Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review

The Promised City: Openness and Immigration in the Making of a World Metropolis

Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review

The Promised City: Openness and Immigration in the Making of a World Metropolis

Article excerpt


At least since the Great Depression, urban specialists have spent much of their time searching for patterns common to all cities, thinking about the similarities among crowded human settlements, and devising new terms-such as central business district, strip mall, gentrification, and edge city-to describe phenomena that occur in most metropolitan regions. All cities, for example, must somehow deal with water supply, sewage and garbage disposal, fire prevention, criminal justice, public health, affordable housing, and adequate open space, and all have to establish governmental structures to cope with those issues.

Indeed, the Chicago School of Sociology, founded in the 1930s by Ernest W. Burgess, Louis Wirth, and Robert E. Park, became famous for developing a model of the spatial structure of the modern industrial metropolis. Using the Windy City itself as the prototype, the Chicago School shaped the dominant theoretical and methodological assumptions about urban development for more than half a century. Even after the Chicago School came under attack from scholars like Milton Gordon, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nancy Foner, Herbert Gans, and many others, it continued to be the paradigm against which other models were measured.1

The focus of my remarks is something else entirely. My purpose is threefold: first, to make the case that the study of history is essential to understanding the present and future of any urban area; second, to suggest that in terms of age, size, density, and demographic patterns, New York has been different from, rather than typical of, American cities; and third, to argue that Gotham has been unusually successful for almost four centuries because of its heterogeneity, not in spite of it; because of its openness, not in spite of it; and because of its immigrants, not in spite of them. Certainly, the Hudson River metropolis has not won many accolades for being gracious or charming. As John Steinbeck noted decades ago: "It [New York] is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal. Its politics are used to frighten children. Its traffic is madness. Its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it. Once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no other place is good enough."

The little settlement that began at the southern tip of Manhattan has, however, been welcoming in a more important sense-it has provided a haven and opportunity for a larger and more diverse population over more centuries than any other city in human history.


By American standards, New York is old. Founded as Fort Amsterdam by the Dutch in 1625, it predates Boston (1630), New Haven (1636), Newark (1666), Charleston (1670), Philadelphia (1682), Colonial Williamsburg (1699), and a hundred other places that we generally regard as more historic than Gotham. St. Augustine ( 1565) is assuredly older than New York, but for three centuries and more it consisted simply of a fort, a couple of chapels, a school, and a few hundred unremarkable human and animal inhabitants. St. Augustine was not a city by any reasonable definition and it gained prominence only in the twentieth century, when it became a tourist destination because of its age, not its prominence. Similarly, Jamestown (1607), the first English settlement, never found its niche and ultimately disappeared into the muck of the James River, where anthropologists continue in the twentyfirst century to search for what little remains of the town. The same is true for Plymouth, the Pilgrim village in Massachusetts that was founded in 1620. It never grew beyond a few small buildings, fell quickly into ruin, and found new life only in the twentieth century, when it was reborn and reconstructed as a kind of historical theme park. Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the west, Santa Fe began in 1610 as a Spanish colonial administrative center. But it remained a wide place on a dusty road until the twentieth century, and not until after World War II did it find success as an art and cultural center. …

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