When Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently introduced the idea of imposing a large tax on commuters, one of his advisors made an argument for the tax that people in New York City have been making for a long time. Without New York City, he said, the rest of New York would be Appalachia. Is this really true? Do suburbanites see the city as the center? Does the rest of the region depend on New York City? Is there still a New York Metropolis?
A century ago when Jacob Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives, both halves lived in the city. This began to change with the growth of the suburbs. By 1940, the United States Census Bureau began considering New York City to be part of a "Metropolitan District." Over the years, the New York metropolitan area has been defined more and more broadly, as the map below indicates.
The Regional Plan Association, has believed for decades that, whatever the arbitrary political boundaries of New York City, it is in reality a region encompassing 31 counties. Many people say the metropolitan area extends 75 miles from Times Square.
The census bureau began referring to the New York region in 1940 but its definition kept changing. (See map above.) By 1995 the Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area, or CMSA, for New York City consisted of much of Litchfield, Middlesex, Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut, Pike County, Pennsylvania, a swath of counties in New Jersey, as well as near and far suburban New York counties. For this column, this area is divided into three groups of counties, the City, the seven counties that border any of the five boroughs of New York City the "near suburbs," and the rest of the region, "periphery."
There are many trends that have shaped the New York Metropolis since 1940:
- the large movement of population to the suburbs;
- continuing migration of African Americans from the South, at least until about 20 years ago;
- a dip and then increase in the number of migrants from abroad;
- large scale migration of population out of the area to other parts of the United States.
Since 1940 the suburbs rather than the city have grown the most, as the chart (below right) makes plain. In 1940, the New York metropolitan area had about 13.5 million people, of whom 7.5 million, or 55 percent, lived in the city. In 1940, eight years before E.B. White wrote "Here is New York," New York still meant New York City. (Yet White himself was born in Mount Vernon, and by then was living in Maine.)
Today, the "metropolis" contains about 21.5 million people. The city now constitutes only 37 percent of the region. While the city is about seven percent larger than it was in 1940, the near suburbs grew 58 percent, and the periphery grew 211 percent!
It was not just people who shifted to the suburbs, it was their wealth. In 1950, the median family income in New York City was a little higher than that of the periphery and somewhat lower than that of the near counties. By 2000, the median family income had increased by 73 percent in the city, but had jumped 145 percent in the near suburbs and 193 percent in the periphery. In short, the suburbs reaped large gains in both population and income. In 1940 those living in the city were about on a par with their suburban compatriots. By 2000 they had fallen far behind.
In the midst of the yearly squabble over tax revenue for New York City, several years ago Mayor Rudy Giuliani opined that New York probably had a higher proportion of workers commuting into New York City -- and earning higher incomes -- than any other city. This is simply not true. When the ten largest metropolitan areas are considered, in 1990 New York City actually had the lowest proportion of its labor force commuting from the suburbs. Said another way, New York City had the highest proportion of its labor force living in the city, about 80 percent. This was 12 percent higher than the next highest, Philadelphia, and 18 percent higher than Los Angeles. The fifth of the city labor force who commuted into New York from outside the five boroughs earned more, were more highly educated, and were much less likely to be members of minority groups.
The commuter tax and other recent policy conflicts in New York point up some of the implications of these developments. The repeal of the commuter tax for New York State residents who commute to New York City largely benefited highly paid, well-educated suburbanites at the expense of New York City residents. Its reimposition would affect them the most. George George Pataki is the first New York governor who does not have a strong connection to the city. A lifelong Westchester resident, he served as mayor of Peekskill and as a member of the State Assembly. With the votes and power now outside of the city, things like the repeal of the commuter tax happen with ease. A telling example may have been the governor’s $ 54 billion proposed package to deal with the World Trade Center attack. Incredibly, it included much economic and transportation aid for upstate New York. These trends and the policies shaping and exacerbating them do not bode well for the overall health of the city. The affluent now build a suburban society away from New York City, with no legal requirements to help those in the five boroughs. Mayor Bloomberg, a consummate salesman, has his work cut out for him.
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.