History lovers,

Today we present something a little different….an animated chart showing the rise and fall of American cities.  If you play (or replay) the graphic linked here, you will see the rise and fall of the thirty most populous metropolitan areas in the United States at each decennial census from 1790 through 2010.

You can see that the first major cities were on or near the eastern seaboard.  Then, the big cities of the “West” arose…..Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans.  After the Civil War, watch the rapid rise of Chicago (in yellow).  St. Louis, Detroit, and Cleveland rise and fall.  Boston falls and falls.  In recent decades, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Miami are among the rising giants.  The west coast has its own patterns, dominated by enormous Los Angeles.

These patterns relate to business history because cities play such a critical role in the economy.  They are centers of consumers, workers, capital, and information.  As Chicago boomed in the late nineteenth century, entrepreneurial men and women flooded in from New England and upstate New York to find their fortunes.  California’s gold rush drew ambitious people in the 1840s; today the Silicon rush draws them again.  Businesspeople go where the opportunities are.

Note that these numbers and rankings are based on current government definitions of metropolitan areas…..large land areas that include multiple cities and their related suburbs.  While the “city limits population” of a city matters to the mayor and chief of police, the business leader does not care where the city limits end when he or she is serving customers, hiring people, dealing with logistics networks, or opening branch banks, restaurants, or stores.  Only by including the suburbs and studying the entire metro area can we understand the full impact of these great cities.

By 2050, we expect that the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area will pass up Chicago to rise to #3, the first change in the top three in about 100 years.  Houston will be right on its heels.  Other cities will continue to rise and fall, to see businesses arrive and leave.  How will your city do?

Gary Hoover
American Business History Center

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