New York is the most ethnically diverse, religiously varied, commercially driven, famously congested, and, in the eyes of many, the most attractive urban centre in the country. No other city has contributed more images to the collectiveconsciousness of Americans: Wall Street means finance, Broadway is synonymous with theatre, Fifth Avenue is automatically paired with shopping, Madison Avenue means the advertising industry, Greenwich Village connotes bohemian lifestyles, Seventh Avenue signifies fashion, Tammany Hall defines machine politics, and Harlem evokes images of the Jazz Age, African Americanaspirations, and slums. The word tenement brings to mind both the miseries of urban life and the upward mobility of striving immigrant masses. New York has more Jews than Tel Aviv, more Irish than Dublin, more Italians than Naples, and more Puerto Ricans than San Juan. Its symbol is the Statue of Liberty, but the metropolis is itself an icon, the arena in which Emma Lazarus’s “tempest-tost” people of every nation are transformed into Americans—and if they remain in the city, they become New Yorkers.
For the past two centuries, New York has been the largest and wealthiest American city. More than half the people and goods that ever entered the United States came through its port, and that stream of commerce has made change a constant presence in city life. New York always meant possibility, for it was an urban centre on its way to something better, a metropolis too busy to be solicitous of those who stood in the way of progress. New York—while the most American of all the country’s cities—thus also achieved a reputation as both foreign and fearsome, a place where turmoil, arrogance, incivility, and cruelty tested the stamina of everyone who entered it. The city was inhabited by strangers, but they were, as James Fenimore Cooper explained, “essentially national in interest, position, pursuits. No one thinks of the place as belonging to a particular state but to the United States.” Once the capital of both its state and the country, New York surpassed such status to become a world city in both commerce and outlook, with the most famous skyline on earth. It also became a target for international terrorism—most notably the destruction in 2001 of the World Trade Center, which for three decades had been the most prominent symbol of the city’s global prowess. However, New York remains for its residents a conglomeration of local neighbourhoods that provide them with familiar cuisines, languages, and experiences. A city of stark contrasts and deep contradictions, New York is perhaps the most fitting representative of a diverse and powerful nation.
The city site
Sections of the granite bedrock of New York date to about 100 million years ago, but the topography of the present city is largely the product of the glacial recession that marked the end of the Wisconsin Glacial Stage about 10,000 years ago. Great erratic boulders in Manhattan’s Central Park, deep kettle depressions in Brooklyn and Queens, and the glacial moraine that remains in parts of the metropolitan area provide silent testimony to the enormous power of the ice. Glacial retreat also carved out the waterways around the city. The Hudson and East rivers, Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and Arthur Kill are, in reality, estuaries of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Hudson is tidal as far north as Troy. The approximately 600 miles (1,000 km) of New York shoreline are locked in constant combat with the ocean, as it erodes the land and adds new sediments elsewhere. Although the harbour is constantly dredged, ship channels are continually filled with river silt and are too shallow for more modern deep-sea vessels.
South of the rockbound terrain of Manhattan stretches a sheltered, deepwater anchorage offering easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1524 the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano was the first European to enter the harbour, which he named Santa Margarita, and he reported that the hills surrounding the vast expanse of New York Bay appeared to be rich in minerals; more than 90 species of precious stone and 170 of the world’s minerals have actually been found in New York. Verrazzano’s daring expedition was commemorated in 1964, when what was then the world’s longest suspension bridge was dedicated to span the Narrows at the entrance to Upper New York Bay.
Although New York state is inextricably linked with New York City in many people’s minds, the state has a wide range of geographic and climatic conditions. During at least a part of the last Ice Age, most of New York was covered by glaciers; the only exceptions were southern Long Island, Staten Island, and the far southwestern corner of the state.
The movement of the glaciers left New York with nine distinct physiographic regions. Each has its own characteristic landforms, with distinctive geologic structures and patterns of erosion. In the northeast the Adirondack upland is characterized by the highest and most rugged mountains in the state, reaching 5,344 feet (1,629 metres) at Mount Marcy and 5,114 feet (1,559 metres) at Algonquin Peak of Mount McIntyre. With the exception of some forestry activities, the region’s main economic value is for recreation. A large part of it has been designated as a wilderness preserve by the state.
The St. Lawrence Lowlands extend northeastward from Lake Ontario to the ocean along the boundary with Canada. Within this area are three subdivisions: a flat to gently rolling strip of land along the St. Lawrence River; a range of hills south and east of the plain; and, farther south and east, a long, narrow plain dotted with lakes.
The Hudson-Mohawk Lowland follows the Hudson River north from New York City to Albany and then turns west along the Mohawk River. The Hudson valley, between the Catskill Mountains on the west and the Taconic Range on the east, is from 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 km) wide; the Mohawk valley reaches widths of 30 miles (50 km). Those routes provided access from New York City and New England into the hinterland of New York. Cutting pathways through the mountains of central and western New York, these rivers became the state’s avenues of commerce, serving first as the basis of the Erie Canal and later as the route of the New York Central Railroad and of the Governor Thomas E. Dewey (New York State) Thruway.
To the east of the Hudson River lies the New England Upland, extending eastward into Massachusetts and Connecticut and southward across the lower Hudson valley into Pennsylvania.
Two small regions complete the geographic picture in southeastern New York. The Atlantic Coastal Plain, which extends from Massachusetts to Florida, takes in Long Island and Staten Island. A small finger of the eastern Piedmont region juts up from New Jersey for some distance along the west bank of the Hudson.
The Appalachian Highlands, the largest region in New York, comprises about one-half of the state, extending westward from the Hudson valley to the state’s southern and western boundaries. The Catskill Mountains (the peaks of which reach some 2,000 to 4,000 feet [600 to 1,200 metres]), the Finger Lakes Hills area, and the Delaware River basin are located in this region. The Catskills, with their mountains and lakes, are primarily a recreation area. The Finger Lakes region also provides many opportunities for summer and winter sports, and its valleys provide excellent grasslands for dairying. The Delaware basin is a mixed-farming area.
A plateaulike region known as the Erie-Ontario Lowlands lies to the north of the Appalachian Highlands and west of the Mohawk valley and extends along the southern shores of the Great Lakes. It is composed of lake plains bordering the Great Lakes that extend up to 30 miles (50 km) inland from the lakes. Because of the moderating influence of the lakes on the weather, the region has become an important fruit-growing area. Between the lake lowlands and the western reaches of the Adirondacks and north of Oneida Lake lies the Tug Hill Upland, which is one of the least-settled parts of the state because of its poor soil and drainage and its excessive winter snow conditions.
Among New York’s special geographic features are its two major shorelines: some 130 miles (210 km) bordering the Atlantic and 370 miles (600 km) on Lakes Erie and Ontario; in addition, the western shore of Lake Champlain stretches along the northeast corner of the state. The state also has some 8,000 lakes and 9 major rivers. The Hudson and Mohawk rivers have played the most important roles in the state’s history, but the Genesee and Oswego, flowing northward into Lake Ontario, also have been important. The Delaware, Susquehanna, and Allegheny drain the southern and western portions of the state and provide a large part of New York City’s water supply. The East River connects Long Island Sound with New York Bay and separates Long Island and Manhattan. The most dramatic of the waterfalls that dot the state is Niagara Falls, a source of much hydroelectric power as well as one of the major scenic attractions of the Northeast.