And here’s the sobering part of Bloomberg’s huffy dismissal: He’s right. While Boston can claim the highest percentage of college students in the country, when you look at the raw numbers, it isn’t even close. New York has 664,114 college students, according to a 2010 Census study, well more than Boston has people.
Yet beneath Bloomberg’s bluster there is evidence of a strand of genuine rivalry. After all, if Boston’s higher-education presence poses so little threat to New York, why is Bloomberg, in the urban-development equivalent of a Steinbrenner maneuver, now dumping so much money into trying to replicate something this region already has? According to his plan, that decrepit hospital on Roosevelt Island will soon be torn down to make way for a new tech-focused graduate school that, in many ways, will be built in the image of MIT.
NOT ONLY DID this rivalry exist before there was a club known as the Red Sox, or even a sport known as baseball, it existed before there was a thing known as Boston. Or New York.
In 1627, just seven years after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, the Pilgrim settlers received a visitor from New Amsterdam, the new Dutch settlement on Manhattan. The messenger bore a rundlet of sugar and two Holland cheeses. It was a peace offering intended to smooth over a land-claim dispute that the heads of the two colonies had been contesting in writing. Conflicts were all but inevitable: The Dutch were adventurous travelers in search of beaver and otter, and like the New Yorkers who would follow them, aggressive traders; the Pilgrims were a prideful bunch. The jostling with the Dutch continued after the Puritans established the future Boston on Shawmut Peninsula in 1630, and even after Britain conquered the Netherlands in 1664 and absorbed the territory we now know as New York.
As they grew as ports, Boston and New York continued to reflect the profoundly different styles of their founders. The Puritans were a homogeneous lot who distrusted outsiders, stressed prudence and probity, and generally avoided doing any business on Tuesday that might prove embarrassing in the church pew on Sunday. (You can still find traces of the best of that Puritan rectitude in Boston businesses like Fidelity.) The Dutch, meanwhile, had a dodgier business reputation but were a tolerant gang who didn’t give a hoot about where you went to church, so long as you had money in your pocket that could make its way into theirs.
Through most of the 1700s, Boston dominated in commerce and influence, remaining the largest city in the Colonies. “As long as the Atlantic was our front yard, we did well in Boston,” says William Fowler, a Northeastern University professor and former director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. “We were more concerned with what was happening in Lisbon and Madrid than in Worcester.”
Those strong connections to Europe seeded Boston’s cultural sophistication, even as the city’s relentless focus on the east left it with a blind spot to the west. As Colonial settlements expanded inland, Boston made far less sense as a hub, and its influence began to recede. While its population began to stagnate, New York and Philadelphia galloped ahead. By the time of the nation’s first Census, in 1790, Boston had already fallen to number three.
New York, though, was able to keep one eye in each direction after the flavor of the rivalry with Boston shifted from land claims to transportation. Fowler points to 1818 as a turning point. That year a quartet of Quaker New Yorkers introduced a ship line to Liverpool that left on a set schedule, rather than following the standard practice of waiting for a full load. The innovation was an expensive loss leader of a gamble. But since communication moved at the speed of a boat, this bankable schedule turned into an enormous advantage. Soon the anything-goes city was teeming with immigrants who had been disgorged in New York by one returning ship or another. New York sealed its lead in 1825 with the completion of the Erie Canal, which opened up commerce to Ohio and elsewhere in the nation’s burgeoning interior. New York was now not only the most convenient port, it was also by far the most cost-effective.
Soon every major port city was trying to build its own canal to compete. But rather than copy the copycats, Massachusetts eventually scrapped its plan for one and bet big on the uncertain new technology of the railroad. By the early 1840s, Massachusetts had built 1,200 miles of railroad to New York’s 12. And by connecting to other lines, Boston would become what Eric Jaffe calls in his book The King’s Best Highway, “the first true railroad hub in the world.” During a dark period of threatened obsolescence, Boston had engineered a Lazarus moment.Continued...