Empire State Building
Photo from Viator

The management consulting company A.T. Kearney has produced a city development index every year since 2008. This report analyzes the strength of the present and projected performances of over one hundred cities, and identifies 25 top global cities. For much of the time, New York City has dominated first place. In the 2017 Global Cities Index, NYC regained its top position from London, who beat it in 2016.[1]

Few can deny the influence – both global and local – that NYC has. Consider how many movies take place in one of New York’s boroughs and how many songs focus on its people, places, and personality. Why the fascination for New York? Why has it grown so powerful?

Founding of New York

In 1602, Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt founded the Dutch East India Company, called Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch and abbreviated VOC, to defend Dutch trade in the Indian Ocean. Supported by the VOC, English navigator Henry Hudson made his landmark discovery of Hudson Bay and future Albany, NY during his expedition for the fabled Northwest Passage to bring sailors from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

The Dutch West India Company, Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie (GWIC), formed with the support of merchant and diplomat Willem Usselincx in 1621 in order that the Dutch might develop New Netherlands, the region that Hudson claimed for the Netherlands.[2] New Netherlands contained bits of present-day New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware.[3]

New Netherlands
New Netherland (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Colonists flocked to New Netherlands, which provided refuge from turmoil in the Old World and offered land and trade. One town emerged as the obvious “leader”, and served as the seat of government in the Dutch colonies for some time: New Amsterdam.

Due to the colonization by non-Dutch, the presence of autocratic government, absence of local democracy, and lost conflicts with powerful England, the Dutch lost possession of New Netherlands.[2] The English gained control in 1664 and renamed the region New York and the prominent New Amsterdam, New York City.

Geographical advantages

Geographic determinism played a major role in the growth of New York City. That is to say that the location of NYC alone had much to do with its climb to the top. The GWIC established New Amsterdam as a trading post for furs. After claiming and renaming the city, the English also built powerful industries there.

NYC map
Map of New York City (Image from NYC.gov)

The long Hudson River fed into the deep-water port of present-day Manhattan, making it “an ideal center for commerce, connecting Europeans, coastal native Americans who dealt in wampum, and upriver native Americans who had access to furs.”[4] This position also made it easier to defend.

Political importance

During the inception of the United States of America, the voices of revolutionaries rose from three nodes of change: Boston, MA; Philadelphia, PA; and New York, NY.

Before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and under the Articles of Confederation, NYC served as the nation’s capital from 1785 to 1790, at which point Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Hamilton engaged in some political persuasion and deal-making to move the capital in the South.

(For more details on this interaction, I recommend listening to “The Room Where It Happens”, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton.)

Economic growth

New York really gained ground after the American Revolution. Population boomed in the period from 1790 to 1860, boasting an annual increase rate of 4.7%.[4] In 1860, it took position as America’s largest city. Shipping, immigration, and rapid industrial development, particularly in publishing and textile businesses around the port, significantly contributed to this expansion.

From 1821 to 1860, New York’s exports rose from $13 million to $145 million, while Boston’s, the premier port in the revolutionary period, only increased from $12 million to $17 million. Many merchants from Boston moved to NYC.

World Trade Center
The World Trade Center, whose construction began in 1966 (Photo from Curbed NY)

The founding of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on March 8, 1817 – the innovation of twenty-four stockbrokers who wanted to centralize the American securities market – aided New York in its move to global city. As the largest stock trading platform in the world and the oldest in the United States, the stock traders of others countries look to the NYSE to gauge the performance of the world financial market.


The immigration element that maximized population growth from 1790 to 1860 further diversified and expanded New York in the late decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century. Unlike the wave of western European immigrants post-Revolution, the majority of immigrants in the 20th century came from southern and eastern European countries.

In the first two decades of the new century, over 15 million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island in New York. Immigrants and first-generation Americans made up about 75% of New York City’s population in 1910.[5] The resultant ethnic diversity helped NYC develop into a cultural center where many innovations of the 20th century, such as jazz and modern dance, emerged.

jazz musician
Image from Valiant Theatre and Lounge

Cultural institutions

In addition to immigration, NYC surfaced as a cultural center by the promotion and funding of various museums, galleries, and other attractions. In 1962, New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., created the Office of Cultural Affairs (OFA) that morphed into the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in 1976.

NYC prides itself on its vibrant cultural life, and its governing authorities and citizens strive to maintain this quality. In 2015, the Cultural Development Fund of the Department of Cultural Affairs awarded $33,930,021 to 858 cultural organizations so that arts and cultural programming in NYC continue to flourish.[6]

Given that cities are often judged by the quality and quantity of cultural offerings, the emphasis that organizations in NYC places on developing its cultural identity is a major explanation for its global prominence.

New York City museum
Museum of the City of New York (Photo from ennead)

Geography, politics, economy, and immigration have all contributed over the decades to establish New York City as a powerhouse not only in the United States, but also in the international community. As Alicia Keys harmonized in the classic “Empire Street of Mind”, “These streets will make you feel brand new / The lights will inspire you / Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York.”

Have you ever been to New York City? What did you think of it?

[1] Global cities 2017
[2] Dutch West India Company
[3] What was New Netherland?
[4] Why is New York America’s largest city?
[5] Immigrants in the Progressive Era