The expression had been in use over half a century before O. Henry's writings. Why didn't the speechwriter(s) consult me?
"After all," Bloomberg said, "it was O. Henry who once wrote that 'New York will be a great place - if they ever finish it.' But over the next four years, we will neither turn back nor hold back. Staying united, we will renew the promise of our city -- and commit ourselves to finishing our unfinished work."
6 July 1850, Scientific American, pg. 330:
This is but a hint of what is going on in the way of improvement, and there can be no doubt that New York will be a great place when it is done.
America As I Found It
by Mary Grey Lundie Duncan
London: James Nisbet and Co.
It is common to say, "New York will be a handsome city when it is finished;" and so it will, if that day of repose ever reaches it.
8 July 1853, New York Daily Times, pg. 4:
It is a common remark among strangers in, or transient visitors to, our great Metropolis, that "New-York will be a superb city when it is finished;" but when that is to be, they argue, is a matter very hard to determine;...
5 June 1856, New York Observer and Chronicle, pg. 183:
"New York will be a great city if it ever gets built."
21 January 1894, Boston Daily Globe, pg. 16:
New York will be a great place 25 years from now.
15 January 1903, New York Times, "Vaudeville in Harlem," pg. 9:
"I must say New York will be a great city -- when it is finished."
15 March 1908, New York Times, pg. SM10:
FIERMAN, JACK, Bronx, N. Y. --
"New York will be a fine place when it's finished."
29 June 1913, New York Times, pg. SM7:
IT'S an old saying that New York will be a fine city when it is finished, but few who say it realize how far the city has gone in laying down lines on which its future must develop and how many great works are now under way which will be sufficient for its needs for years to come.
13 July 1930, New York Times, pg. 120:
THE familiar remark attributed to the visiting Englishman -- "New York will be a great city when they get it finished" -- may also be applied to the States's highway system.
George Thompson, NYU Elmer Bobst librarian and word hunter extraordinaire, traced the expression to the 1820s. The following posts were made to the American Dialect Society listserv in June 1999 and January 2006:
A couple of months ago, I posted a paragraph from that day's New York Times containing the slur on The Big Apple that "it'll be a nice town, when it's finished". I accompanied the quotation from the Times with one with the same message from a New York newspaper of the 1820s, noting that although the Times had claimed to be quoting Will Rogers, and a friend had told me the line was in O Henry, I could offer nothing to bridge the 170 year gap.
This afternoon I had the chance to spend a few minutes looking at a marvelously attractive new book by Nancy Groce called New York: Songs of the City, a survey of popular songs about New York, heavily illustrated with sheet music covers and other good stuff. It's likely to contain riches, but at least it contains this: "Arthur Guiterman's 1919 poem 'New York'", set to music several decades later. As quoted, the poem reads
The city is cutting away, / The gasmen are hunting a leak, / They're putting down asphalt today, / To change it for stone in a week. / The builders are raising a wall, / The wreckers are tearing one down, / Enacting a drama of all [/] our changeable, turbulent town.
For here is an edifice meant / To stand for an eon or more, / And there's a gospeler's tent, / And there is a furniture-store. / Our suburbs are under the plow, / Our scaffolds are raw in the sun, / We're drunk and disorderly now, / But -- 'Twill be a great place when it's done. (p. 113)
Barry's web site says "George Thompson, NYU Elmer Bobst librarian and word hunter extraordinaire, [gee, thanks] traced the expression to the 1820s. Unfortunately, his post of this citation has been lost in the American Dialect Society archives."
Here is that passage, just so posterity will not be disappointed.
It's a pretty good joke, too, well told. "New Yark," said Jonathan one day, as he picked his way among paving stones, and sand banks, and heaps of bricks which were thrown upon Broadway by the gas-works, and water works companies, and those who
were pulling down and building houses -- "New Yark," said he, and at this moment he tumbled over a bundle of slate lying directly in his way, capsized a lady, and singed his bran new knapt hat in the fire where the working men were melting lead, but picked himself up with a simple exclamation of "Gall darn it" -- "New-Yark," said he -- and Jonathan was a frequent visitor to sell his onions and wooden dishes -- "would be a darnation fine place, if they ever got it done." ***
Commercial Advertiser, June 21, 1828, p. 2, col. 2
This paragraph indicates that at least one New Yorker of the time
thought that it was a new joke:
Verily, the editor of the Commercial was right, when he
said, "New-York would be a nation fine place, if they ever get it
New-York Mirror, November 2, 1833, p. 143, col. 3
The editor of the Commercial at that time was William Leete Stone.
George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.