I recently read Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations by Charlene Mires. The story of how the United Nations ended up on the East River in New York City in the late 1940s is a pretty interesting tale and I will summarize who was in the running.
1. The Black Hills. From the beginning of the UN process involving multiple conferences and committees, the Black Hills tried to attract the United Nations. This was primarily through the efforts of one persistent booster. The argument was that the location represented a new frontier near the geographic center of the United States with plenty of room for a headquarters.
2. San Francisco. The city successfully hosted the 1945 UN San Francisco Conference and represented a world shift toward the Pacific. In the end, the city was eliminated from the running rather early on because delegates from Europe refused to travel that far.
3. Suburban Connecticut. After focusing on the American East Coast, suburban New York, particularly in Westchester County or near Greenwich, Connecticut was the primary option. UN members did not want to be located in New York City, partly because of a lack of connection with nature and partly because of an interest in building a whole new United Nations city. At one point, the UN had plans developed for several plots of land that would involve tens of square miles for this new city. However, NIMBY concerns from suburban residents put these plans to rest: suburbanites were worried the international organization would disturb their idyllic communities.
4. With the New York suburbs essentially taking themselves out of the running, Philadelphia emerged as a viable option. The city made their pitch as the birthplace of modern liberty. The UN was concerned about corruption in the city. As they wondered if Philadelphia would be possible…
5. New York emerged as the winner after the Rockefeller family put together a deal for land to be offered to the UN on the East River (the current site). While New York wouldn’t allow a large city within a city development, there was enough land for a large building and delegates could take advantage of Manhattan’s amenities. As the UN was deciding on its permanent home, they had been temporarily located on Long Island but the facilities were located near eyesores and the commute was too much for many participants.
To me, the most interesting part of the story was the competition and fervor of boosters from around the United States. Dozens of communities lobbied the United Nations – though some had many more resources than others and only few had realistic chances from the beginning. They envisioned the United Nations providing status as well as economic opportunities.
If New York City suburbanites hadn’t lobbied against the headquarters, we might today know a UN city located 20-50 miles outside of Manhattan. But, of course, it seems natural today that the UN is located in the #1 global city.