‘Boroughing’ in to New York City

Posted August 23rd, 2012 at 11:59 am (UTC-4)
4 comments

Writing about Ellis Island last time, I mentioned that the U.S. Supreme Court ended years of controversy over exactly where the old immigration station — now a museum — officially sits.  New York Harbor, of course.  In New Jersey waters, not New York’s, it turns out.

This is most people's image of New York.  It's accurate — up to a point.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is most people’s image of New York. It’s accurate — up to a point. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Which got me thinking about another, nearby saga of geography, litigation, and diplomacy.  It involves the sprawling, densely populated city of New York, which even many Americans often confuse with its smallest section: the 5900 hectares of skyscrapers, honking taxicabs, clattering subways, and Wall Street trading frenzy on tiny Manhattan Island.

New York is so much more: five separate jurisdictions — including some that were dragged screaming into an unhappy confederation — that became a colossus of roads, bridges, homes, apartment buildings, and humanity.  Together as New York City, they anticipated the America of today: big, braggadocios, multicultural, materialistic.

Long before it was positioned as the nation’s vibrant, boastful “Big Apple,” New York was known as the Big Onion, a grittier, more piquant realm of many layers.  You can unpeel these overlays on historical walking tours of the city that take you past Harlem churches that were once synagogues; the nation’s largest Chinese Catholic church that was once a Lutheran house of worship; and whole neighborhoods that were German, Italian, East European-Jewish, and then Chinese in turn.

A painting, hanging in the lobby of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in Lower Manhattan, of the bustling New Amsterdam harbor. (Carol M. Highsmith)

A painting, hanging in the lobby of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in Lower Manhattan, of the bustling New Amsterdam harbor. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Like the nation, New York opened its arms to immigrants, then fretted that the new arrivals were ruining the culture. In the 1600s, Peter Stuyvesant, the grumpy, peg-legged governor of the Dutch West India Company’s New Netherland colony — which included most of what is now New York State, New Jersey, and parts of Delaware and Connecticut — complained constantly to his superiors in Holland about the riffraff he was asked to rule.  Even then, the 1,000 or so colonists in his capital, New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, spoke 18 different languages.

From the beginning, New Netherland was a business venture, not some haven from Old World religious persecution.  And commerce, not ideology, has called the tune there since.  Poking around the coastline of North America on behalf of the Dutch in 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson marveled at the wide, protected bays and harbors surrounding what would later be called Manhattan Island, and at the surprisingly deep water of both the river that soon would be named for him and the little strait that would be misnamed the East “River.”

This gives you the lay of the land in sprawling New York City.  (New York Tourist Commission)

This gives you the lay of the land in sprawling New York City. (New York Tourist Commission)

When Brooklyn, Staten Island and two additional jurisdictions that New Yorkers call “boroughs” were brought within New York City’s borders almost three centuries later, 1,046 kilometers (650 miles) of generally ice-free oceanfront land were available for development and commerce.

It had become clear that the Hudson River, combined with the ambitious Erie Canal being built far upriver, would be the entrée to the natural resources of the Great Lakes and beyond.

New York was ideally suited to dominate trade with the American heartland and with Europe, and it proceeded to do with gusto.

And with moxie.

In the 1890s, when Manhattan Island seemed full to capacity, before cities knew how to grow upward as well as outward, its planners simply annexed or coaxed in their neighbors as boroughs — or administrative subdivisions — instantly doubling the population and tripling the city’s size.

 

New York, then confined to Manhattan Island and a little of the Bronx, to the left. Brooklyn is front and center in this 1855 painting by Theodore Muller. (Library of Congress)

New York, then confined to Manhattan Island and a little of the Bronx, to the left. Brooklyn is front and center in this 1855 painting by Theodore Muller. (Library of Congress)

Even Brooklyn, a proud, independent city of 850,000 people that had been connected to Manhattan via the world’s longest suspension bridge — its bridge, the Brooklyn bridge — since 1883.  Its residents were mostly opposed to the referendum to create a Greater New York.  But Brooklyn’s business leaders favored the idea on the naive assumption that they and their bustling shipyards — not arrogant Manhattan — would dominate the new megalopolis.

Lightly settled Staten Island and the westernmost villages in Queens, whose farmland was already Manhattan’s vegetable garden just past Brooklyn out on Long Island, liked the idea because they foresaw improved roads and city services.  Queens’s even more rural eastern towns, however, wanted no part of joining an urban mega-city and instead formed their own county, Nassau.

The remaining share of Long Island, stretching far to the east, was never part of the discussion.  Now called Suffolk County, it includes hamlets called the “Hamptons” that became summer beach colonies of some of America’s wealthiest, and some say snootiest, families.

The Bronx's Old Mill, which produced snuff, photographed about 1900.  (Library of Congress)

The Bronx’s Old Mill, which produced snuff, photographed about 1900. (Library of Congress)

Most of the Bronx, to the north of Manhattan — the only piece of the grand, new New York that actually sits on the U.S. mainland — already had been annexed, so becoming a borough of the world’s second-largest city (behind London at the time) was taken in stride.

The men who schemed to create Greater New York, notably planner Andrew Haswell Green, wanted the city to grow, for sure.  But even more, they wanted the heavily Democratic city to control both sides of the bridges that connected it with the rest of the mostly Republican state.  And they wanted total dominion over the important harbors and wharves.

Green had once ridden to the northern tip of Manhattan, gazed out upon the Bronx across the Harlem River, and daydreamed of bringing “these magnificent distances” under city control.  Not incidentally, he pointed out as he drew a circle roughly 25 km (16 miles) out from New York City Hall, expansion would reel in the riches of wealthy landowners who had established country estates to avoid paying city taxes.

When the 829-km² (320-square-mile) city of 3.4 million people was finally realized in 1898, it instantly surpassed 40 entire states in population.  Ever after, Andrew Green would be called “The Father of New York” by admirers and the devil incarnate by detractors, one whom shot and killed him in 1903.

The skinny Tower Building is the central portion, with the archway at street level. It's long gone from the streetscape. (nyc-architecture.com)

The skinny Tower Building is the central portion, with the archway at street level. It’s long gone from the streetscape. (nyc-architecture.com)

To Brooklyn’s dismay, Manhattan remained the core of the Big Onion.

In 1883, when the Brooklyn Bridge opened across the East River, its western tower was the tallest structure on Manhattan Island.  Four years later on Broadway, architect Bradford Gilbert erected the 13-story Tower Building on a plot barely 6 meters wide.

If Gilbert could do it, so could others, and by the turn of the century the skyline of Manhattan was changed from a low-slung mishmash of ships’ masts, church steeples, row-house roofs, and squat factories into a panorama of towers reaching high into the sky.

And I don’t need to mention that this was but a modest overture to the parade of true skyscrapers to come in the 1930s.

You probably know about the Empire State Building and Manhattan’s fine museums and its vast Central Park.  So let me, instead, bring the other boroughs into view.

Brooklyn — Breuckelen in Dutch — was created as a place for New Amsterdam’s elite to build manor homes and truck farms.

Ferry service to it was spotty, though, even after the English took over, until Robert Fulton demonstrated his new steamboat in 1807.

Carol photographed Brooklyn's skyline about 1990.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Carol photographed Brooklyn’s skyline about 1990. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Brooklyn’s city center grew in the hills across from Manhattan, and enclaves of stately brownstone buildings arose thereabouts.  Brooklyn was inundated by immigrants, first the Irish and Germans in the 1830s.  It was poor Irish — already speaking English with a brogue and trying to cope with American idioms and remnants of Dutch — who first developed the famous “Brooklyn accent.”  Comedians and Hollywood characters such as the Bowery Boys greatly exaggerated it: “Youse meet me at Toity-toid and Toid Av’nue.”

So fiercely did Brooklyn trumpet its self-sufficiency that even after it lost its independence, other New Yorkers talked about the bristling “Brooklyn attitude,” and billboards could be found in the early 1900s welcoming visitors to “America’s Fourth-Largest City.”  For decades, Brooklyn’s docks and marine terminals, where the famous Union ironclad warship Monitor that battled the Confederates’ own ironclad Virginia in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s had been built and launched, were more than a match for Manhattan’s.

Brooklyn has its own spectacular 213-hectare (526-acre) greensward, Prospect Park, designed by the same men who created Central Park.  Long revered as the “City of Churches,” the borough offers a full day’s tour of impressive houses of worship.

Brooklynites will tell you their festivals are less contrived and commercial than those in Manhattan, and that the delicatessens along Flatbush Avenue are as delightfully idiosyncratic as ever.  Best chopped liver-and-egg sandwich I’ve ever eaten, I can tell you.

Abandoned and burned-out high-rise apartments in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood have been replaced by pleasant one- and two-family houses.

A massive crowd at Coney Island on a hot day was depicted on this postcard, produced about 1910.  (Library of Congress)

A massive crowd at Coney Island on a hot day was depicted on this postcard, produced about 1910. (Library of Congress)

Even Brooklyn’s seaside resort, Coney Island, bordered by housing projects and once thought hopelessly tacky, is bright, bouncy, and fun again.

This is NOT the newest Ferris wheel at Coney Island, but it's of a much more recent vintage than the postcard view above!  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is NOT the newest Ferris wheel at Coney Island, but it’s of a much more recent vintage than the postcard view above! (Carol M. Highsmith)

Last year, the first roller-coaster to be built at Coney Island in 80 years opened near the boardwalk.

The Bronx got its unusual name from the area’s first settler, Danish immigrant Jonas Bronck.  His family had clout, and everyone down in New Netherland referred to “The Broncks’ farm.”  Until the 20th Century, the Bronx remained a land of pastures, country homes, and modest factories, including a snuff mill.

The Bronx was one of the first parts of New York to succumb to rampant subdivision and apartment construction that would eventually lead to an oversaturation of low-income housing and to waves of devastation and abandonment that would scar the borough for decades.

The cycle began in the mid-1900s as wealthy Bronx landowners sold off their manors in favor of places in the “real” countryside, out in Westchester County.

A greatly spruced-up Grand Concourse today.  It's no longer grand, but it's a whole lot more inviting than it was just a few years ago.  (Jim.henderson, Wikipedia Commons)

A greatly spruced-up Grand Concourse today. It’s no longer grand, but it’s a whole lot more inviting than it was just a few years ago. (Jim.henderson, Wikipedia Commons)

With the empty buildings, rising crime, and falling population came a withdrawal of services by a city that, by the 1970s, was teetering on bankruptcy.  The Bronx’s “Grand Concourse,” a boulevard of apartment buildings constructed during the “City Beautiful” Movement of the early 20th Century, deteriorated in the wake of “white flight” to the suburbs by the lion’s share of its residents and the influx of poor people displaced by slum clearance in Manhattan to the south.

About the only ray of sunshine was the unifying force of the hometown New York Yankees, the proud “Bronx Bombers.”  But even they endured woeful seasons from 1981 through 1995 before baseball’s most storied team would challenge for a championship again.

Compared with its bleak days, though, “the Bronx is up,” not just geographically as in the “New York, New York” song from the musical “On the Town,” in which Manhattan’s Bowery neighborhood is “down.”  Much of the blight is gone, replaced by promising developments of one- and two-family units, as well as city and private colleges and topflight medical centers.  And two of New York’s finest cultural fixtures, the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, are thriving.

A greatly spruced-up Grand Concourse today.  It's no longer grand, but it's a whole lot more inviting than it was just a few years ago.  (Jim.henderson, Wikipedia Commons)

The animal-themed “Rainey Gates” at the Bronx Zoo, designed by noted sculptor Paul Manship. Paul J. Rainey was big-game hunter, but he was also a philanthropist who left millions of dollars to create nature preserves. His wife paid for the gates in his memory. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Admirers of Queens, the largest and most residential borough, with more than 170,000 single-family homes, cite the evidence of neighborhood identity that has lingered through decades of rapid urbanization.  Flushing, Floral Park, Long Island City, and dozens of other Queens communities have retained their individuality.

In one of them, Steinway, German immigrant Wilhelm Steinweg built pianos and Americanized his name after the instruments’ quality became renowned.

Queens’s population growth was stoked by two world’s fairs held in Corona Park in Flushing Meadows, in 1939-40 and 1964-65.

The first was organized around the Trylon, a conical column, and the Perisphere, a giant globe that, along with the demonstration of wonders such as television, symbolized “The World of Tomorrow.”

Gilmore Clark's "Unisphere" in Queens is 12 stories high and weighs 409,000 kg (900,000 pounds).  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Gilmore Clark’s “Unisphere” in Queens is 12 stories high and weighs 409,000 kg (900,000 pounds). (Carol M. Highsmith)

The centerpiece of the ’64 fair, still standing, was a giant “Unisphere,” celebrating the beginning of the Space Age and representing “Peace Through Understanding.”

The latter fair’s mover and shaker was the indefatigable planner Robert Moses, czar of the city’s vast park system, who had also worn more than 10 other official city and state hats during his career.  Moses’s authority extended to bridges and highways, and he used the fair as a raison d’etre for building expressways across Queens that produced an enormous boom in residential traffic.  To this day, traffic often backs up on the roads to Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports, which together cover more than 5,000 hectares (2,000 acres) of Queens.  No wonder aviation is the borough’s largest industry.

Nowhere in New York City, though, has the impact of a new tunnel, bridge, or expressway been as dramatic as it has in Staten Island.  Through most of its history, the hilly island at the mouth of the Hudson had been an afterthought.  It took the Dutch 37 years of bloody battles with uncooperative Indians before they got a foothold on Staaten Eylandt, which the English who supplanted them called “Richmond” after a duke of that time.

Other than seagulls swarming atop the Fresh Kills landfill (e.g., dump), there's probably no better symbol of Staten Island than the ferry that runs there from, and to, Manhattan.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Other than seagulls swarming atop the Fresh Kills landfill (e.g., dump), there’s probably no better symbol of Staten Island than the ferry that runs there from, and to, Manhattan. (Wikipedia Commons)

Well into the 20th Century, its residents were islanders in temperament as well as fact, savoring their serenity at night and on weekends after ferry rides to and from work in Manhattan.  They were tied to New York City financially, but to New Jersey physically by the 1928 Goethals Bridge, and there was plenty of open space around their 62 villages full of single-family homes and seashore cottages.

Then came the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn and changing it forever.  Tens of thousands of Brooklynites (and others) crossed the span and moved in, a new expressway cut the island in half, and developers hurriedly threw up apartment and condominium complexes.  And the pile of the city’s stinking garbage, dumped in the island’s Fresh Kills wetlands, grew so large that the landfill could be seen from space.  So thousands of longtime locals departed Staten Island for New Jersey and beyond.

Change has brought challenges and stresses to every New York City borough.  Indian, Vietnamese, Hispanic, African-American, and Russian neighborhoods evolved where Greeks, Italians, European and Syrian Jews, and Anglo-Saxons once carved out enclaves.  “We’re a social laboratory,” one Bronx resident told American Way magazine.

But for all of New Yorkers’ notorious brashness, cynicism, and gruffness, they eventually accept all comers.  As Hunter College history professor Ed O’Donnell, who co-founded Big Onion Walking Tours, once told me, today’s Vietnamese, Pakistani, Haitian, Indian, and Iranian immigrants are self-selected.  They could have gone elsewhere, but like the Irish or the Italians, the Czechs or Germans or Russian Jews of a century ago, they chose to come to New York, bringing new energy to the challenge of living in the most diverse, hard-driving, self-absorbed city in America.

Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood, which the locals spell "Boro Park," holds one of the largest communities of Orthodox Jews outside Israel.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, which the locals spell “Boro Park,” holds one of the largest communities of Orthodox Jews outside Israel. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Mishmash. A confused jumble. A hodgepodge.

Moxie. Determination, nerve. It takes real moxie, for instance, to get up and leave in the middle of your boss’s presentation.

Piquant. Spicy, pungent, savory, having a pleasant taste.

Snuff. A kind of smokeless, often flavored, tobacco made from ground leaves. The product is usually inhaled, or “snuffed,” through the nose.

4 Responses to “‘Boroughing’ in to New York City”

  1. Thanks for an absolutely wonderful and spot-on history of my hometown.

    Evelyn Kanter
    Editor, New York City on the Cheap smartphone app
    Publisher, NYC on the Cheap website

  2. Susan says:

    A friend lived in Park Slope in Brooklyn. She lived on a corner and the other three corners were churches. It was wonderful on Sunday mornings.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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