When you read debates in the 1890s about the potential consolidation of New York City a number of arguments were proffered, good, bad, and indifferent, but the emotional core of the argument was simple boosterism—unless New York City swallows up Brooklyn (which was at the core of the 1898 consolidation) it will soon cease to be the most populous city in the nation, ceding that honor to Chicago. It worked in 1898, but it won’t happen again, and for a number of legal or political reasons it is impossible to imagine New York City ever gaining any additional territory. As for New York State, after fighting a war with Vermont in the 18th century, and some nasty legal battles with New Jersey in the 19th, its boundaries have also been fixed for a while.
In terms of population New York State is not what it once was, and has long since ceased to be the most populous state in the union (and now has only about half the population of California.) And if New York City remains the biggest city in the US of A, its global distinctiveness in this regard is also long gone, and from a ranking several decades ago of #1 or #2, has now slipped out of the top ten altogether, to, by some accounts, the unlucky rank of #13, and presumably will continue to slide.
If New Yorkers no longer care (or at least profess not to care) about being #1, the more serious problem in New York State in recent decades has been to avoid running last, and getting lapped by other states.
The 1970s was a decade of unmitigated economic and demographic catastrophe for the state and the city—the state’s population declined by 650,000, by far the largest decline for any state over a ten year period. If New York City has since rebounded, for much of the rest of the state, the rates of population growth since 1960 have been among the slowest in the nation. Many cities, such as Rochester and Buffalo, have lost half of the mid-20th century population, and the state's population as a whole has remained largely static, increasing only from 18, 36,967 in 1970 to 18,976,457 in 2000, or about an average growth rate of only about 0.001% a year. This is only the latest and some ways the most prolonged and severe phase of what I and a friend are calling the “New York Diaspora” the four hundred year long story of people leaving New York State.
The problem has no easy answers, especially as, more than any time in the state’s history, the state’s two major regions are going in opposite directions, with unprecedented population levels in the city and the metro area, and unprecedented rates of decline upstate.