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Both Boston and New York City are incredibly important early settlements that still thrive to this day. Given the early advantages of Boston I would assume that it would be one of the top 5 largest cities in the USA, however it is only ranked as the 21st largest. New York City has at least 13 times the population of Boston. What has led to this large disparity between New York City and Boston? Are they simply geographical limitations or are the reasons ultimately political/economic/cultural in nature?

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Could you edit the question to be more about history and less about other social sciences (e.g. economics)? –  Mark C. Wallace Nov 30 '13 at 21:03
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3 Answers 3

Don't confuse the concepts of incorporated city, which has more to do with state statutes and regulations in regard to municipal consolidation, with metropolitan area, the true size of the municipal economic entity.

The least biased statistical evaluation of municipal areas I could find for the U.S. is The List of Combined Statistical Areas (2010 Census) published by the United States Office of Management and Budget here and partially reproduced below, in decreasing order by population:

  1. NYC CSA (Combined Statistical Area);
  2. LA CSA;
  3. Chicago CSA;
  4. Washington-Baltimore CSA
  5. Boston-Providence CSA
  6. San Jose- San Francisco CSA
  7. Dallas-Fort Worth CSA
  8. Philadelphia-Reading-Camden CSA
  9. Miami-Fort Lauderdale CSA
  10. Atlanta - Sandy Springs CSA

As you can see Boston-Providence occurs 5th, as your initial estimate expected.

Update:
Remember also that the 1898 consolidation of New York City into 5 boroughs remains controversial in both Brooklyn and Staten Island, as witness the 1990's plan by Staten Island to secede, which had to be blocked by the New York State Assembly.

Updated to 2010 Census - Boston returns to 5th place

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This is a link to an interesting perspective on municipal consolidation in the 20th and 21st centuries: queensu.ca/iigr/conf/Arch/03/03-2/Sancton.pdf Disclaimer: presented at a conference hosted by my Alma Mater: queensu.ca –  Pieter Geerkens Nov 30 '13 at 18:10
    
I don't see any reference there asserting that the aggregated population of the areas evaluated is a function of a single economic factor. There may be several disparate economic systems in geographic proximity that cause the concentration of population, not necessarily related one to the other. So there's no proof that "Metropolitan Boston's" rank as 5 accurately reflects the success of Boston. Providence, for example, had its own harbor and economy, quite separate from that of Boston long before they were included together as a "Metropolitan area" - "Greater Boston". –  Vector Dec 27 '13 at 12:28
    
@Vector: There are many insightful comments that could be made about the CSA calculations; such as how, being a statistical measure a degree of arbitrariness exists that must be allowed for by any user of the statistic. I can see no reasons for an inherent bias between any of these statistical measures on the part of US Office of Management & Budget. Unfortunately, your comment is not an element of the said set of useful and meaningful comments. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 27 '13 at 15:56
    
I am not sure why you consider my comments meaningless,but I suggest taking a look at how much tonnage came into Boston Harbor in the 19th and 20th Centuries vs NY Harbor, and how many immigrants. I have not researched it, but I suspect that NY harbor would lead by far more than 5/1, although I could be wrong. –  Vector Dec 28 '13 at 8:56
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The defining characteristic of New York City has always been its harbor, today formally known as The Port of New York and New Jersey... one of the largest natural harbors in the world... It includes the system of navigable waterways in the estuary along 650 miles (1,050 km) of shoreline in the vicinity of New York City and northeastern New Jersey, as well as the region's airports and supporting rail and roadway distribution networks.

New York harbor is a very large deep water port that can accommodate numerous deep water/high tonnage ships. It is through New York Harbor that the waves of immigrants came to the USA in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Ellis Island is in New York Harbor.

The immigrants came to New York City through the harbor and settled in the city, and its population grew and grew and grew. At the same time, the port served as a center for commercial trade, bringing in raw materials including coal, iron, timber, and numerous other materials from East Coast of the USA and from overseas, that allowed industry, manufacturing, and large wholesale and retail businesses to flourish. And via the port, businesses also had an easy route for shipping their goods to those same destinations.

This made NYC a dynamo of trade and industry that supported the ever increasing population that came in through the harbor, and then settled and raised families in the great city.

NY Harbor dwarfs Boston harbor, which is listed officially as comprising only 500 acres. That is the simple, obvious answer to your question.

(My apologies for lack of more references at the moment. As a native of New York City, this knowledge is intuitive to me - I learned it from my father, whose parents came to Ellis Island; I learned it in grade school and in high school and I live with it every day, my home being only blocks from the shores of the great harbor itself)

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Quite simple.

The Erie Canal via the Hudson River to the Great Lakes gave New York access to a much larger hinterland. Boston has the Charles River and not much else.

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Excellent observation IMO. The canal was very important indeed. But I did find this The canal.. and is widely regarded a chief cause that New York eclipsed Philadelphia as the largest city and port on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. If so, perhaps Boston was not in the running, regardless of the canal. Interestingly, the Delaware river, which provides Philly's harbor reaches well into NYS, and canals were built to make it navigable quite far north. I wonder if a connection was ever made to the Erie canal - need to research further. –  Vector Jan 5 at 3:31
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