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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is New York called "Gotham"?

"Gotham" was first used in reference to Manhattan by Washington Irving in the early 19th century. The word itself is English in origin and dates from the Middle Ages. Gotham, or "Gotam", was the name of a real and often-ridiculed town in England, whose residents had a reputation for madness.

A variant on this story was that Gothamites were not truly mad but simply "wise enough to play the fool" -- in a variety of ways they merely acted silly to gain their ends. "It was doubtless this more beguiling-if tricksterish-sense of Gotham that Manhattanistes assumed as an acceptable nickname," writes Mike Wallace in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Why is New York called the "Big Apple"?

According Gerald Leonard Cohen's Origin of New York City's Nickname ‘The Big Apple' (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), while "apple" in American slang means "fellow" and "big apple" means "big shot," the first consistent use of the term to apply to New York City came in the 1920s. John J. Fitz Gerald, a horseracing reporter for the Morning Telegraph, used the term (in columns from 1921-1927) for "New York City racetracks," and that sense of it – the metropolitan thoroughbred racing circuit – entered general usage after 1928. Walter Winchell used it in a 1927 column to refer to Broadway ("Broadway is the Big Apple, the Main Stem, the goal of all ambition, the pot of gold at the end of a drab and somewhat colorless rainbow."). In the 1930s black jazz musicians applied the terms "the apple" or, less often, "the big apple" to Harlem or to the entire city, with overtones, again, of the ‘big time'. In 1937 a dance called "the big apple" was launched in an African-American nightclub called "Fat Sam's Big Apple," in Columbia, South Carolina, and became a short lived national craze. In 1971, Charles Gillett, then president of the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, used the term as a name for New York City, in a marketing campaign, after which it won wide acceptance as a synonym for Gotham.

Where is the best place to do research on New York City history?

This question cannot be answered simply. There are almost as many historical resources in New York as there are research topics and historical questions. Your specific inquiry might call for a museum collection, an archive, an old film, neighborhood records, or maybe just something like a good NYC encyclopedia. We have tried to make this process easier in the "Resources" section of this site. There you can search in several ways for what you need -- whether that means a website or a very specialized collection. Click to go there.

(As a side note, the Gotham Center itself is not a research library or archives. Our mission is to make it easier for curious history-lovers to find materials and people that can enrich their interactions with the city's amazing past.)

Where can I find out about past mayors of New York?

You can find a full list (less Bloomberg) of past NYC mayors in An Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth Jackson, who also heads the New-York Historical Society. This book should be available in the reference section of most libraries, is available at bookstores and can be ordered from online outlets.

When was New York City founded?

In 1626 the Dutch purchased Manhattan from the Lenape Indians and the island was named New Amsterdam. In 1664 the colony was taken over by the English and re-named New York. Find more date-related information on our TIMELINE.

When did New York City begin to include all the five boroughs?

1898.

When were New York City subways first in use?

1904 marked the innaugural run of the first subway line, the IRT. The first section of subway completed stretched from City Hall to the Bronx. Over 100,000 people rode the subway the first day it opened.