Like other great metropolises, New York seems prone to crises. A full list of them, ranging across the city’s four-century history, would require a thick tome and make one wonder how a city beset by such horrors could survive, much less thrive.
Defining a crisis, though, is subjective. Some, like 9/11 or the Covid-19 pandemic, clearly fit the bill. But what about the Great Garbage Strike of 1968, when 7,000 sanitation workers refused to collect trash for nine days? Or the summer of 1977, which included an infamous blackout, followed by rioting and looting—while serial killer David Berkowitz (a.k.a. Son of Sam) terrorized the city?
To simplify, I’ll restrict the definition of crisis to a few key categories: epidemics; invasions, revolts, and terrorism; conflagrations; riots; and financial or economic meltdowns. I’ll ignore events such as hurricanes, heat waves, worker strikes, blackouts, vandalism, and even serial killers, phenomena that tend to be isolated in their effects. And I’ll overlook long-term economic, social, and political issues like crime, governmental insolvency, foreign wars, or significant economic restructurings, which can be enormously influential but usually over longer periods, and which don’t normally correspond to our understanding of “crisis.”
If, using this framework, we add up the crises over nearly four centuries, we get about 140 in all, with an average of one every three years, or slightly more often than presidential elections. In a sheer statistical sense, New York City’s worst period was the half-century between 1830 and 1880, a time of major economic and social upheaval.
Today, the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging the city. It has fundamentally altered New Yorkers’ way of life, and we still have a way to go before it is vanquished. While pandemics might seem a rare shock, until about 1900, they were a regular part of city life. From 1791 to about 1893, New York experienced at least 27 of them.
The typical baseline mortality rate in New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century was between 25 and 30 deaths per 1,000 residents each year, but epidemics were constantly pushing the city above that rate. One of the worst years was 1849, when more than 5,000 people died of cholera, and the mortality rate spiked to 60 deaths per 1,000 residents. By comparison, in pre-pandemic 2019, the rate was 6.3 per 1,000 residents. The mortality rate for 2020 was about 9.8 per 1,000—57 percent above normal, due to Covid-19, but far below the mid-nineteenth-century rate.
One recurring health threat was typhus, spread through ticks and fleas. A report from 1866 chronicles the tragedies that it caused:
A man residing in the Eleventh Ward was sick with typhus fever, and died; a few days subsequently a daughter of the deceased, residing in the Seventeenth Ward, having visited her father while he was sick, was attacked by the same fever, and died. At the same time another daughter, whose residence was in Brooklyn, become ill with the fever she had contracted in her father’s sick-room, and she died; another sister residing in Avenue A, contracted the same fever while visiting the father and sisters when sick. Another relative, whose residence was in Sixteenth Street, also a son and another daughter of the first deceased patient, residing in Eleventh Street, were attacked with the same fever in consequence of their visits to the sick-rooms of the first and the second of the patients here mentioned.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, epidemics have thankfully become both less frequent and less severe. Still, the 1916 polio, the 1918 Spanish flu, the 1980s AIDS epidemic, and, of course, Covid-19 are grim reminders of the threats that microorganisms pose.
Since 1641, New York has experienced at least 20 events that can be classified as invasions, revolts, or acts of terrorism. The 9/11 attacks come immediately to mind, but during the colonial period, horrible violent events were not uncommon. The initial settlement of Manhattan was relatively peaceful, as Peter Minuit, in 1626, negotiated a treaty with the Lenape to settle on Manhattan Island. But in 1641, the little village on the Hudson almost came to a bloody end. The colony’s governor, William Kieft, drove the residents, contrary to their wishes, into a war against the natives. As the Dutch settlers expanded their agricultural footprints, tensions over land began to rise. In the summer of 1641, scattered Indian raids on outlying Dutch farms caused Kieft to overreact—he ordered 120 Indian men, women, and children killed while they slept in their encampment on Staten Island. The Indians retaliated by destroying villages and farms throughout the wider colony, while New Amsterdam became crowded with refugees. The Dutch West India Company appointed Peter Stuyvesant as Kieft’s replacement. He successfully managed New Netherland until 1664, when the British invaded and grabbed possession of the territory.
Like most colonies, New York depended on slaves, who from time to time revolted against their bondage. In the wee hours of April 7, 1712, the house of Peter Van Tilburgh, located on Maiden Lane near Broadway, went up in flames. This was a signal for a slave uprising. When the awakened residents ran toward the burning building, a band of slaves greeted them with knives and guns. As the melee grew, the governor called in soldiers from the fort, who fired on the slaves, driving them to scatter into the woods and swamps north of the city. In the end, 27 slaves were caught, and 21 were executed.
The city’s next invasion was by British soldiers, who took over New York at the start of the Revolutionary War and occupied the city for seven years. After the war ended and the United States was officially recognized as an independent nation, New York was spared external invasions (though British forces torched Washington during the War of 1812). Terrorism, however, remained a constant threat.
Arguably the worst decade was the 1970s, a period rife with terrorist activity. For example, on March 6, 1970, a member of the Weather Underground, a radical-left militant group, killed three of her comrades when a bomb accidentally detonated in her Greenwich Village apartment. The group had been planning to protest the Vietnam War. On January 24, 1975, a bomb planted in Fraunces Tavern killed four people and injured more than 50 others; the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN took responsibility. Later that year, on December 30, a bomb exploded in a La Guardia airport baggage carousel, killing 14 and injuring 70. The case was never solved.
The following year, on September 11, 1976, terrorists hijacked a jet plane heading out of La Guardia to Chicago. When the plane landed at Montreal’s Mirabel airport, the hijackers forced the pilot to transmit the message that a bomb was sitting in a locker near Grand Central Terminal. Police found it, along with letters from a group called the Fighters for Free Croatia. The bomb was brought to an explosives range in the Bronx but killed an officer when detonated.
On August 4, 1977, a New York Times headline ran, “100,000 Leave New York Offices as Bomb Threats Disrupt City. Blasts Kill One and Hurt Seven”; FALN again claimed responsibility. On March 25, 1979, a suitcase exploded at the TWA terminal at Kennedy airport, and about two hours later, two bombs exploded in Union City, New Jersey; an anti–Fidel Castro terrorist group set off all three explosives.
Fear of mass fire was ever present until the early twentieth century. Perhaps the first massive conflagration to hit New York City occurred at the start of the British occupation during the Revolutionary War. Those sympathetic to the revolutionary cause fled the city and left all their possessions, while loyalists arrived seeking refuge. Soon after, the British found themselves watching the city burn. On September 21, 1776, a fire broke out near Whitehall Slip and proceeded to spread up Broadway and Broad Street, destroying buildings as far north as Saint Paul’s Church. The origin of the fire has been attributed to revolutionaries, though the claim has never been proved. A second conflagration occurred in 1778. Much of the city would remain as char and rubble until the war ended.
After that, major fires took place, on average, about once per decade. Arguably, the worst two were in 1835 and 1845. But thanks to the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842, advances in building technology, and fire protection services, such conflagrations appear a thing of the past.
Since 1788, New York has had at least 32 eruptions that can be categorized as riots, an average of one every seven years. The deadliest in the city’s history—in fact, in American history—were the Draft Riots of 1863, with at least 120 people killed and many more injured.
Urban riots were a common, if disturbing, part of urban life before the twentieth century. In 1849, for instance, the so-called Astor Place Riot exploded. As one chronicler put it: “Probably there never was a great and bloody riot, moving a city to its profound depths, that originated in so absurd, insignificant a cause.”
It began with a rivalry between two well-known actors: Edwin Forrest of New York and William McCready of London. Forrest had performed in London and was publicly hissed by McCready. McCready then decided to put on Macbeth in New York at the Astor Place Opera House (at East Eighth and Lafayette Streets). Forrest inspired an interest in Shakespeare among the rough and rowdy men of the Bowery.
During the show, Forrest supporters started to become hostile. McCready fled in fear, and the crowd went home. But a few days later, McCready put on another show. Despite precautions, some would-be rioters still managed to get tickets. When the police ejected them, they ran wild into the streets. A National Guard regiment marched up Broadway to meet them. The rioters began throwing stones at the soldiers, who then fired on them, which served only to antagonize the mob. After three volleys, the crowd finally dispersed, with about 25 people killed and 120 wounded.
From 1776 to the present, New York City has suffered through at least 41 economic crises or downturns, for an average of one every six years. The Great Depression and the Great Recession of 2007–09 are well known. Other crises, less remembered today, were devastating in their time, such as President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 and the downturn of 1969–70, which ushered in a decade-long wave of unemployment and population loss, with more than 600,000 jobs disappearing.
The ups and downs of the business cycle remain an inevitable aspect of economic life. Rapid economic growth and meteoric rises in stock prices do not last forever. Some recessions are quick and mild; others are long and painful. Thanks to advances in monetary and fiscal policies, depressions have morphed into recessions, but in an earlier time, depressions were common.
The Panic of 1873, for example, generated a downturn that, until the 1930s, was known as the Great Depression. The panic followed a period of euphoria and free-flowing money in American financial circles and brought a wave of bank failures and credit crises. The panic itself lasted only a few weeks, but the economic decline it initiated lasted for 65 grueling months.
It was one of the first tests of confidence for the newly emerging Wall Street. As historian Thomas Kessner puts it: “Wall Street, venerated during the seven fat years as the awesome geyser of new business and gushing prosperity, was now denounced as a place riddled with deception and duplicity.” All aspects of New York’s economy were hard-hit, not just finance. Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson writes:
Between 1873 and 1877, as many smaller factories and workshops shuttered their doors, tens of thousands of workers—many former Civil War soldiers—became transients. The terms “tramp” and “bum,” both indirect references to former soldiers, became commonplace American terms. Relief rolls exploded in major cities, with 25-percent unemployment (100,000 workers) in New York City alone.
Workers’ wages also tumbled. In 1873, the daily rate for construction craftsmen was $5–$8 per eight-hour shift. By 1876, it was $2 per ten-hour shift.
New York’s Dynamism Will Triumph
On March 1, 2020, the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the New York City metropolitan region; soon after, the city was the epicenter of the pandemic. By the third week of March, Governor Andrew Cuomo had implemented policies aimed at stopping the spread. Businesses and schools were closed, and residents had to “shelter in place.” The initial reactions in New York were blame and fear. Blame: the city was responsible for the spreading of the virus; its density—long hailed as a boon for humanity—was now the source of its ruin. Fear: all that we cherished would be lost.
But the success or failure of big cities depends on how well they balance two opposing forces. All cities exist somewhere between the centripetal forces that pull us together and the centrifugal forces that push us apart. It’s in the interstices, one might say, between the costs and benefits of urban living that our cities operate. When the centrifugal forces are relatively strong, the city begins to decline; when the opposite is true, the city grows.
Among the centripetal forces are those that we cherish about urban living: cities are hubs for jobs, new ideas, and cultural and social vitality. The urban center holds because businesses cluster—they learn from one another, share resources, reduce their costs, and become more competitive. Firms with national or international ambitions find themselves gravitating to big cities, if only for the status it brings.
While smaller cities may have charm and some unique offerings, larger, global cities can do things that smaller ones cannot, such as attracting the finest talent and providing a more diverse array of services. In this way, large cities are a kind of self-perpetuating machine: jobs fuel income, income fuels spending, spending fuels jobs, and so on. This is the fundamental logic of why large cities endure.
If cities were all gain and no pain, each nation would need only one place for nearly its entire population. But this is not the case—centrifugal forces check urban growth. The Covid-19 outbreak is an obvious example. More broadly, the hurly-burly of urban life—from factors including pollution, congestion, crime, and expensive and cramped housing—takes a toll. These forces push some people out and stop others from moving in. Then there’s city competition. At any one time, some cities are looking for workers at a faster rate than others, and people are drawn to them as a result. Technological and historical changes can also render certain cities’ strengths obsolete; rising cities, with new advantages, take their place.
Amid the current crisis, if we take a step back and look at the positive and negative forces that have come to operate in New York, the city’s history offers encouragement.
New York City in 2019, for example, was a very different place from what it had been over half a century ago, when it began hemorrhaging jobs. Between 1960 and 1980, New York lost nearly half a million manufacturing positions; during the 1970s, its population shrank by 10 percent. New York seemed to be on a similar path as Detroit and other manufacturing cities. But after a generation of restructuring, New York saw a renaissance. It reinvented itself as a global services city, ideally suited to meet the needs of a high-tech, knowledge-based twenty-first-century world.
The forces that made New York so successful have never really gone away. New York’s centrality in the global network of cities has deepened as the world has become more interconnected. For a few decades, the negative centrifugal forces were giving the city serious trouble, and it would have taken a true visionary to see a bright future in 1975, but the positive seeds were there; they were just obscured from view.
To be sure, many people who have adapted to working at home during the pandemic will continue to do so, perhaps for the rest of their working lives. But those starting college this summer will likely think little of social distancing at work when they begin their careers in four or five years—just as today’s millennials know little about the crime that plagued the city before the 1990s. Those residents whom the crisis chases off will be replaced by those seeking opportunities when the crisis has passed.
The centrifugal forces that pushed people out before the pandemic were primarily based on the city’s unwillingness to grow its housing stock, improve its mass transit, and upgrade its infrastructure to accommodate economic growth, resulting in expensive housing and a congested transportation system. Until the Covid-19 epidemic is fully gone, New York, with a somewhat shrunken population, will have excess capacity. The city should take this opportunity to plan for its next growth spurt—it will be here before we know it.
Surveying the long sweep of crises allows us to draw a few conclusions that we might not see if we focused on them piecemeal. First, crises are deeply embedded in the fabric of New York City. While Gotham suffers blows to the institutions that keep it whole, the city itself endures. And as they recede into the past, the crises have helped forge the city’s collective identity.
Second, we learn from each crisis, though this may be cold comfort for their victims. Over time, these learning experiences make the city more livable. This can perhaps be seen in the mortality rate. By the end of 2019, it was the lowest in recorded history and will undoubtedly drop even lower after the Covid-19 epidemic passes.
A statistical analysis of crises shows that they are less common in modern times. There has not been a major conflagration in New York since 1845. The frequency and virulence of epidemics are weak compared with those in the nineteenth century. Riots are less frequent and less bloodstained than those of the mid-nineteenth century. However, New York’s 2020 rioting and looting, part of dozens of such episodes in cities across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, served as a reminder of the toll—human, economic, and psychological—that such events take on any community.
More broadly, the long view of urban crises reveals a relationship between larger social and economic transitions and the frequency and severity of crises. In other words, crises are often a negative consequence of wider societal readjustments. The three transitional periods in the city’s history demonstrate this.
First is the colonial period, when the city’s seeds were planted. There were barely 200 souls in 1626 when Manhattan was first settled, and along the way, it encountered many difficulties associated with its youth and size, including conflicts with natives and slaves and issues of governance and control. These events had to be resolved before the city could thrive.
The second period, from about the 1830s to the 1880s, coincided with America’s industrialization. The old New York, a city of artisans, merchants, and yeoman farmers, was replaced by one of workers and capitalists. Income inequality rose, class consciousness formed, and vast waves of non-Anglo migration—Irish and Germans, especially—arrived in the city. These combined forces produced hyper-density, extreme poverty, and class and ethnic divisions, leading to decades prevalent with financial panics, epidemics, and riots.
During the third period of transition, from about 1965 to 1990, manufacturing disappeared from New York, taking away hundreds of thousands of jobs. The loss of these jobs fueled racial unrest and especially affected black communities, whose residents originally had arrived to find work during the Great Migration. During this period, the civil rights movement flourished, aimed at ending racial injustice more broadly.
New York survives and grows despite its crises because its density sustains it. Businesses come to the city because they find that clustering makes them more successful. This generates jobs and income, which, in turn, creates more amenities and benefits, attracting more residents and visitors, and so on. Indeed, writing about the period of the city’s most virulent and destructive crises, one New York historian concluded: “From the opening of the Erie Canal to the outbreak of the Civil War, despite financial crises (1837, 1857, 1873), visitation of the Asiatic cholera (1832) and the yellow fever (1853), disastrous fires (1835, 1845), and formidable riots (1834, 1835, 1837, 1849), New York enjoyed a period of unexampled prosperity and growth.”
Finally, the city succeeds because it draws forth collective action. As urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Edward Glaeser have stressed, while density can cause crises, it also leads the way to faster and more efficient solutions. Density naturally generates diversity and competition—the two things needed for an evolutionary process to produce solutions.
The history of cities is the history of the constant struggle between the present and the future. When shocks hit, we turn to address the immediate problems and wonder how things can return to normal. But the shape of our society is more like that of a long river. Our individual boats may get stuck in currents or eddies, but the overall flow inexorably pushes us toward more promising waters.
Top Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images