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400 Years In 600 Words


New York - A Port City


First, there was the harbor: safe, deep, good anchorage on both sides, navigable waters in every direction, plentiful fish and seafood. According to the early 17th century explorers, this was the best harbor from Newfoundland to Chesapeake Bay. Furthermore, the harbor was at the mouth of a 120 mile, navigable estuary. The Dutch West India Company made it the hub of its new colony, New Netherlands, and called it New Amsterdam (1624). It was the trading center. The stockholders of the company created a commercial enterprise open to all regardless of origin or religion.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the exports were mostly bulky raw materials, the imports manufactures. The imbalance in bulk led to the incoming ships carrying ballast, which soon became landfill. Thus, Manhattan grew in land mass; that continues to this day.

In 1825, New York State opened the Erie Canal. This extended the waterway to Buffalo, Lake Erie and the Midwest. The cost of shipping freight from New York to Buffalo dropped from $100 a ton by land to $10 a ton by canal; the time shortened from three weeks to eight days. Trade soared. Now there was a waterway from Europe to the burgeoning U.S. A network of feeder canals quickly followed. By the 1850s, New York was the third busiest port in the world. By 1860s, New York handled two thirds of U.S. imports of goods and one third of U.S. exports.

The trade required support systems: warehousing, insurance, banking, overland transportation - New York became a railroad hub in the middle 19th century - expeditors, hotels, accounting, other business services. All of this activity required workers. And they came - in droves.

In the hundred years from early 19th to early 20th century, 75 percent of all immigrants came through New York. Up to the 1840s they were mostly settlers seeking freedom, economic opportunity and a better life. Afterward, the immigrants were mostly refugees fleeing famine, revolutions, persecution, pogroms and relegation to inferior class. They brought skills , talent, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture and a work ethic.

Where there were workers, there was opportunity for production. New York quickly became a manufacturing center. This combination of trade, transportation, banking, insurance and myriad business services led to the establishment of headquarters and support systems. Higher education followed. The arts followed. Social programs for immigrants and the poor followed. The city became the capital of the industrialized world. But it all began because of the harbor and trade.

Nowadays, the harbor is no longer a major locomotive of the economy. Still, New York harbor is the largest waterborne shipping center in the northeast of the United States. Containerization replaced teams of stevedores over the past 50 years. And congestion has forced the port facilities away from the population and commercial centers.

But just as the U.S. economy has shifted to greater weighting of services and information, so too has the New York economy. Business services and finance now dominate employment and income; international merchandise trade is a smaller part. Of course, since New York is an international city, the services are international as well as domestic, and cannot be separated.

The harbor and waterways now have another purpose. They serve aesthetic and recreational needs. Boating is increasingly popular. And parks and recreational paths rim much of the shorelines. Users of these facilities can enjoy them while communing with the city's natural resource and roots. After all, first, there was the harbor.

Eugene J. Sherman
Weissman Center For International Business
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