A recent post offered the term in a casual manner, with the statement that I had “convinced my wife to meet me in Queens Plaza after she got out of work in the city.” This started a bit of a debate in the comments section about the term which I haven’t been able to stop considering. If you’re a native New Yorker, and by native I include the 5 Boroughs, as well as Nassau, Suffolk, White Plains, or eastern Jersey – you are likely to refer to Manhattan as “the City.” The outer reaches of commuter land might substitute “New York” for “the City.” Typical usage is “we had dinner in the city” or “went to a concert in the city” or “works in the city” and so on. I’ve been overly intrigued about this one, for some reason, and have engaged in conversation about it with several people from all walks on the usage of the term. Most everyone, from Elected Officials to my local bartender in Astoria, agree on “the City” as referring solely to Manhattan.
What’s kind of interesting is that the so called “new people,” those who have found their way here in the last twenty years or so from the vast wilds of North America, think that this is all crazy talk. They look at Brooklyn and Queens’s East River coast and ask “what is this, the country?” To the generation of New Yorkers who were around in the 1890s that left the crowded streets of Manhattan for greener pastures on Long Island, it actually was.
More after the jump…
Historically, Manhattan (and a section of the Bronx) alone was New York City until the consolidation of the City of Greater New York in 1898. That’s when Dick Croker and the Tammany boys pulled off a deal which brought the populous City of Brooklyn and the relatively rural communities of Staten Island and what we call Queens (they were mainly after Long Island City), as well as the northern reaches of the Bronx, into the five boroughs arrangement which would be familiar to any living New Yorker.
The consolidated City is the entity that built most of the bridges and tunnels, created the FDNY out of many smaller fire departments, and built a lot of our schools. The consolidated City is also the entity that began to export every dirty industry and ugly occupation from the island of Manhattan to the so called “outer boroughs” which is why if you flush a toilet below 79th street, the flow goes to Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant over in Brooklyn. Most of your recycling happens in Queens and the Bronx, as well. Staten Island has literally been treated like a garbage dump by “the City” and the worlds largest manmade object is found there – the former Fresh Kills landfill.
In the halcyon days of the Koch era, a derogatory term used by the Manhattanite night life cultural elites emerged which described Queensicans, Brooklynites, Staten Islanders, and the masses of suburbanites as “bridge and tunnel.” It was meant to indicate a dross lack of sophistication, point out various class differences, and it was not something you wanted to be called. Queens, in particular, was considered to be rather coarse and full of “Archie Bunkers” (a reference to the popular character from the “All in the Family” television show). As a young artist growing up in Brooklyn, my singular desire was to live in Manhattan, and my Mom would tell her friends that “he wants to be a bum in the Village.” How things have changed.
That’s the way things were, until the so called “Brooklyn Renaissance” began in the 1990’s, and the western coast of Long Island suddenly gained its modern cache when the “cool kids” began to move there from the Lower East Side, via the Williamsburg Bridge.
I’ve always ascribed to the concept of the “Megalopolis” myself. The Megalopolis has Manhattan as the dense center of a vast urban complex that stretches from Boston to Washington, wherein every location’s importance is measured by how far it is from “the City.” Having driven extensively around New England and the Mid Atlantic states over the years – I can tell you that as far as 400 miles away – highway signs begin to say “New York” with an arrow pointing the way.
One of my little aphorisms is actually “All roads in the United States ultimately lead to New York City, and specifically to Manhattan.”
Using the reasoning that many of the “new people” offer, that “the City” is in fact the entire core of the Big Apple and not just Manhattan island, we’d have to incorporate Newark, Hoboken, Jersey City, Yonkers, and the southern reaches of White Plains and Connecticut into the arrangement. This is probably something that the Tammany crew would have eventually gotten around to if the Roosevelts hadn’t cut them off at the knees back in the early 20th century, but there you go.
I’d really like to hear a bit more from y’all on this subject, about “The City” and what that term means for you. There’s invisible cultural borders all around us. A certain section of New Jersey is where a sandwich called the “Sloppy Joe” stops being ground meat with tomato sauce and starts being a turkey, cole slaw, and russian dressing affair, and there’s a place upstate where hero sandwiches first become “Subs” and then transmogrify into “Grinders” in the Albany area, for instance.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.