Today is the birthday of Long Island City. Here’s her origin story.
In the mid 19th century, Newtown was a municipal entity that encompassed many, many towns, cities, and villages, whose borders stretched from the East River all the way into modern day Nassau County and from Newtown Creek to Bowery Bay. The center of gravity, politics-wise, was in Flushing and Jamaica, where baronial agricultural operations ruled the roost.
In the 1850s, the only railroad connections offered to the local populace went from Jamaica to Brooklyn. The city of Brooklyn was eager to reduce the amount of rail traffic flowing through it and passed a series of laws hindering or outright forbidding the passage of trains. By the 1860s the railroad people were looking for new routes in and out of Manhattan, and decided on one that traveled through Newtown.
Political resistance from the eastern side of Newtown slowed them down — those baronial farmers were worried about competition for the lucrative Manhattan market emerging from Eastern Long Island — so the owners of the NY & Jamaica railroad were forced to get creative.
The Newtown communities along the East River weren’t terribly interested in agriculture, except as just another industrial commodity they could mark up and sell to the rubes in Manhattan.
They saw the future, and it was going to be powered by coal and oil, not corn. Their businesses forged iron and steel, created “natural gas” from coal, printed newspapers and books, kilned ceramics and terra cotta and porcelain, manufactured sugar.
These industrial powers, practitioners of what was called “the Five Black Arts,” banded together and petitioned the State of New York to allow them to secede from Newtown. Bowery Bay, Middleton, Astoria, Blissville, Dutch Kills, Ravenswood, Hunters Point, and sections of what we would call Sunnyside broke away from Newtown to form the new municipality.
The result: Long Island City was born in 1870 on the 6th of May. To read the state act incorporating the new municipality and delineating its boundaries, click here.
As Peter Ross noted in his 1902 book, ““A History of Long Island: From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Volume 1,” until then the area had been “a straggly, dreary, poverty stricken place, with few settlers and these of the poorest class.” Since the coming of the railroad, he wrote, “Railway and manufacturing interests have steadily built up its population and added to its material resources.”
What followed, up until LIC’s consolidation with the City of Greater New York in 1898, is best described by an unofficial “nom de plum” that the independent municipality earned for itself: “The Ancient Home of Graft.” Check out this post for a bit of texture on what LIC was like during the tenure of its last mayor, Patrick “Battle-Ax” Gleason.
Incidentally, if you live in a neighborhood whose zip code starts with “111” you live inside the borders of Long Island City.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.