New York in the World: The history behind the state's economy

Aug 19, 2013

All this week, we’ll be bringing you  a series of stories from the documentary about the state of the economy in New York state. "New York in the World" with Garrick Utley will air on WRVO Public Media  Sunday, August 25 at 7 p.m. In this era of globalization, no other state has benefited as much -- and suffered as much – as New York.  The documentary bring you stories of union workers in Buffalo, fashion designers  in New York City, and farmers in the Finger Lakes -- all talking about how they’ve found a place amid today’s new economic realities.  But first, the history of how New York’s economy arrived in the state it is today.

The story of New York begins with a tiny settlement perched precariously on the island of Manhattan.

Rick Landman is passionate about Manhattan, and guides visitors through the twisting streets and rich history of the old city.  

“This was not a religious utopian retreat. This was not for puritans or pilgrims that wanted to live a more devout life. This was a corporation in Holland that decided, ‘hey we can make some money,’” Landman said.

From the beginning, New Amsterdam, the future New York, was a global settlement. By 1640 the small company town had opened its doors to free trade, investment and diversity. Eighteen languages were spoken here. Today, you can hear far more.

For about three centuries the New York “business model” for growth, jobs and a better life worked beautifully -- for people in all parts of the state.

One hundred years ago, it was easy to “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” or to honeymoon at nearby Niagara Falls.  Buffalo was the second busiest railroad hub in the nation, after Chicago. The Erie Canal and railroad lines crisscrossing the state brought industry, investment, jobs and prosperity.

By 1963 -- 50 years ago -- the soundtrack had changed, but the tune was still upbeat. When then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller gave his annual State of the State address, it rang with confidence.

“This administration has set as its goal the simulation of the greatest economic expansion in the state’s history. Five hundred thousand new jobs in the next four years.”

Even then, Rockefeller knew that the future lay in a growing global economy.

“To advance this effort, I opened a Commerce Department office in Montreal last September. The first outside the country. A similar office will be opened this year in Europe,” said in his State of the State address in 1963

At the opening of that New York State Trade Office in 1963 in Brussels, Rockefeller entered the room and declared that “New York is open for business.”

Fast forward to current Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“We have to relearn the lesson our founders knew and we have to put a sign up that says, ‘New York is open for business,’” Cuomo said.

Same line --“New York is open for business”-- but, half a century later, in a very different world. 

Because in 1963, few New Yorkers understood what was coming. Yes, the world was knocking on New York’s door. But not to invest and create jobs, rather to take them.

The documentary “New York in the World” with Garrick Utley can be heard on WRVO Public Media Sunday, August 25 at  evening at 7 p.m.  In part two, we’ll bring you the story of how one General Motors plant outside Buffalo has survived even as New York’s manufacturing jobs have disappeared.