Walkabout: “The Great Mistake” — How Brooklyn Lost Its Independence, Part 2

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    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? Read Part 1 of this series. Next, read Part 3.

    On January 1, 1898, the City of New York officially rose from the collection of cities, towns and neighborhoods that made up Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx.

    For those who had worked for close to 20 years to make this happen, it was a glorious day. For the common folk of New York, business probably just went on as usual.

    In 1873, talk of a Greater New York City began in earnest. The leading citizens and politicians of both New York and Brooklyn began talking about joining the two cities. The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 gave the idea wings.

    Simon Chittenden, one of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, was one of the first serious proponents of this annexation, and he held meetings in his Brooklyn Heights home, successfully getting the proposal to the 1874 State Legislature. The measure did not pass.

    The chief mover of the Consolidation Movement was Andrew Haswell Green, a Manhattan lawyer, city planner and visionary. Some historians refer to him as the 19th century’s Robert Moses for his vision and determination in changing the face of New York.

    Appointed chairman of the New York City Parks Commission, he worked tirelessly on city planning projects. His name is associated with the creation of Central Park, as well as Riverside, Morningside and Fort Washington parks.

    He widened Broadway, created the circle at Columbus Circle, and sponsored the creation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. He also joined the Tilden, Astor and Lenox funds to finance the creation of the New York Public Library system.

    Green was appointed by the state legislature to be the head of the consolidation commission called the Greater New York Committee.

    Consolidation of New York Great Mistake

    Photo of Andrew Haswell Green via Museum of the City of New York

    Meanwhile, Manhattan was doing some consolidation of its own. In 1874 it annexed the parts of the Bronx just across the Harlem River. This tied the Bronx to New York City, separating it from Westchester County. More territory was added in 1895, creating the Bronx as we know it today.

    Greater New York City, as it was conceived in the 1870s, would have been Manhattan, parts of the Bronx and the city of Brooklyn. After much evidence and debate, the legislature came to the conclusion that this wasn’t enough. The new city would have to be bigger.

    Green was a “big picture” planner. He wanted New York’s greatest treasure — its harbors — to consolidate, creating new port facilities, improved rail lines and commerce. But the fractured power of different municipal governments — along with their graft, petty politics and jealousies — was helping to keep progress away from New York.

    And then there was Chicago.

    The Windy City loomed large over the talk of consolidation because Chicago was on the rise. In 1893, Chicago was chosen over NYC as the site of the World’s Exhibition, the 1893 World’s Fair. This was a tremendous coup and New Yorkers were not happy.

    Consolidation of New York Great Mistake

    The Chicago World’s Exhibition, 1893. Photo via Library of Congress

    When that exposition turned out to be a huge success, not to mention herald a huge change in America’s architecture, technology and society in general, Chicago was the most lauded city in the country.

    It was also growing in size. Chicago was annexing its former suburbs to grow in population and importance. Chicago had its railroads and Great Lakes traffic, making it the premiere city of the Midwest.

    It was as much a hub for business and industry as New York. The city was also the other preferred destination for new immigrants from Europe, making its population and potential workforce rise.

    Chicago was a major threat to New York’s dominance in the U.S. If ever there was a reason for a consolidated New York, one need only look west. It was time for New York to step up.

    Green drew up the lines for consolidation, adding two new potential boroughs to the mix. His choices were based on two major considerations: bringing together all of the major port facilities in the Metropolitan New York area, and the sharing of resources, such as fresh water.

    Brooklyn and Manhattan were obvious, and parts of the Bronx were already tied to Manhattan. The Bronx had access to the East River and the Long Island Sound.

    In Queens, Long Island City had been an independent city as well. Its shoreline and port facilities were important to the plan, as was Queens’ vast Jamaica Bay. Queens needed to be cut from neighboring Nassau County.

    Staten Island offered the waterfront and bays that surrounded it. Green didn’t want to lose them to New Jersey.

    Beating Chicago was icing on the cake, but the real issue in consolidating the city was consolidating the vast resources of the area’s harbors, the efficiency of shared municipal facilities, agencies and tax revenues and, of course, big money and power.

    The business interests and politicians, both honest and corrupt, soon jumped aboard with great enthusiasm.

    Consolidation of New York Great Mistake

    Political cartoon by Edward Donnell for Punch Magazine, 1894, via Wikimedia Commons

    In 1894, a non-binding referendum was passed with a majority voting for consolidation, even in Brooklyn, where it passed by only 300 votes. This had two opposing results. The pro-consolidation forces considered the vote a victory and thought consolidation was now a done deal. They were wrong.

    The anti-consolidation opposition kicked into high gear, ratcheting up the anti-consolidation sentiment so much that, by 1895, it was able to block any further legislation. Green was roadblocked. Staten Island and parts of Queens had issues with the merger, but the big opposition came from Brooklyn.

    For many of Brooklyn’s elite, consolidation was a matter of Brooklyn getting taxed for Manhattan’s problems. Brooklynites saw their taxes rising. They also saw Brooklyn losing its identity and civic pride, an identity many had worked hard to create.

    They were also afraid of Manhattan’s Tammany Hall. An advertisement in the Brooklyn Eagle, run several times in October of 1894, stated:

    Every voter can vote “for” or “against” the consolidation of Brooklyn with New York. He should vote against it this year, for now is not the time for it. Brooklyn is a City of Homes and Churches. New York is a city of Tammany Hall and Crime government. Rents are twice as cheap in Brooklyn as in New York, and homes are to be bought for a quarter of the money. The price of rule here is barely more than a third of what it is in New York. Government here is by public opinion and for the public interest. If tied to New York, Brooklyn would be a Tammany suburb, to be kicked, looted and bossed as such. Vote against consolidation now and let the speculators wait till a better time, when New York will offer something like fair terms.

    Green had appealed to New Yorkers’ sense of Manifest Destiny and shared resources. He failed. It would take Republican politician Thomas Platt to wrest the movement away from him.

    Platt got down and dirty; he called in his political favors and muscle and the measure was pushed through the state legislature in 1896. The charter was passed in 1897 and, on January 1, 1898, Greater New York City was born.

    Next time: the aftermath of the “Great Mistake.” Top illustration of city planner Andrew Haswell Green via Gallup Family Association.

    This story originally posted in 2011 as Chapters Two and Three of “The Great Mistake.”

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