On this day, back in 1894, our forebears made what was arguably one of the greatest mistakes in history.
November the 6th is the day that Long Island City and the rest of what is now known as Queens voted to give up their sovereign rights as independent municipal entities to join with Manhattan and the Bronx, Staten Island, and the City of Brooklyn to form the City of Greater New York. An enormous section of Queens just stayed out of the whole thing, and became Nassau County. The whole consolidation effort was run out of Tammany Hall over in Manhattan. It was Dick Croker and JJ Byrne’s personal project, and it all became official in 1898 when our modern five boroughs were established.
From “Queens Borough, New York City, 1910-1920: The Borough of Homes and Industry“, courtesy Google Books:
At the election held November 6, 1894, the question of consolidating with the City of New York was voted upon by the residents of Queens County. The majority of votes in favor came from the Long Island City section whose inhabitants, because of their proximity to New York, had been in favor of the project for many years. The western part of the county therefore became part of the City of New York, and is known as Queens Borough; while the eastern part of the county was erected into a separate county, known as Nassau, taking its name from the early name for Long Island.
Legendary, the last Mayor of Long Island City was named Patrick J. “Battle-Ax” Gleason. For his cooperation with the Tammany Men, Gleason was promised that he’d become the Mayor of the consolidated City but was betrayed by Croker who supported a Tammany loyalist named Robert Anderson Van Wyck instead. If you’ve ever wondered why so much of NYC’s bridges and municipal infrastructure – as well as many of our schools, fire houses, police stations and public buildings of all sorts date back to the dawn of the 20th century… let’s just say that Tammany knew how to pay back a favor. Patronage jobs in the 20 years following the consolidation altered the landscape permanently, and firmly set Manhattan as the political and financial center of all things.
For many years Van Wyck took an active interest in Democratic Party matters, attending many conventions, state and national. Later, Van Wyck was elected Judge of the City Court of New York. He advanced to Chief Justice.
Van Wyck resigned as justice to accept the Democratic Party nomination for Mayor of New York City. He was elected in 1897 by a very large majority. He served as mayor of New York City between 1898 and 1901, as the first mayor to govern New York City after its five boroughs had been consolidated into a single city.
As Mayor, he brought together the innumerable municipal corporations comprising the greater city, adjusting their finances and bringing order out of almost total chaos. He directed construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit, the first subway in Manhattan, and provided for the construction of the proposed Brooklyn Tunnel.
Now, remember, when I say patronage jobs, I mean PATRONAGE. The consolidated City began a building spree, spreading the wealth around to the political establishments all around its new territory. Before the consolidation, there wasn’t a vehicle highway in Queens other than the railroad, for instance. A larger process which began, one that continues to this day – the exporting of dirty industry and infrastructure from Manhattan to the so called “outer boroughs.” The environmental decline of Newtown Creek, for instance, began around the time of the Civil War when Peter Cooper was compelled to remove his glue works from Manhattan (vicinity of modern day Madison Square Park) to (formerly) greener pastures in Brooklyn.
Visiting Manhattan on the 6th on November in 1894 would have revealed a vast and dangerous tenement slum that stretched along both rivers which was broken up by smokestacks, small factories, gas works, and what we would call waste transfer stations. There were pigs loosed upon the streets at night to consume the cast off garbage. There were so many whore houses on the Lower East Side around Corlears Hook (Cherry Street under the Williamsburg Bridge) that the neighborhood gave the profession its modern name – Hookers.
Remember, remember, the 6th of November.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.