It makes sense that a city as diverse as New York should be known by several different monikers. The home and muse of countless creatives, the Big Apple (or Gotham, the Concrete Jungle, or the City That Never Sleeps, if you prefer) is constantly reinventing itself. Master the many monikers of Metropolis by learning the stories behind New York City’s nicknames.
While the term “big apple” dates as far back as the 1870s, when big Red Delicious apples were regarded as the best variety of the fruit, it wouldn’t be linked to New York City until the 1920s. It was in New Orleans where New York horse-race writer John J. FitzGerald first heard African-American stable hands allude to New York’s racing industry as “the big apple.” FitzGerald, a journalist for the New York Morning Telegraph, would borrow the phrase for his sports column, which helped to popularize and connect it to New York City. Everyone from 1930s Harlem jazz musicians to 1970s New York Convention and Visitors Bureau president Charles Gillett would promote the moniker, which remains the city’s most popular nickname today.
Possibly derived from Upton Sinclair’s 1949 novel The Jungle, in which he coined the phrase “asphalt jungle,” the term “concrete jungle” has unclear origins. The first printed use of the phrase can be traced back to British zoologist Desmond Morris’ The Human Zoo, published in 1969. However, in this book, Morris doesn’t write on New York specifically, but rather on cities in general. This use of “concrete jungle” as a universal descriptor of cities was repeated in Bob Marley’s 1972 track of the same name. How New York City commandeered this term for itself remains unknown, but 2009’s worldwide hit ‘Empire State of Mind’ by Jay-Z solidified New York City’s status as the premier concrete jungle.
The roots of this New York City nickname can be found close to home. Manhattan’s oldest thoroughfare located near popular neighborhoods such as Soho, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Nolita, and Little Italy, the Bowery was once considered the eye of New York City, prompting Jacob Riis to declare in his 1898 book Out of Mulberry Street: Stories of Tenement Life in New York City that “the Bowery never sleeps.” Some years later, an article in the September 6, 1912 edition of Indiana’s Fort Wayne Daily attributed the nickname to New York City as a whole. Finally, in 1979, Frank Sinatra would secure the city’s status as “the city that never sleeps” in his hit record (a cover of Liza Minelli’s original 1977 version) ‘Theme from New York, New York’.
Batman fans will be disappointed to learn that New York City’s “Gotham” nickname actually dates back to long before the comics’ first use of the term in 1940. Before Bruce Wayne, there was Washington Irving, a writer who used Gotham, the Anglo-Saxon term for “goat town,” to refer to New York City in his 1807 satirical piece “Salmagundi.” In “Salmagundi,” believed to be inspired by a folk tale entitled “The Wise Men of Gotham,” the citizens of Gotham pretend to be insane in order to deter an out-of-town visitor from coming to their village. Of course, New Yorkers embraced the moniker, considering it an allusion to their real-life craftiness, and perhaps, their craziness.
Best known as the setting of the Superman comics, Metropolis isn’t a confirmed representation of New York City. That doesn’t stop fans from making connections between the fictional and real-world locations, however, though some find it difficult to reconcile this relationship with the other link between Gotham and New York City. Comics legend Frank Miller clarified this concern, and in doing so endorsed the nickname, by explaining: “Metropolis is New York in the daytime; Gotham City is New York at night.”
While many sources credit Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot with originating this term, a private journal entry from 1845 undermines this term. Though his remarks were eventually published in 1912, Ralph Waldo Emerson first used the phrase “smelting pot” to refer to the culturally and racially mixed America in his personal diary more than 60 years earlier. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner also referred to immigrants “melting” together to form a single American culture. Naturally, an immigrant hub like New York City, proudly adopted the term as its own.