Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Consolidation of NYC in 1898

This is the second (and final) assignment for my NYC history class. For this paper, we were to imagine ourselves in 1898. New York has just expanded to include all five boroughs. We have just been hired by the mayor's office to discuss the problems created by the growth of the city and to suggest solutions to these problems. Side note: upon reading my paper, my wife commented that she liked it because my ideas were so communistic. 8-)


The Mayor's office of New York, recently consolidated to include the outlying territories of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx, has requested an analysis of major problems likely to face the consolidated metropolis. This report discusses three such problems, along with suggested solutions.


Originally, New York as a city was composed only of Manhattan. Manhattan was given a head start as a dominant territory after being granted domain over the East River and its ferry traffic, essentially robbing Brooklyn control of its own waterfront.

By the 1850s, the state combined the police, fire, and health departments of Manhattan and Brooklyn into joint metropolitan boards and soon after, annexation of the outlying territory was being promoted. In 1874, portions of the western Bronx were moved from Westchester County into New York, with additional portions joining in 1895.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn had been undertaking similar annexation projects, combining the previously independent towns of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick in 1855. By 1896, Brooklyn also included New Lots, Flatbush, New Utrecht, Gravesend, and Flatlands.

With both Brooklyn and New York growing via annexation, it seemed a logical next step to combine the two, plus other surrounding areas, into a single metropolis. Similar centralization efforts have demonstrated benefits in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, and London. Centralized planning, coordination of municipal functions (e.g., port administration, utilities, bridges, transportation, and other city services) could be more efficiently handled by a single entity than through the attempted cooperation of dozens of independent towns and villages that were in existence.

Similarly, the potential cost of doing nothing was great. The port, one of New York's greatest assets, was losing ground to other, more efficient facilities. Numerical superiority in terms of square miles of terrain or population could, by itself, rob a city of prestige, taking with it the magnetic pull of corporate headquarters and cultural activities.

As a result of these factors and more, consolidation was recommended by the voters in 1894 and approved by the state in 1897.


Inequality Among The Boroughs

New York was the leading city prior to consolidation, and has been chosen as the seat of government for the consolidated city. There is a danger that Manhattan-centric policies will be implemented, to the detriment of the other boroughs.

Overall, the city is expected to prosper. Consolidation is producing economies of scale in important areas, and is allowing the best minds in the city to focus on the ideal solutions to our problems. Coordination issues, inordinately complicated when there were 40-some independent entities to be considered, should be greatly simplified - municipal utilities, transportation, sewage control, and water supply, to name a few.

However, there is concern that the outer boroughs may not fare as well as Manhattan, and that across-the-board prosperity will not be seen. For example, tax rates, zoning codes, and business ordinances that make sense in Manhattan may make less sense in other, more residential areas.

Additionally, there is the danger that major cultural institutions, such as parks, museums, and theaters, may flourish in Manhattan, while being ignored elsewhere. Brooklyn, in particular, has exemplary cultural variety, rivaling that of Manhattan; any loss in or degradation of Brooklyn's amenities would be a loss to the entire city.

Historically, the south end of Manhattan has been a focus of business activity in the region. But other parts of the region also have thriving business centers. There is a concern that Manhattan businesses may displace those in other boroughs as the primary drivers for commerce and employment. For example, Brooklyn has fine port facilities, and the Jamaica Bay region could also be developed into a port. But if New York as a whole is Manhattan-centric, then Jamaica Bay may be seen as too far away for development of this type.

If Manhattan does become a center of business and culture, this could well mean that the other boroughs would be relegated to housing for the workers of Manhattan. An alternative possibility is that, with less political power, the outer boroughs could become homes to the undesirable elements of any great city, including the dumping of waste, the site for polluting industries and facilities, and the residence of those without homes or means of support.

The following are suggested solutions to ensure that all boroughs are treated on an equal footing:
  • Consider the effect of all regulations on differing groups of citizens. If necessary, develop differing sets of codes, regulations, tax rates, and ordinances for different areas of the metropolis.
  • Ensure that municipal funding on cultural institutions is evenly spread across all the boroughs. Use such funding to develop new cultural amenities in areas that now lack them. Additionally, ensure that existing cultural amenities, such as those in Brooklyn, continue to be funded and expanded.
  • In centralizing transportation planning, ensure that transportation routes for trolleys and other conveyances are designed to move citizens from their residences to all business centers and cultural destinations. If public transportation is limited to routes that travel in and out of Manhattan, it will greatly hinder the ability of any other locality to draw the public.
  • Ensure that all boroughs receive their equitable share of both desirable and undesirable elements of city life. Homes for rich and poor, clean offices and dirty industrial facilities -- all should be located in all boroughs.
Loss of Local Control
In the past, the independent municipalities and other entities that now comprise New York could look out for their own citizens. If the local citizens were unhappy with the way in which their problems or concerns were being addressed, it was a fairly quick and easy process to change the governmental representatives and alter the decision-making process.

The danger here is that, as the problems became bigger, the focus will be on the overall city-wide problem, and the local parts of the problem will get lost in the process. Previously, the local governments in the region had control over taxes and assessments, expenditures, development policies, and the racial and ethnic composition of neighborhoods. These smaller cities could experiment in small ways, learn quickly from their mistakes, and generally be more nimble. All of this local control is likely to vanish as the centralized government determines policies for the entire region. With a larger government, the decision-making process takes longer, is more prone to compromise, and tends to be focused on the big picture.
For example, as transportation options have increased, people have moved out of the city center to more suburban areas that are less crowded, with larger homes and smaller governments. Brooklynites have generally preferred a slower pace of life over the frenetic tempo of Manhattan. How can Brooklyn ensure that this quality of life continues for its residents?
The following are suggested solutions to ensure that the localities within New York continue to maintain some local control over their own destinies:
  • For selected facets of life, turn over central control to regional or local governing boards, fully empowered to set and implement policy. This will allow the local residents to maintain full control over portions of their lives.
  • Allow experimentation in policy-making to occur on a regional level. Some policies do not need to be implemented city-wide, but can instead be established according to local needs and desires.
Inequitable Burdens on Citizens
Anytime that a group joins together, the distribution of costs and benefits among the group members are unlikely to be equal. There are concerns about tax increases, real estate speculation, the spreading of Tammany politics, increased competition from similar businesses in other boroughs, and increased crime. Additionally, others are thankful for reduced debt, access to water, and better employment opportunities. Former New York residents who had left for the outlying areas are now back onto the tax rolls. But, the popular vote tallies in some of the more far-reaching areas were less enthusiastic about consolidation. It is important that all our citizens see and reap the benefits of consolidation.
In addition to the local concerns, upstate citizens are concerned that a consolidated New York will dominate state politics.
The following are suggestions for dealing with the disparity in costs and benefits that will accrue to our citizens in different regions of the city:
  • Quickly implement selected policies that will provide benefits to large numbers of citizens and for which the costs can be spread widely. For example, pollution in the harbor and other waterways has been an ongoing problem. Cleaning up this pollution will provide a visible and tangible benefit to all; having the costs spread among many will reduce the apparent burden to any single citizen. And, because pollution is something that can be readily seen by all, it will be quite apparent to all that action has been taken. By doing this quickly, citizens will have a first impression of their new government taking action on their behalf.
  • Try to ensure that no region or group of citizens is overwhelmingly saddled with reductions in services or amenities, without seeing any associated improvements. The regional boards may be able to assist with assessing the geographic impacts of policies. As for citizen groups, the government can partner with churches, civic associations, and other clubs and organizations to allow these voices to be heard.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press: New York, 1999.
Ellis, Edward Robb, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History From 1524 To The Present, Coward-McCann, Inc.: New York, 1966.
Fieldston School, Department of History, "Inventing Gotham,", August 6, 2009.
Gonzalez, Evelyn, The Bronx, Columbia University Press: New York, 2004.
Hammack, David C., "Consolidation," The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, Yale University Press: New Haven and The New-York Historical Society: New York, 1995.
Tierney, John, "Brooklyn Could Have Been A Contender," The New York Times Magazine, December 28, 1997.

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