USA City History: New York's Five Boroughs

Most people know that New York City is divided into five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. A fact fewer people know is that each of these boroughs is its own county as well. The boroughs were actually combined with New York City during a consolidation effort in 1898, as a matter of power and control. However, each of the boroughs has its own Borough President, and, as each is its own county, has its own borough hall, serving somewhat as a county courthouse. The Borough President primarily is seen as the leader of the borough for ceremonial purposes, but the president will also advise the mayor of New York City on issues regarding the borough as far as budget, land use, and projects that may need to be implemented. The construction of the New York Subway in 1904 was instrumental in allowing the easy passage throughout the city of New York, and people were able to move from within the city to its outer fringes.


Manhattan’s boundary is that of New York County, an original county in New York State. New York City was built around the borough of Manhattan; the other boroughs were added on to it. Originally the Lenape Indians lived in the area that is now Manhattan. Englishman Henry Hudson first mapped the area as he navigated up the river now known as the Hudson River. This site was chosen to be Fort Amsterdam, a welcome area and place of protection for new arrivals to the newly discovered country. The establishment of this fort in 1625 is cited as the birth date of New York City when the area was purchased from the Lenape Indians in trade for goods equivalent to 24 dollars. It is fair to say, however, its equivalent to modern currency would be approximately 1,000 dollars. During the Revolutionary War, several important battles were fought in New York City, and it was established as the first capital of the United States from March 4, 1789, to August 12, 1790. After the Civil War, the United States saw an increase of immigration, and most came through the port in New York City. The rest of the world acknowledged this as well, evidenced by a gift from France, the Statue of Liberty, which was placed in the harbor. Due to the influx of poor, transient laborers from other countries, many of who did not speak English, and the inability to travel far from the City, New York City became rampant with racketeering, crime, and other practices.

In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was built, and this allowed many to travel from the downtown area of New York City, to its outskirts. In 1874 western Bronx was added to New York County, and in 1898 the remainder of the four boroughs were added to New York City. These, however, kept their own county designation, an attempt to keep some power to themselves. Manhattan became the heart of New York City, and most of those who came to visit New York City came to Manhattan. Crime, then, as well, followed, and it became known as a dangerous place to live and visit. It was known for its gangs, drugs, and graffiti-ridden subways and streets. However, this began to decline through the 1990’s and even to today, due to the diligence of the police forces and crackdown on drugs and gangs in the city. Probably the most memorable thing that has happened in the past decade in Manhattan was the crashing of two jet airliners into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The terrorists on board killed nearly 3,000 people that day. Firefighters, police, rescue personnel, and citizens put their own safety aside and did whatever they could to assist, and New York City pulled together to aid those in peril. The two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed and were destroyed. In its place will be a memorial for those who perished that day. 

Manhattan, New York, is located at the mouth of the Hudson River, primarily on Manhattan Island. It is one of five borough of New York City, and it is most definitely the most visited by tourists. There are several smaller islands that make up Manhattan as well, and those are Wards Island, Governors Island, Roosevelt Island, U Thant Island, Randall’s Island, Ellis Island, and Liberty Island. It is the smallest county of the five counties that make up New York City; however, it is the most densely populated in the United States, as well as one of the wealthiest. Wall Street is in Manhattan, one of the financial capitals of the world. Broadway, one of the most visited tourist attractions in the entire world, sits in Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty is on Liberty Island. There are many broadcasting companies and media publishers as well.

It is divided into three areas known as Downtown, Midtown, and Uptown; and these areas contain many different neighborhoods. As many as three hundred different languages are spoken in the neighborhoods of Manhattan, which include Little Italy, Chinatown, SoHo, TriBeCa, Harlem, Alphabet City, Greenwich Village, Koreatown, Little India, Upper West Side, Midtown Manhattan, and the Financial District, just to name a few. Each neighborhood has its own characteristics, its own history, and many times, its own languages. Due to the vast number of immigrants that come through the port of Ellis Island, many neighborhoods contain generations of people who do not even speak the English language, but instead live in their self-sufficient neighborhoods.

There are many landmarks and attractions in Manhattan, and these bring millions of people to New York every day. Some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers have been built in Manhattan, such as the Empire State Building with its observation deck, which is open to the public, and the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. The theatre district with its numerous Broadway shows, restaurants, and glitz and glamour of Times Square attract many people and much money each night. The 843-acre Central Park is one of the largest in the world, featuring its own zoo, walking tracks, two ice-skating rinks, artificial lakes, and areas in which concerts are held in the summer months. The Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts and the American Museum of Natural History attract those who wish to add culture and knowledge to their trip to the City, and the shopping in the many neighborhoods and streets of Manhattan are an attraction itself.


Beginning as Breuckelen, Brooklyn was a small Dutch colony on the shore of Long Island in the 17th Century. It fell into English hands in 1664 and became a province of New York. The Battle of Long Island, also known as The Battle of Brooklyn, was one of the first battles fought in the Revolutionary War on August 27, 1776, when America declared its independence from Great Britain. Beginning in the 19th century, the United States began to see a steady rise in urbanization, a great deal around the area of Manhattan Island and the area directly across from it, which became the Village of Brooklyn in 1816. The city was the third most populated area in the United States through the greater part of the 19th century, partially growing due to the immigrants pouring into New York thorough its port.

Industrialization was also growing in Brooklyn, and access to the waterways and transportation was being developed in the city. In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, and access was achieved to Manhattan by land. The decision was made by the residents of Brooklyn, incited by the encouragement of Andrew Haskell Green and his progressive political movement, to join four other boroughs to become New York City. Many people, however, did not agree with the movement to consolidate, and one of the newspapers, The Daily Eagle was one of the largest opponents of the merge. They often referred to the move as “The Great Mistake of 1898.” Though Kings County, in which Brooklyn resided, continued as an independent county of the state of New York, Brooklyn relinquished its designation of a separate city.

Brooklyn Borough, New York City, Kings County, New York, rests in the westernmost point of Long Island. It is the second largest of the New York City boroughs, and its most populated. It shares one of its boundaries with Queens Borough, and this is its only land boundary. The following three boundaries are Newton Creek, East River, and the ocean. Brooklyn is connected to land by various bridges including the Kosciusko Bridge, the Pulaski Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Varrazano Narrows Bridge, and the most famous Brooklyn Bridge. The highest area in Brooklyn is Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park.

 It is a plethora of many distinct neighborhoods featuring distinct cultures and many different heritages. Bedford Stuyvesant, or “Bed-Stu” as it is called, is a hub for African-American culture, and its fame is noted in many works of art and poetry. Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay contain many Ukrainian and Russian descendants. These areas have been known both as “Little Odessa” or “Little Russia.” Other neighborhoods embrace orthodox Jewish communities, Italian-Americans, Irish, and Chinese-Americans, as well as others. The areas of Crown Heights and Flatbush contain communities of West Indians, the most numerous of those outside their native Caribbean.     

One of the most well known landmarks in Brooklyn is the Brooklyn Bridge, made famous, in part by poet Walt Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Many artists, as well, have painted pictures of this splendid and majestic bridge, and tourists are certain to see it when they visit New York City. Other points of interest in Brooklyn are the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Coney Island is another popular tourist attraction, and one would be pressed to find another who isn’t familiar with the name of the famous amusement park that rose in prestige and popularity in the 1900’s. Many of the amusement rides in the park were the first of their kind and now reside in museums, or, at the least, their names are in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Visitors may also take the time to visit Prospect Park, which contains the only lake in Brooklyn, as well as baseball fields, a visitor’s center, and spots for outdoor concerts in the summer. The Jamaica Wildlife Refuge, maintained by the Federal government features a unique setting for animals and lies at the Brooklyn-Queens border. Those who prefer to study history can visit the New York Transit Museum while in Brooklyn and learn the background of the New York subway system as well as various other modes of transportation in the city.

The Bronx

The Bronx is the last of the five boroughs to consolidate with New York City. It began as an area in which small farms resided in order to supply the markets of the City nearby. In the 19th century, however, it became a railway station, and that then developed into the subway station. The Bronx became linked to Manhattan in 1904. There was a huge growth in population as immigrants came to the Bronx on the subway stations from Manhattan. The population growth slowed during the Great Depression, and then the nature of the population began to change as the older citizens retired and moved to Florida and to other warmer climates. Most of the population left behind were African American residents, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and some European American communities, and the majority were poor and uneducated. In the 1970’s the Bronx became known for its crime, poverty, and unemployment.

In 1968, however, Co-Op City began, and its development eventually saw many arson-destroyed apartment tenements torn down to be replaced by homes for families. Neighborhood leaders, churches, and concerned citizens began a push for these homes in order to provide a better place to live for themselves and their families. Nehemiah Homes was erected, as well as Melrose Commons, two areas of single-family units. The construction and growth began to take place all across the Bronx. Since the 1980’s many stores and banks have opened branches in the Bronx. New construction and growth continues into the 21st century; approximately $41.8 billion has been invested in new housing from 2002-2007.

The Bronx Borough of New York City is on the mainland, though it does contain several small islands in the East River such as City Island, Hart Island, and Rikers Island, the famed prison that can only be reached by water, air, or a single bridge from Queens. There are also four peninsulas that jut into the East River as well: Hunt’s Point, Clason’s Point, Throg’s Neck, and Screvin’s Neck. The Bronx River, the only freshwater river in New York City, flows through the city. The Bronx’s boundaries include the East River, the Hudson River at New Jersey, and the Long Island Sound.

Somewhat unusual for a New York City Borough, nearly one fifth of the Bronx’s area is park, perhaps developing from its rural beginnings. The largest park in New York City, Pelham Bay Park, containing Orchard Beach, is in the Bronx, as well as Van Cortland Park, Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx Park, Crotona Park, and the New York Botanical Gardens. The Bronx Zoo is one of the largest city zoos in the United States.

The Bronx Zoo is most definitely a place one must see when visiting New York City. Sitting on 265 acres in Bronx Park, it is he largest urban zoo in the United States. It houses more than 600 different species of animals from around the world. North of the zoo is the New York Botanical Garden, which features 40 acres of uncut forest, a rich collection of tropical and desert plants, and the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. This conservatory showcases glass pavilions reminiscent of London’s former Crystal Palace. The Yankee Stadium is also in the Bronx, opened in 1923 and was rebuilt in 1973. In 2008 the stadium was moved from its original location across the street, where it stands today. City Island is a quaint little island of Victorian homes and boats line the shore that is a joy to visit on a summer day with its little shops and restaurants. The original Hall of Fame was built in the Bronx, and it is now referred to as the “Hall of Fame for Great Americans.” As in all areas of New York City, the many diversified and ethnic neighborhoods make for excellent shopping and dining experiences as well.

The Bronx makes its appearance many times in film and television, most notably seen as a dismal, crime-ridden area of burned-out tenement buildings and gangs of violence. Fires were common during the 1970’s when arson was prevalent, started both by street gangs and by building owners looking to cash in on insurance for buildings that no longer had tenants. Even Howard Cosell uttered the phrase “Bronx is burning” as a fire broke out during a Yankee’s game and could be seen from the stadium. Such fires had become common and were of no surprise. This became the title of a TV mini-series ESPN ran regarding the New York Yankees’ 1977 World Series season. Other television and character references to the Bronx feature roughness and grittiness, sometimes hard characters who have had hard break after hard break.


Queens contains the two largest of the New York City airports, LaGuardia Airport and JFK International Airport. It is the largest borough in area in New York City, and it comprises Queens County, New York. The county was one of the original 12 counties of the state of New York, established in 1683. The borough of Queens is one of the most suburban areas of New York City, and it contains many neighborhoods and parks similar to the adjacent area of Nassau County, which was once part of Queens County as well. Queens was made up of five towns between 1683 and 1784; Jamaica, Hempstead, Newton, Flushing, and Oyster Bay. The sixth town, the Town of North Hempstead, joined Queens in 1784. Several changes took place between that time and 1897 with county lines between drawn and redrawn and cities being exchanged between counties.

Then on Jan 1, 1898, Queens Borough was created as part of New York City. With the new connections to Manhattan by subway, the Queensboro Bridge, and the railway tunnels under the East River, Queens Borough doubled in population in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The LaGuardia Airport opened in 1939, and the Idlewild Airport opened in 1948. The name was later changed to JFK Airport.

Queens is on Long Island, along the western shore, and it includes small islands in the Jamaican Bay. These make up the Gateway Recreation Center, a National Park of New York Harbor. Newton Creek makes up the border of Queens both on the western and northern edge, and this flows into the East River. Most of the neighborhoods have no solid boundaries, but the U.S. postal service divides them into five zip codes: Long Island City, Jamaica, Far Rockaway, Flushing, and Floral Park. The people of Queens relate to their neighborhoods rather than the “city section” in which they live. There are large Italian American populations in Howard Beach and Ozone Park. Irish Americans settled in Rocakway Beach and Woodside. Astoria is home to one of the largest Greek populations outside of the country itself. Other neighborhoods include Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Flushing (or “Little Guyana”), Queens Village, Bellrose, and many others. Approximately 46.6% of the population of Queens is foreign-born. The largest majority was born in the United States, and 2.1% were born either in Puerto Rico or to American families while abroad. There are 138 languages spoken in the county, but over 40% speak English in their home.

In the 1940’s Queens was an important place for the African American jazz scene. Great artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong enjoyed the atmosphere there in a society where segregation was still prominent. The Afrikan Poetry Theatre is also located in Queens and has been important to jazz musicians and poets since its opening in 1976. Hip hop artists such as LL Cool J, Salt-n-Peppa, and Run-D.M.C. began their careers in Queens. Western Queens today is becoming an attraction for artists who visit the Flux Factory, the Noguchi Museum, SculptureCenter, and the Museum of the Moving Image, to name a few. Thespians will find their niche at the Thalia Spanish Theater or at the Queens Theatre in the Park.

There are other points of interest for those not interested in artistic endeavors such as Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets baseball field. The site of the original field, Shea Stadium, is in Queens as well, in close proximity of the new stadium. At the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center one can watch the US Open tennis tournament or watch horse racing at the Belmont Park Racetrack. As noted, the two largest New York Airports are located in Queens, LaGuardia Airport and JFK International Airport. One can spend a day relaxing or walking in Flushing Park where the Unisphere can be observed, a giant globe, somewhat a symbol to Queens residents. One of the unique exhibits at the Queens Museum of Art is the Panorama of New York City, a scale model of the city so detailed, that many houses can actually be identified if one looks closely enough.

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Staten Island

Staten Island is a suburban borough of New York City and is the least populated county in the city. Its county, Richmond County, is the southernmost in New York, and Staten Island was referred to as the Borough of Richmond until 1975 when it was given its new name. There is historical and archaeological evidence of human habitation of the island as far back as 14,000 years ago. Researchers believe that this took place shortly after the glacial ice of the Wisconsin Glacier, which is evidenced under Staten Island, receded. When the Europeans settled in New York, the Lenape Indians inhabited the area, and one of the largest pre-European burial grounds, Burial Ridge, is located on Staten Island. In 1670 the Native Americans ceded Staten Island to Governor Francis Lovelace, and the Dutch began to settle there in 1671.

In 1683, when the State of New York was divided into counties, Staten Island was designated as Richmond County with several other small islands. During the Revolutionary War the British forces occupied Staten Island, and the demand of supporting the troops drained Staten Island of its resources and resulted in deforestation of much of its area. In 1898 Richmond County joined with the other four boroughs to become New York City, though there was a move in the 1980’s to attempt succession from the City. This plan never came to fruition, however, and Staten Island remains under the jurisdiction of New York City.

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Staten Island is composed of the primary island as well as several minor islands. Staten Island is the only borough not accessible by a tunnel. It is accessible by several bridges, and passengers may ride a free ferry each day to travel to mainland New York City. There are many rural areas on Staten Island, and its residents enjoy much room and area to themselves, as it is much less populated than the other areas of the city. One may access Staten Island from New Jersey by way of the Bayonne Bridge, the Goethals Bridge, or the Outerbridge Crossing. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge spans between Staten Island and Brooklyn, but the ferry is the only passage from the island to Manhattan. Cars may also be transported on the ferry, and this ferry is provided free of charge.

Very few New York tourists realize the multitude of things to visit while on Staten Island. Due to the fact that the Staten Island Ferry is free, many will get on board and take the ride over to the island so that they may pass by Liberty Island and the majestic statue and so that they may get a glimpse of Ellis Island on their way to their destination. However, many people then simply catch the next Ferry back to Manhattan. There are actually many things to do while on the island itself. At the St. George Terminal within a short walk there is an interesting and educational display of Staten Island ferry memorabilia, both artistic and historical in nature. The Alice Austen house was once owned and lived in by Ms. Austen, one of America’s most famous women photographers. Its Victorian grandeur and spectacular view cannot be paralleled. Many movies have been filmed on Staten Island, such as The Godfather, Good Fellas, Splendor in the Grass, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and others, and visitors will enjoy searching for areas familiar in the films. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, one of two monasteries in the Western world that were built in the style of the Himalayans. It contains collections of Tibetan art, the largest outside of Tibet. The historic districts of St. George and New Brighton, as well as the Historic Richmond Town, will intrigue history buffs and provide an enjoyable afternoon.

New York City

New York City, in all its splendor, whether one prefers historic downtown areas of State Island, the excitement and culture of Broadway, or the various tastes of the many ethnic neighborhoods, it can be found in the city. The five boroughs of New York City are the most populated in the United States, and they offer a huge variety of places to live and things to see. Many of the boroughs are connected by subways, bridges, and ferries, yet there is still a unity and pride in being a New Yorker, and this was especially evident on the fateful day of September 11, 2001, when all of New York joined together to assist, to mourn, and to rally for those who suffered. There is nowhere like New York City, nowhere you can see such versatility, such variation, and such spirit right here in the United States of America.