Building the Skyline: The Birth & Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers

The Manhattan skyline is one of the great wonders of the modern world. But how and why did it form? Much has been written about the city's architecture and its general history, but little work has explored the economic forces that created the skyline. This book chronicles the economic history of the Manhattan skyline! In the process, the book debunks some widely-held misconceptions about the city's history. You can purchase the book through Amazon or Oxford University Press.

Measuring the Skyline

What drives the heights of skyscrapers? Are they too tall? How does income inequality affect skyscraper height? Why hasn’t New York built the world’s tallest building since 1972? This chapter provides a rigorous analysis of the key variables that have contributed to the rise and fall of skyscraper height over the 20th century. Here’s a list of the city’s top “too tall” buildings in New York City. See New York’s rise and fall through its building heights here.

The Bedrock Myth

People think the skyline is the way it is because of a bedrock valley north of City Hall. This is wrong and the chapter proves it. The bedrock myth developed because of a confusion of causation with correlation. Developers could have built skyscrapers in the valley if they so chose, but the problem was due to a lack of demand, and not an inability to create building foundations. Want to see Manhattan’s bedrock? Take a helicopter tour here.


John Jacob Astor on his deathbed said if he could live his life over again he’d buy all of Manhattan. Well, how would that have worked out for him over the long run? Short answer: Meh. In 19th century he would have done great. But little did he know the Great Depression and the 1970s were coming….But wait! Astor’s ghost gets the last laugh in the 21st century. This chapter shows Manhattan’s land values from after the Civil War to the present, and how skyscrapers and land values are linked.