Just how New York is America?

A couple of years ago I saw a contemporary news report on New York City’s near bankruptcy in the 1970s. To underscore the urgency of the financial situation facing the nation’s largest city, the reporter noted this rather startling statistic: one in twenty Americans called the five boroughs home.

I was reminded of this stat recently, and it got me to thinking: what is that figure today? What is that figure throughout the history of New York and the United States? I knew that New York City had always been the nation’s largest city since the very first census in 1790. But just how New York was America during that time?

Fortunately, the necessary numbers are easy to come by — Wikipedia lists historical populations for both the United States and the five boroughs — and plugging them into a spreadsheet makes the number crunching a breeze. Here are the results:

Census
United States population
New York City population
Percentage of U.S. population that lives in New York
1 in
1790 3,929,214 49,401 1.26% 80
1800 5,236,631 79,216 1.51% 66
1810 7,239,881 119,734 1.65% 60
1820 9,638,453 152,056 1.58% 63
1830 12,866,020 242,278 1.88% 53
1840 17,069,453 391,114 2.29% 44
1850 23,191,876 696,115 3.00% 33
1860 31,443,321 1,174,779 3.74% 27
1870 38,558,371 1,478,103 3.83% 26
1880 49,371,340 1,911,698 3.87% 26
1890 62,979,766 2,507,414 3.98% 25
1900 76,212,168 3,437,202 4.51% 22
1910 92,228,531 4,766,883 5.17% 19
1920 106,021,568 5,620,048 5.30% 19
1930 123,202,660 6,930,446 5.63% 18
1940 132,165,129 7,454,995 5.64% 18
1950 151,325,798 7,891,957 5.22% 19
1960 179,323,175 7,781,984 4.34% 23
1970 203,211,926 7,894,862 3.89% 26
1980 226,545,805 7,071,639 3.12% 32
1990 248,709,873 7,322,564 2.94% 34
2000 281,421,906 8,008,288 2.85% 35
2010 308,745,538 8,175,133 2.65% 38

Back in 1790, when the United States was still largely agrarian and rural, only about 1 in 80 Americans lived in New York City. (Note that the above population figures for New York City include the entire area of the present city, even before the consolidation of the five boroughs in 1898.)

But America was urbanizing rapidly, and by the outbreak of the Civil War, 1 in every 27 Americans lived in Gotham. Toward the close of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, immigrants poured into the city, and by the 1930 and 1940 censuses, 1 in every 18 Americans called the city home — over 5% of the population of the entire United States.

As industrial and population stagnation and, eventually, decline settled over New York — leading to the city’s near fiscal collapse I mentioned above — America became less New York. In reality — and in contrast to that vintage news report I recall — by the time of the city’s fiscal crisis in 1975, only about 1 in 30 Americans lived in New York.

Today, though the city is growing at its fastest rate in decades, only 1 in 38 Americans lives here. However, as evidence of the city’s remarkable turn around since the dark days of the 1970s, over the past five years New York’s population growth has outpaced that of the United States as a whole: the city’s population is now (2015) an estimated 8,550,405, a 4.6% increase over the 2010 figure, while the nation’s population is estimated to be around 321,729,000, an increase of only 4.2% over 2010.

So by the time the next census roles around in 2020, America may be a little more New York than it used to be. And that is probably a very good thing.

Featured image: The Queensborough Bridge and the Manhattan skyline, 25 October 2010, by hjjanisch via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

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