New York. A concrete Jungle. A city of dreams. Abutting the Atlantic Ocean, the Big Apple is one of the most recognizable cities in the world. A potpourri of ethnicities, cultures and styles, New York City is home to the whole world. Today, the city comprises five boroughs- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, all of which were independent cities till 1895. Let’s take a closer look at the evolution of architecture, urbanism and planning of the city that never sleeps.

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New York City_©
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NYC Skyline_©

Urbanization and Establishment of the City

As depicted in the off-Broadway show “Colin Quinn: The New York Story”, the city’s population is a diverse mix of countries and cultures. Over one-third of the city’s heterogeneous inhabitants were born outside of the United States.

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New York River Map _©—nyc-others/new-york-city-rivers-map

The first people of the region that makes up the city today were the Lenape. They inhabited the area between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. With European expansion in the sixteenth century, the Dutch became its first inhabitants and named the colony, New Amsterdam. In 1664, the city was seized by the British and renamed New York and for the next century, it saw a tremendous rise in immigrants from England, Netherlands and France. The city was an important port, serving a crucial role in the cotton economy and quickly became the trading capital of the country, connecting the mainland to the East. 

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Illustration depicting Germans emigrating to America _©

With the rise in population, the infrastructure in the city saw major development. In 1811, the Commissioner’s Plan established a grid of streets and avenues in the underdeveloped part of Manhattan. 1837 saw the initiation of the Croton Aqueduct construction which soon supplied the city with clean water. The New York City Fire Department as well as the Police Force was set up in 1845. The city saw a steep rise in immigration over the next three decades, especially from Germany, Ireland and later Italy. Soon, each ethnicity began to form unions, clubs and organizations. They settled in distinct neighbourhoods and started businesses. The Irish-American Tammany Hall was a flourishing example of one such club that facilitated community welfare and politics. 

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Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 inventing a grid network of streets and avenues _©

New York City in the 20th Century 

With the turn of the 20th century, the five boroughs which functioned as independent cities came together to form “Greater New York”. This brought about a significant change in the demographics of the city, taking the area from 60 square miles to 360 square miles and the population from 2 million to nearly 3.5 million. 

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The five boroughs _©

By 1965, the city saw another steep rise in immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and Africa through the Hart-Cellar Nationality and Immigration Act. These newcomers revitalized the city which was hit by counter urbanization due to the post-second world war deindustrialization. 

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A medical inspection at Castle Garden, the precursor of Ellis Island _©Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum and Allen County Public Library

Architectural Language 

With a complex demographic, New York has amassed a wealth of architectural styles that have shaped and created the city’s character. The early 1800s saw the use of classical elements to rival Europe’s decorative classical architecture. Built in 1811, Castle Clinton was a circular sandstone fort built to defend the Dutch settlement in then-New Amsterdam. It served as the first immigration depot before Ellis Island. 

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Castle Clinton _©

As the economy developed, the city saw a shift in housing patterns. Taller buildings were the new norm and streets began widening to incorporate stagecoaches and wagons. Soon, city-wide zoning codes and utility reforms set to battle dense population paved the way for the city’s street-avenue grid and high rise buildings. 

In 1902, one of the most iconic structures of the city, the Flatiron building was unveiled. The 20 storey building resembled a classic Greek tripartite column. The city was given a facelift with a host of reformations inspired by European capital cities. 

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Flatiron Building _©

The underground railway opened up valuable road-space leading the way for architectural marvels like the Grand Central Terminal, built in the style of Beaux-Arts. Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist Guggenheim Museum opened to the world in 1959. 

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Grand Central Terminal _©

New York’s tryst with skyscrapers began in the late 19th century. With the City Council’s new zoning regulations that required high risers to incorporate setbacks to allow sunlight on the street, buildings soon took on a tapered, sleek form. In 1930, the iconic Chrysler Building was inaugurated. This stunning Art Deco building is one of the most elegant buildings gracing the city’s skyline. The Empire State Building, another Art Deco beauty, shortly followed and held the title of the world’s tallest building for nearly four decades. Today, the city is home to over 7000 high rise buildings. 

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Chrysler Building _©
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Empire State Building _©

Modern Landmarks and Pop Culture

Mainstream media and pop culture have ensured that the Big Apple is a part of every content consumer’s life. The city is referenced in numerous TV shows including, Greenwich Village in Friends, Brooklyn in Brooklyn 99, Manhattan in Seinfeld, Gossip Girls, How I Met Your Mother and the Marvelous Mrs Maisel. Movies have made references to the architectural landmarks with King Kong atop the Empire State Building and Spiderman shooting his webs across the Flatiron. 

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Spiderman and the Flatiron _©

New York City’s architectural confluence of styles is every tourist’s dream trail. Skyscrapers like the Seagram, UN Headquarters, One World Trade Center, 56 Leonard Street, 432 Park Avenue and the newly built One Vanderbilt adorn the city’s imageable skyline. The city’s Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Public Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Woolworth Building, Plaza and the Met are a feast to the eyes. 

Brooklyn Bridge and the Skyline _©

New York City is not just an urban conglomeration. The city is a way of life and it never stops evolving. 

References:, P., 2010. New York City. [online] HISTORY. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 October 2021].

Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts. 2021. The Architectural Evolution of New York City. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 13 October 2021].

Netflix, 2016. Colin Quinn: The New York Story.

Available at: <> [Accessed 3 October 2021].

Touhey, M., 2019. New York City’s most iconic buildings, mapped. [online] Curbed NY. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 October 2021].


A third year undergrad, Srilalitha believes that the literary universe is a gateway to exploring art and architecture. She has a strong affinity towards music, athletics and photography and enjoys unraveling the similarities between her worlds over a cup of tea.