Skip to content

Big places have small beginnings: increasing returns in Greenwich Village

Bought this great book of New York City historical maps today.

This is a map of “Mannados”  in 1664. The northern edge of New Amsterdam (just in the process of changing its name to New York) was protected by a wall, and hence the street along the wall was called “Wall Street.”

The next map is from 1766.  The city has spread a bit north now, but still has a long ways to go. Population had only recently passed 10,000. The port was way behind Boston and Philadelphia and barely ahead of Newport, Rhode Island.

 Way up in the upper right on the Hudson is a little hamlet called Greenwich, surrounded by lots of farmland.  Directly east of this hamlet, which was roughly around where Hudson and Christopher Streets intersect today,  is where I am typing these words right now.

The last map is from 1836, when the city has spread as far as around 14th street. In the summer of 1822, there was a yellow fever epidemic in New York, reflecting the poor sanitation in the city among other things.  This was the last straw for the wealthier inhabitants who moved to a suburb that became known as Greenwich Village, named after the hamlet in the previous map.  To maintain property values in the Village, an enterprising New York mayor named Philip Hone created a Washington Memorial Parade Ground (the land was available because it was a graveyard for the criminals and poor; Mayor Hone just paved over it; many remains are still buried beneath what is today’s Washington Square).

In the map, directly beneath the number 15 is a little building on the west of Washington Square that housed the entirety of New York University in 1836.

Why did New York (and Greenwich Village) thrive so much more than other east coast cities? Cities are obvious cases of increasing returns, where the more you have already, the more new stuff you attract.  (Many people have looked for development insights from this, without ever really resolving what they are.)

Another important event between map 2 and map 3 was the opening of the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825.

New York had major geographic luck — the lowest point to cross the Appalachian Mountains was just west of Albany,  so the Erie Canal could connect the vast interior linked to the Great Lakes to Albany and down to New York City. After the Erie Canal became defunct, New York had now had such a head start that it is still the premier East Coast  city. (Historical neighborhood details from here.)

As Billie Holiday sang, “them’s that’s got shall have, them’s that’s not shall lose.”

This entry was posted in History, Maps. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Ana wrote:

    Thanks for sharing this curious facts about our city! It makes even more exciting to be here. And makes me thing about my friends that refuse to consider NYC the other 4 boroughs outside Manhattan…as if it had been always the same way!

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:51 am | Permalink
  2. @wQueens7 wrote:

    Historical maps/
    And clever insights construct/

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:23 am | Permalink
  3. Claudia wrote:

    Dear Bill,
    I wish I had this insight over the weekend, as a group of people involved in the future of peace, justice and prosperity in Sudan, (a major religious NGO, and other related organizations), and me escorted two bishops from Sudan through some of the areas you describe. I was the only New Yorker and had to pull on my memory and imagination as an unqualified native tour guide. I didn’t do too badly, although not with your incisive detail, probably borne of an economist since birth. I will save your post for future touring responsibilities. On a further note, I have been thinking for some time that your literary gifts and imagination extend far beyond the boundaries of AidWatch, (as broad as they are), and that you should consider writing or blogging on subjects to a wider audience in a wider venue. You will have customers!
    Best regards,
    Faith in Africa

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  4. Robert Tulip wrote:

    “the more you have already, the more new stuff you attract. (Many people have looked for development insights from this, without ever really resolving what they are.)”

    It is from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, and left wing people don’t like it because it seems to recommend abandoning the poor. The aid industry has a bias in favour of rural development, although urbanisation has always been a main driver of economic growth. It shows how aid workers tend more towards romance than realism. The Cities Alliance has done a lot to identify the development insights from the benefits of consolidation.

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  5. Love this post. (Partially because I like maps).

    btw did you know that New Amsterdam was formerly New Sweden (for about 10 years).

    Thanks for sharing a few of your maps!

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly and Michele Hush, @mikegechter's RSS. @mikegechter's RSS said: Big places have small beginnings: increasing returns in Greenwich Village: Bought this great book of New York Cit… […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives