There’s no better place to ponder these questions than what many consider to be the archetypal city—New York. Native New Yorkers, like myself, may occasionally have a slightly exaggerated view of their city’s importance, but New York is still a paradigm of urbanity and therefore an appropriate place to start our journey to cities across the world. Its story encapsulates the past, present, and future of our urban centers, and provides a springboard for many of the themes that will emerge from the pages and places ahead.
If you stand on Forty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue this Wednesday afternoon, you’ll be surrounded by a torrent of people. Some are rushing uptown for a meeting or downtown to grab a drink. Others are walking east to enter the great subterranean caverns of Grand Central Terminal, which has more platforms than any other train station in the world. Some people may be trying to buy an engagement ring—after all, Forty-seventh Street is the nation’s premier market for gems. There will be visitors gazing upward—something New Yorkers never do—on their way from one landmark to another. If you imitate a tourist and look up, you’ll see two great ridges of skyscrapers framing the shimmering valley that is Fifth Avenue.
Thirty years ago, New York City’s future looked far less bright. Like almost every colder, older city, Gotham seemed to be a dinosaur. The city’s subways and buses felt archaic in a world being rebuilt around the car. The city’s port, once the glory of the Eastern seaboard, had sunk into irrelevance. Under the leadership of John Lindsay and Abe Beame, the city’s government had come near default despite having some of the highest taxes in the nation. Not just Jerry Ford, but history itself seemed to be telling New York City to drop dead.
New York, or more properly New Amsterdam, was founded during an earlier era of globalization as a distant outpost of the Dutch West India Company. It was a trading village where a hodgepodge of adventurers came to make fortunes swapping beads for furs. Those mercantile Dutch settlers clustered together because proximity made it easier to exchange goods and ideas and because there was safety behind the town’s protective wall (now Wall Street).
In the eighteenth century, New York passed Boston to become the English colonies’ most important port; it specialized in shipping wheat and flour south to feed the sugar and tobacco colonies. During the first half of the nineteenth century, with business booming, New York’s population grew from sixty thousand to eight hundred thousand, and the city became America’s urban colossus.
That population explosion was partly due to changes in transportation technology. At the start of the nineteenth century, ships were generally small— three hundred tons was a normal size—and, like smaller airplanes today, ideal for point-to-point trips, like Liverpool to Charlestown or Boston to Glasgow. Between 1800 and 1850, improvements in technology and finance brought forth larger ships that could carry bigger loads at faster speeds and lower cost.
There was no percentage in having these jumbo clipper ships traveling to every point along the American coast. Just like today’s Boeing 747s, which land at major hubs and transfer their passengers onto smaller planes that take them to their final destinations, the big clipper ships came to one central harbor and then transferred their goods to smaller vessels for delivery up and down the Eastern seaboard. New York was America’s superport, with its central location, deep, protected harbor, and river access far into the hinterland. When America moved to a hub-and-spoke shipping system, New York became the natural hub. The city’s position was only strengthened when canals made Manhattan the eastern end of a great watery arc that cut through the Midwest all the way to New Orleans.