Street has established international influence by pooling money from all over the world into American and international investment. Wall Street and the idea of group investing in stock or bonds has enabled the building of America: our cities, our ports, our railroads, our real estate, our pleasures and our businesses. This pooling of money allowed the rise of individual business and banking tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, Charles Whitney, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Frick, Charles Schwab, Henry Ford and others.

Most of you now know I like to explore cities by foot. That is only possible in New York neighborhood by neighborhood. Some neighborhoods I have never seen, but I have walked many. Your exploration can take you to Central Harlem – don’t miss the Apollo Theatre and the world famous Bone and Joint Hospital, along the East Side and the West Side, exploring both rivers – jogging, sort of, through Central Park with lakes, hills, playgrounds and a marvelous carousel, along the harbor and Wall Street, through Soho and several other neighborhoods.

You can stop along the way at the great neighborhood restaurants for lunch or a snack. Explore the parks and many statues. Shop a little. Don’t overlook Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building or the Gracie Mansion. Visit the historic churches and synagogues. Spend some time at the Twin Towers Plaza and Memorial Museum.

Walk along Broadway, Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue, stopping at Rockefeller Center; ice skate in the winter or tour NBC studios or check out the new FAO Schwarz.

Many corporate headquarters have remarkable lobby art or plaza statues. Macy’s is fun to explore, even if not shopping. Explore the Theater District and Times Square. Spend some time at the Lincoln Center; visit the Morgan Library, the Whitney Museum and “The Frick” Art Museum. Visit the United Nations building. Visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

I have also explored the Brooklyn Prominade, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Coney Island amusement park and Brooklyn’s Jewish neighborhoods and shops (but never on Saturday – although well-traveled, I seldom have elsewhere seen Hasidic fur hats, men only, called spodak or shtreimel). I have called the working folks of Queens my friends.

My favorite New York restaurants include Tavern on the Green, Café China, Hakkasan, Mama Mia, Katz Delicatessen, Russian Tea Room, Joe’s Pizza, Oceana, the Carlyle, Double Eagle Steakhouse, Benito One, La Nonna, Da Nico, the Palm Court, the Rose Room, Le Bernardin and the Colonie.

Indeed, few cities can match the “Big Apple.” This nickname began in the 1920s, referring to the reward given to winning racehorses, formalized in the advertising logo search promoted by Mayor John Lindsay in 1971.

Dr. Stephen Imbeau and his wife Shirley moved to Florence on March 1, 1980. Arriving from Wisconsin, they were most surprised the next morning to see six inches of snow on the ground. Their three children were born and raised in Florence. Dr. Imbeau with Dr. Joseph Moyer opened the Allergy Asthma and Sinus Center in 1996, now one of the largest Allergy practices in South Carolina. You can reach him at citizencolumnist@florencenews.com.

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