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The 20 most populous metro areas in the United States, in 1 amazing chart

There are few things worse in this world than listening to New Yorkers refer to "The City" -- with the implicit assumption that you know of which metropolis they speak.

But, according to this amazing chart, these Empire Staters have a point: New York City is the boss of American cities. Here's the chart, which tracks the 20 largest U.S. metro areas from 1790 though 2010 (Click on the chart for a bigger version).

Chart courtesy of

Starting in the early 19th century, New York City has been number one and never given up that pole position. (It's the Kentucky hoops recruiting class of big city populations.) Philadelphia, too, has been relatively consistent population-wise over the centuries -- starting at number one in 1790 and standing at number five in 2010. Los Angeles, which only entered the top 20 metros in 1910, is now the second largest. Chicago -- President Obama's hometown -- has risen from the mid-teens in late 1800s all the way to number three in 2010. (Call it the "Jay Cutler effect.")

Even more intriguing are the metros that have tumbled significantly over the decades . Follow Detroit's rise and fall and you follow the rise and fall of the manufacturing industry in America.  The Motor City broke into the top 20 in 1840 and within 100 years was one of the five largest metro areas in the country. The last three decades have seen a population free fall in Detroit, however, all the way to the number 12 in 2010. St. Louis is now barely on the list after peaking at the fourth most populous metro area in the late 1800s. Baltimore has fallen from top five to barely top twenty. (Tommy Carcetti weeps.)

And what about the metros that briefly broke into the top 20?  Rochester (N.Y) had a brief run in the mid 1800s. Seattle spent 20 years in the top 20 in the early 20th century before returning in the 1970s and now standing as the 14th largest metropolis. Heck, New Haven (Conn.) got a little run in the top 20 for two decades in the early 1800s.

Prepare to lose an hour (or three) following the rise and fall of the various cities. And check out the full explanation of the data behind the chart here.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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