Walkabout: “The Great Mistake,” Part 1

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    Read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this story.

    With Brooklyn’s newly crowned status as the newest “Hippest Place on Earth” in 2011, comes some nostalgic feelings about the “Great Mistake”, 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 twenty years. Involved was a tremendous amount of money and power, business interests, tax revenues, city bureaucracies, and social issues and civic identity.

    For some people, it was inevitable and progressive. For others, it was the end of the world as they knew it. For them, it was the Death of Brooklyn. The law 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 city of Brooklyn, and the city of New York.

    So many of Brooklyn’s advances in terms of transportation revolved around our location as a midpoint between the important and productive agrarian region of eastern Brooklyn and further into Long Island, and the ports, businesses, and financial power of lower Manhattan.

    No sooner had ferry service been successfully established between Brooklyn and Manhattan, than Brooklyn Heights became New York City’s first suburb, in the late 1700’s. The steamship ferry lines of the early 1800’s solidified that status. But Kings County, as a whole, 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, one English, all settled in the early to mid-1600’s. The towns of Brooklyn, Flatbush, New Utrecht, Flatlands, Bushwick and Gravesend were united as Kings County in 1683, twenty years after the British takeover of New Amsterdam.

    But they were still independent towns, with smaller villages and hamlets within their greater borders. In 1854, the cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh were joined, and in 1886, Brooklyn annexed the town of New Lots.

    Flatbush, Gravesend, and New Utrecht became part of Brooklyn in 1894, and Flatlands completed the city of Brooklyn in 1896. Many of these annexations didn’t go by 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.

    The whole of the 19th century saw Brooklyn grow to become the third largest city in the nation. Brooklyn had important industries, ports, centers of business, its own civic center, cultural institutions, and diverse neighborhoods. It had its own transportation centers, rail and streetcar lines and roads.

    Brooklyn 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. 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 was in a competition with Manhattan to see which could be the better city. I don’t really think Manhattan was playing, but Brooklyn certainly was. It boiled at being called “Manhattan’s Dormitory”, a city hanging onto its better, like a parasite, supplying little to the world than labor for Manhattan’s industry.

    This was not entirely true, there was plenty of industry flourishing in Brooklyn, but paranoid perception has little to do with actual fact. Many of Brooklyn’s Victorian-era city fathers and boosters put a lot of time and money into making Brooklyn a first class city.

    Manhattan got Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park, the city fathers lobbied for Olmstead and Vaux to do one better with Prospect Park. Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art? Ha! Meet the massively larger-in-plan Brooklyn Institue of Arts and Science, now the 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.

    But it wasn’t a fair fight. Manhattan has always been about the pursuit of money, first, last, and always. From the day Peter Stuyvesant “bought” Manhattan, the city of New Amsterdam, then New York, has always been about trade, commerce and money.

    And as soon as they could get over there on a relatively easy basis, Brooklynites, from merchant princes to clerks and bookkeepers, have been commuting to Manhattan to make their fortunes. 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.

    By 1883, it was a well-known fact that the economies of the two cities were intrinsically linked. Many civic leaders and businessmen on both sides of the river knew that what was good for one city had a positive effect on the other.

    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.

    Brooklyn’s own industries, some of which were unique to Brooklyn, and vitally important to the success of both cities, also benefited from the proximity of Manhattan’s business and banking, as well as its shared piers and harbors, and Manhattan’s international reputation. Talk of consolidation began in earnest.

    The local newspapers of both cities were full of the talk of consolidation, especially by 1879, when the State Legislature began debating the issue. Those who were for consolidation spoke lavishly of the profits that would be made, especially in Brooklyn, as 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 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 travelled abroad, or around the nation – a bragging point as impressive as being from London, or Paris.

    Speaking of which, these consolidation boosters noted, a greater New York City would then have the population, physical size, and municipal power, as great, or greater than London or Paris, putting us on a par with Europe’s great cities, something that Americans have long been obsessed with.

    Meanwhile, there were eloquent and vociferous critics of the plan, especially in Brooklyn. During the last three decades of the 19th century, the city of Brooklyn had been going about consolidating the various towns of Kings County.

    Always a fiercely independent bunch, it had taken quite a bit of cajoling, then political muscle, to force Flatbush and the outermost southern and western parts of Kings County to become a part of the City of Brooklyn, and the last holdout, the rather remote town of Flatlands, didn’t become part of Brooklyn until 1896, only two years before the annexation, itself.

    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”.

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