"The New York [of] forty years ago was an American city," the British writer J. B. Priestley observed in 1947, "but today's glittering cosmopolis belongs to the world, if the world does not belong to it."
The New York City that emerged from World War II was a dramatically different place than the city that had entered it four years before. The change was in large part due to the war itself, which had finally lifted the city out the Depression, and ushered in an era of unparalleled prosperity.
In four years, the explosion in commercial activity brought on by the war had reignited the city's economic engine, carrying it to a level of economic power and dominance like nothing before or since. By the late 1940s, New York had become the world's largest manufacturing center, with forty thousand factories and over a million factory workers. It was the nation's largest wholesaling center, accounting for a fifth of all wholesale transaction in America. It was the world's biggest port, handling 40 percent of the nation's waterborne freight -- 150 million tons a year. And it was the world's financial capital, trading hundreds of millions of dollars each day. It was, above all, home to the immense corporations that now dominated life in the United States and, increasingly, around the world. One-hundred-thirty-five of the nation's five hundred largest industrial companies -- including Standard Oil, General Electric, U.S. Steel, Union Carbide, IBM and RCA -- were located in what was now called "headquarters city."
More than ever before, as the shop windows filed past in a glittering parade, there was the sense of New York as a great international city to which all the ends of the world had come. London used to be like that, but somehow one had forgotten it, so long had it been since the Hispanos and Isottas had glided down Piccadilly, so many aeons since the tropical fruit had glowed in the Bond Street windows. Coming from that sort of London to America, in the old days, New York had seemed just -- American; not typical of the continent, maybe, but American first and foremost. Now it was the centre of the world.
-- Beverley Nichols, 1948
By the end of 1946, New York's central economic position had been reinforced by a new role, one which the city had not enjoyed since 1790, when the nascent federal government had departed the city for Philadelphia and, ultimately, Washington, D.C. In December of that year, the United Nations selected New York as the location for its permanent headquarters, and work soon began on a sixteen-acre site along the East River, where a dazzling new complex would rise over the coming years. "New York is not a state capital or a national capital, the writer E. B. White observed, "but it is by way of becoming the capital of the world."
Along with the economic boom came an exciting cultural ferment, as innovative figures and trends began reshaping the city's -- and the nation's -- arts and entertainment. At Carnegie Hall, a charismatic young conductor and composer named Leonard Bernstein had recently taken over the baton of the New York Philharmonic and was dazzling audiences with his daring interpretations of the classical repertory. Just a few blocks south, meanwhile, his own music was revolutionizing the Broadway musical, in an inventive show called "On the Town." Based on a Jerome Robbins ballet, and written by the young team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show related the adventures of three sailors with a single day to spend in New York. Uptown, a different kind of music was taking shape in the nightclubs of Harlem, as brilliant musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk pioneered a new style of jazz called "Be-bop."
International Art Center
In the coming few years, it would become obvious that the war had marked another cultural shift, as the center of the art world, which for over a century had held firm in Paris, now moved across the Atlantic. The rise of fascism in Europe and the terrible conflict that followed had brought dozens of important modern artists to New York -- including Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, Wassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian. They would not only carry out their own important work but have a galvanizing effect on a younger generation of American artists -- including Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and half a dozen others -- who soon constituted a "New York School" of abstract expressionist painters, completing the transfer of the art world's center of gravity to Manhattan.
Another Postwar Milestone
As the city boldly stepped into a new postwar era, however, the man who had done more than anyone else to ensure its greatness in the preceding decade and a half would not be there to see it. On December 31, 1945, after twelve years in office, Fiorello La Guardia, the greatest mayor in the history of New York, finally stepped down. He was worn out by his three terms, and especially his final four years, when the constraints of wartime kept him from completing his visionary plans to reconstruct the city. Already ill with pancreatic cancer, he would live less than two years more, passing away on the night of September 20, 1947, at the age of sixty-four.
Into the Future
For twelve long years, La Guardia had struggled to reconcile two competing visions of the city. Planners like Robert Moses had championed a city of tomorrow -- beholden to the car and the highway, and to forces beyond the city's borders. An alternate vision embraced the old working city of Walt Whitman, Al Smith and Emma Lazarus -- the city of blocks, neighborhoods and crowded streets that, however shabby and rundown in appearance, were New York's heartbeat. In the years following the war, as urban planners proposed remaking the city on a breathtaking scale, New York would begin to take leave of the past as never before, and rush headlong into the future.