Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The New York of the South

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Florida, with all its sunbelt glory, is slated to surpass New York in population come 2014. Much hullabaloo is being made in the press as to what this means. The obvious and immediate effects are that some Electoral College votes will be swapped from a deep blue state to a fairweather purple state, but also there is speculation in general for politics and populations getting away from the east coast and the rust belt. Some have cited low taxes, cheap housing and warm weather. Several articles quoted more or less the same statement: “I’d rather be poor in a warm state than a cold state.”

I think such a statistical reality was inevitable, but that it doesn’t reflect quite so much in terms of recent economic trends than surmised. It all has to do with the weird way the lines were drawn.

The top three states in population are now all sunbelt states, it’s true. But those states all share at least two other things in common: One, they were created due to political and imperial battles rather than settling patterns. Two, as a result of one, they’re larger on average than most states. In fact. most of the largest states in the country are to the south and west, and most of the smallest, barring Hawaii, are to the north and east. Assuming that America’s population evens out over the country, the south and west were destined to gain at the cost of the north and the east. By contrast, New York state is one of the largest in the east coast, but doesn’t even make the top half of states nationwide, listed as it is at number 27.

That happened more or less by design, or rather, by fault of original design. The original thirteen colonies are best thought of as situated like a pizza pie: The narrow wedge housed the main port city, and the outer section merely existing as a landgrab of rural expanse inland in competition with neighboring colonies. The Northwest Territories were subdivided out of those landgrabs based on settling patterns, but just everything else was more or less drawn on a map and decided that way.

It’s in that stead that the news made me wonder what the states would look like if they were drawn according to actual population, rather than an amalgam of colonies, purchases and conquests. It would make for a more interesting and accurate comparison than simply between Florida and New York, as currently the ways in which Florida and New York differ in history and growth is quite stark.

For the east coast, being settler colonies with big appetites meant that, aside from the states that effectively lost the initial competition for land, there’s a sharp divide between urban and rural within the same state: Philadelphia doesn’t look like rural Pennsylvania, Arlington doesn’t look like rural Virginia, and New York might as well end at Dutchess County (and that’s being generous.) Even tiny western Massachusetts seems to exist to counter Boston. They were territories meant to feed the Ur city, but they are not of the Ur city.

Superficially, Florida resembles this divide, what with Miami versus the panhandle, but it didn’t grow in the same manner. It doesn’t exactly resemble the southern colonies, either, whose growth patterns have trailed decidedly inland following the Civil War, what with feeding northern cities rather than exporting abroad. Florida was ceded by the Spanish and exists on a map almost exactly how the possession was purchased, with an economic reality that is suitably schizophrenic: The north looks like the South, the south looks like the North, and the middle doesn’t have a historical economic mainframe to plug into.

In so being, while all the coastal states to the north of it exist as colonies from the point of view of the colonizers, it exists like a colony would from the point of view of the colonized: The political borders don’t match the population. The Miami metropolitan area, in contrast to the northern conurbation it’s now being compared to, accounts for less than a quarter of Florida’s current population, which is constellated throughout the state. New York City is fully half of New York’s population. Metro Philadelphia is half of Pennsylvania, Metro Boston is more than half of Massachusetts. New York City and Miami are picking up people at close to the same rate, but the rest of their respective states make up the difference.

Indeed, picking on Florida isn’t to say that the northern states’ populations don’t also have a division between political and popular reality. New York is saddled with the great rural expanse of upstate New York, but its economy has spilled over to Connecticut and New Jersey. Philadelphia is saddled with western Pennsylvania, yet its economy eats into both New Jersey and Delaware. New Jersey is itself the most urbanized state in the country, but all that basically means is it exists between the economic spheres of NYC and Philly (and indeed, this is why I-95 is a toll road: New Jersey knows nobody’s actually stopping in New Jersey.) Maryland and DC might as well be one unit. Norfolk and Arlington are also part of coastal metro areas that straddle state lines with DC/Maryland and North Carolina, and exist almost independently of the rest of Virginia.

That massive eastern conurbation is at odds with its rural half, where the metropolis is subdivided but the rural areas are tied to it. Likewise, disparate regions are politically tied in the south and west. Dallas is the Kansas City of Texas but Houston is its own thing. San Franciscans and Los Angelinos are two separate people where New Yorkers and New Havenites are not.

Effectively, the statement “Florida is overtaking New York” is misleading. For Florida’s case, the growth is overstated because Florida’s political borders extend beyond its population borders. For New York’s case, the growth is understated because New York’s population borders extend beyond its political borders. Floridian growth is being buttressed by other Southerners. New York growth is diffused among its many neighbors.

So, what would the country look like if the states were divided by where people actually lived? You can imagine what the states would look like if the west coast were colonized rather than the east coast: San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles would all be in separate states, and the most populous state in the country would be New England, which would comprise the entire BosWash Megalopolis. But that’s just the same problem, reversed.

Luckily, somebody’s already produced a map:

(Click the map for a larger image)

There are other iterations to this map, but they all have something in common: Neither Florida or New York exist in these maps in any way similar to how they are now. New York is now New York City, Philadelphia is in the state of Philadelphia. New Jersey is still sandwiched between them, but the Poconos and the Adirondacks are now their own states. In both iterations, Miami, Tampa and the panhandle are all separate states.

This makes a whole lot more sense than figuring out what Florida has that New York doesn’t, because you have to ask which Florida and which New York. New York City isn’t shrinking, and Miami can’t grow fast enough to compete. Changing the lines leads to a better discussion.

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