Here’s an updated look at the most important thing to happen in Brooklyn since Henry Hudson landed at Coney Island. Many people call it “The Great Mistake.” Was it?
With Brooklyn’s much-hyped status as the hippest place on Earth comes some nostalgic feelings about “The Great Mistake,” as many called the consolidation of New York City. On that fateful day, January 1, 1898, Brooklyn the city disappeared, and Brooklyn the “outer borough” was born. (As were the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.)
The decision to join all of the counties surrounding Manhattan into one central city was not made easily, quickly or lightly. Politicians, businessmen, city fathers and ordinary citizens argued and lobbied for or against this for almost 20 years.
Consolidating New York City took a tremendous amount of money and power, along with the consideration of business interests, tax revenues, city bureaucracies, social issues and civic identity. Some people thought it was inevitable and progressive — but for others it was the end of the world as they knew it, the Death of Brooklyn.
1909 Postcard via eBay
Brooklyn Was a Successful Independent City
The bill that created the municipality of New York City was signed into law on May 1, 1897, but the talking and the negotiating had been going on for years beforehand, particularly between the cities of Brooklyn and New York.
So many of Brooklyn’s transportation advances revolved around its location as a midpoint between the important and productive agrarian regions of eastern Brooklyn and Long Island, and the ports, businesses and financial power of lower Manhattan.
When ferry service was successfully established between Brooklyn and Manhattan in the late 1700s, Brooklyn became New York City’s first suburb. The steamship ferry lines of the early 1800s solidified that status.
But the whole of Kings County was a collection of towns, each with its own governing bodies, elected officials and special identities. Being part of the same county was not the same as being part of the city of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn, as we know it today, was originally six separate towns: five Dutch and one English, all settled in the early-to-mid 1600s.
The towns of Brooklyn, Flatbush, New Utrecht, Flatlands, Bushwick and Gravesend were united as Kings County in 1683, 20 years after the British takeover of New Amsterdam. But they were still independent towns, with smaller villages and hamlets within their greater borders.
The cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg were joined in 1854 and Brooklyn annexed the town of New Lots in 1886. Flatbush, Gravesend and New Utrecht became part of Brooklyn in 1894, and Flatlands — the last holdout — completed the city of Brooklyn in 1896.
Many of these annexations didn’t happen without a fight — especially in Flatbush, which voted against becoming a part of the city of Brooklyn, but that’s another story for another time.
1900 postcard via eBay
Brooklyn and Manhattan — Codependent Rivals
In the 19th century, Brooklyn became the third-largest city in the nation. Brooklyn had important industries, ports and centers of business, along with its own civic center, cultural institutions and diverse neighborhoods.
Brooklyn had its own transportation centers, rail and streetcar lines, and roads. It also had its own independent parks, police, corrections and fire departments, water and gas companies, and, later, telephone and electric companies, as well as a separate and very progressive public school system.
It had its own government, courts and newspapers, and had Brooklyn been located anywhere else, it would still be an independent and successful city. But it was directly across the river from Manhattan, and the two cities’ futures would always be joined.
All this time, Brooklyn competed with Manhattan to see which could be the better city. Many of Brooklyn’s Victorian-era city fathers and boosters put a lot of time and money into making Brooklyn a first-class city of its own.
Manhattan got Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park. Brooklyn got Olmstead and Vaux to do one better — Prospect Park. Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art? Ha! Meet the massively larger-in-plan Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Sciences, today’s Brooklyn Museum.
Manhattan’s wimpy Grand Army Plaza? We got our own Grand Army Plaza, twice as big and much more impressive. It goes on.
Brooklynites — from merchant princes to clerks and bookkeepers — have been commuting to Manhattan to make their fortunes as soon as transportation allowed. They traveled first by ferryboat, then steam ferry, then, in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge. That would be followed by the other bridges and their roadways, a tunnel and, finally, subway trains.
The Brooklyn Bridge was really the turning point and catalyst for talk of consolidation between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Bridge, 1905 via eBay
Two Cities Linked by Commerce and a Bridge Should Become One
By 1883, it was a well-known fact that economic success in Manhattan meant economic success in Brooklyn, as the prosperity of Brooklynites working in Manhattan spread the wealth to that city, in terms of real estate, retail opportunities and every other aspect of everyday life. Talk of consolidation began in earnest.
In 1879, the state legislature began debating the issue. Those who were for the consolidation spoke lavishly of the profits that would be made, especially in Brooklyn.
Space-starved Manhattanites swarmed to Brooklyn in search of homes, and businesses flowed across the bridge in search of room for factories and warehouses.
In order to not sound quite so mercenary and to smooth out the crass commercialism, these same people also spoke of how the well-heeled ladies of Brooklyn would be able to claim they were from New York City when they traveled abroad or around the nation — a bragging point as impressive as being from London or Paris.
A larger New York City would have a population, physical size and municipal power as great, or greater, than London or Paris. This would put New York City on a par with Europe’s great cities, something Americans have long been obsessed with.
But not everyone in Brooklyn was on board
There were many eloquent voices opposing the merger. During the last three decades of the 19th century, the city of Brooklyn had been doing some consolidating of its own. Always a fiercely independent bunch, Flatbush and the outermost southern and western parts of Kings County had resisted joining the city of Brooklyn.
The thought of annexing themselves to Manhattan and the rest of the proposed greater city didn’t go down well with a lot of Brooklynites, and their reaction, as well as what happened next, will be the subject of the next chapter of the “Great Mistake.”
Top postcard: 1900s Brooklyn Bridge, via eBay. Below: Stereoscopic photo of Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrians, 1890s, via New York Public Library.
A version of this post ran in 2011 as “The Great Mistake,” part 1
Walkabout: “The Great Mistake” — How Brooklyn Lost Its Independence
Walkabout: “The Great Mistake” — How Brooklyn Lost Its Independence, Part 2
Walkabout: Policing the “Great Mistake,” Part 1