I am on the homestretch of being in New York City for three years, actually in the bleachers of Hoboken watching the game played by this remarkable city. For over 400 years, it has been an innovation ecosystem embracing change, creativity, and diversity. The only colony without a religious or political agenda, New York City was, and still is, focused on commercial success. Your religion and politics did not matter – and still do not matter. Abilities to attain power and make money mattered – and they still do.
One element of the City’s success has been constant change in the gene pool of its citizens. The endless stream of immigrants was at first dominated by the Dutch, then the English, and in the 19th century by the Irish, then Germans, and then Italians, followed by Eastern European Jews, and more recently in the 20th century by Blacks, Hispanics and Asians. The resulting diversity is truly astounding. A walk on the City’s streets displays every skin color imaginable. The idea of race becomes completely lacking in meaning.
As impressed, perhaps awed, as I am of New York City, there are drawbacks. The city is quite dirty, noisy and, in general, rather untidy. People are always in a rush. Watching people trying to get out of the city on a Friday afternoon is like viewing panicked lemmings with horns, not extensions of the skull, but technological noise-making devices. I cannot help but speculate on the potential benefits of banning personal vehicles in Manhattan.
The city is also amazingly expensive. Everyday staples are reasonable, but everything to do with real estate is overwhelming. Purchasing or renting a place to live is off the charts. Property taxes make mortgages look modest in terms of monthly payments. Income taxes are not for the faint hearted. It costs a lot to run this complex city and it often feels that you are the main source of municipal income.
I was recently part of a dinner discussion of the costs of living in the City. One person who had recently moved to Manhattan mentioned that she had looked at a building where the monthly condo fee was $50,000. Everyone gasped. She said that you could endure this expense by just thinking in terms of buying the management services company a BMW every month. Few of the people around the dinner table felt that this characterization made the idea more palatable.
Politics in greater New York City, including northeastern New Jersey and southwestern Connecticut, have always been complex and messy. Centuries of massive immigration have created a wide range of political camps and mechanisms for achieving desired ends. A good example is provided by the ways that Tammany Hall looked after the interests of Irish immigrants. Of course, the Tammany leaders also made sure that they personally benefitted from these political shenanigans.
The constant flood of immigrants into the City seeking economic opportunity results in modest population growth despite the steady flow of people out of the City to the suburbs and elsewhere, for example, the Sun Belt. Most immigrants start at the bottom of the economic ladder. Once they make it up a few rungs, and have a couple of children, many move to the suburbs or elsewhere in search of larger and less expensive housing, better schools and more opportunities for their children and, in general, the American Dream.
Many still have economic ties to the City and commute from the suburbs to Manhattan each day. 1.6 million commuters each day double the daytime population of the island. Nevertheless, the suburbanites’ political issues morph from urban issues of fair housing, rent control, and so on to property taxes, school concerns, and especially transportation infrastructure to lessen the pains of their daily commutes. The overall result across greater New York City is fragmentation of political interests in terms of who gets what benefits and who pays for them.
I was born on the island part of Rhode Island, rather than the Providence Plantations part. From Fort Butts, a high earthworks from the Revolutionary War, we could see the Sakonnet River to the East and Narragansett Bay to the West and North. There were two bridges to and from the island on the north end, and a ferry at the south end in Newport. Water and boats were pervasive on the island.
My relationship with water is deeply seated and hence my affinity for the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers, as well as Long Island Sound. My great-great grandfather’s Fall River Line steamboats provided overnight service from Fall River to Newport, then into the Atlantic, and through the Sound to the East River, and then to the Hudson to dock at Piers 18 and 19. I can see where these piers were from my office window at Stevens Institute of Technology, five stories above the western shore of the Hudson.
A couple of boat tours of the City, as well as many walking excursions, have easily displayed the ways in which water has been and is integral to the fabric of the City. Getting over or under one or more rivers is a daily task for millions. Countless business ventures took advantage of and sometimes abused these rivers. The ebb and flow of the Hudson in particular affects river traffic to the head of the tide in Troy, 140 miles to the north. The power and beauty of the water are transcendent.
New York City used to be the largest port in the US – a position gained with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Now it needs to join with New Jersey to be in second place behind Los Angeles/Long Beach. The shipping container was the culprit. The container eventually decreased the cost of shipping by 90%+ per pound, but Manhattan had no place to stage containers, much to New Jersey’s benefit. Employment of longshoremen was decimated in the City and elsewhere. Manufacturing jobs in the City plummeted. If you can move things so cheaply, why assemble them in a high cost place like the City?
The dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs, in parallel with energy crises, cheap labor in the South, increased global competition, and decreased defense budgets, created great economic stress for the City in the 1960s and 1970s. Over 10% of the population left. The City’s service sector eventually led the rebound — finance, law, public relations, advertising, publishing, and entertainment. Dramatic increases of immigrants from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Asia replaced the out migration to the suburbs and Sun Belt.
Weather is a challenging aspect of New York City. I grew up in the northeast – Boston and Rhode Island – so I felt prepared for the weather in New York City. I was wrong. The wind down the Hudson is unforgiving. Silk long underwear is a necessity. Without a car, iced sidewalks and intersections result in very slow walking. Falls are anathema to people my age and it requires significant effort to be careful.
Summer is also a challenge. One would think that winter represents “dues paid” for a pleasant summer. However, June and especially July are as unbearable as summer in the south, enough so that I need to bring changes of clothes to the office so that I can shed sweat-drenched clothes from the walk to the office. Mercifully, by mid August, one can sense Fall coming and changes of clothing are no longer necessary.
The weather also makes traveling more complicated, more so for airline travel then the trains. Winter snowstorms and ice can completely bog down airports. Summer thunderstorms, not to mention hurricanes and nor-easters, also wreck havoc. Delays at airports get longer and longer, and people get increasingly frustrated and angry. Enormous amounts of time are wasted.
Diversity and creativity are the hallmarks of the City. This can be seen in many ways. Certainly the architecture of the City displays the richness of ideas for urban form and function. The number corporations headquartered in greater New York City, as well as the number of professional sports franchises, are also indicators. The best measure, however, is the breadth and depth of creative contributions by people.
The industrial tycoons such as John Jacob Astor, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt are well known. Beyond these captains of industry, the City has benefitted from many creative contributors in cosmetics (Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and C.J. Walker), fashion (Hattie Carnegie and Ralph Lauren), entertainment (Samuel Rothafel and Florenz Ziegfeld), performance (Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington), publishing (Bennett Cerf and Horace Liveright), and media (William Paley and David Sarnoff). These are just a few members of an enormous cast of creative and influential people who have woven the fabric of New York City.
Why New York City, rather than Boston or Chicago, for instance? Urban economist Edward Glaeser provides the answer. “The tendency of people to attract more people is the central idea of urban economics, and nowhere is that idea more obvious than in America’s largest city. New York’s remarkable survival is a result of its dominance in the fields of finance, business services, and corporate management. Finally, and most spectacularly, for almost 200 years, the success of New York owes a great deal to the city’s role as a place where the latest news can be picked up quickly.”