It’s 1899, the cusp of the 20th century, and New York City has never been more fascinating.
Queens and Staten Island formally become part of New York City, bringing the city’s population to nearly 3,500,000. The majestic Brooklyn Bridge still holds its title as the longest suspension bridge in the world. The city’s famous “El,” or elevated railway, stretches up and down Manhattan, carrying its riders across to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
The city is in the midst of a population boom, driven by the explosion in European immigration to the United States. More than sixty percent of the city’s children have at least one foreign-born parent. Neighborhoods are drawn along ethnic lines: Russian, Polish, Italian, Irish, African-American, Syrian, German, Bohemian, Chinese.
The city’s notorious tenement-houses are still the bane of the city’s Board of Health. Close to 1,500,000 New Yorkers, mainly immigrants, live and work in the tenements that line Manhattan’s East and West sides. Despite legislation aimed at improving them, the tenements are still often dark, squalid, and neglected by their absentee landlords.
In February, the Great Blizzard of 1899 leaves Central Park under 16 inches of snow, the city’s third-largest snowfall on record. In July, New York City’s newsboys go on strike, rallying by the thousands under their charismatic leader Kid Blink.
Ragtime music is all the rage. Scott Joplin pens “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which will earn him the nickname “the King of Ragtime.”
The New York Giants have a less than ideal season, ending tenth in the National League with 60 wins and 90 losses. In October, the Bronx Zoo opens to the public. One of the wolves escapes, but is soon caught in a cellar near St. Mary’s Park.
At the Thalia Theater on the Bowery, Yiddish-speaking audiences thrill to The East Side Ghetto, the tale of an innocent cloak-maker girl seduced and betrayed by her villainous boss. Tickets to the vaudeville cost twenty-five cents. Or, for the same price, a customer at one of the Bowery’s kinetoscope parlors can peer through a small eyepiece and watch a brief movie of a famous contortionist or trapeze artist.
The Harlem River Speedway is a favorite strolling-place, where pedestrians can watch the well-to-do of the city exercise their racehorses. (Bicycles are strictly prohibited on the Speedway.) And in fashion news, women’s tea gowns now feature the “Watteau back,” a graceful billow of fabric that starts at the nape of the neck and extends all the way to the floor.