The Great Mistake
EARLY ONE NOVEMBER, a momentous vote was held in the United States. By the end of the day, victory was announced, then retracted, then debated and argued for a month. Accusations of voter fraud were made, miscounts were charged, and recounts demanded. Finally, early in December, a result was announced: by the very slimmest of margins a controversial new political force emerged victorious to radically alter the cultural and economic landscape.
Sound familiar? Florida in 2000, right? Wrong. Brooklyn in 1894.
On November 7, 1894, the residents of New York, Westchester, Richmond, Kings, and Queens counties went to the polls to vote on consolidation. If approved, the measure would subsume the previously independent municipalities into one city, under the centralized control of New York’s City Hall. The measure passed easily in each of the counties except Brooklyn’s Kings County, where the vote was extremely controversial, fiercely contested, and ultimately ridiculously close. (As the counting and recounting continued through November, the headlines in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle changed daily: “It’s Against Consolidation,” “For Consolidation, Now,” “Brooklyn Says ‘No’,” “For Consolidation by 200.”) Out of almost 130,000 votes cast in Brooklyn, the referendum passed by a mere 277 votes, or less than 0.01 percent.
The question of political unification had long been debated. In 1868, Andrew Haswell Green—a prominent New York lawyer, and the brains behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, and the New York Public Library—began to lobby for municipal consolidation, and with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, his efforts gained momentum. Ostensibly, Green’s reasons were civic: to cement the region’s central place in the national economy, and to head off Chicago’s rising industrial power, the metropolitan region needed to build a more united municipal infrastructure, one that aligned the region’s ports, transport networks, and real estate markets.
Left unsaid was a distinct fear shared by most of New York’s commercial elite: that Brooklyn itself, not Chicago, posed the greatest threat to New York’s economic dominance. From a small village of 11,000 residents in 1820, Brooklyn grew exponentially during the 19th century. By consolidation in 1898, its population would top one million, and it would be ranked the fourth-largest industrial city in America. And further, this growth looked set to continue, for Brooklyn had the one commodity New York lacked: space to expand.
Brooklynites had great faith their own independent future, and to fight to retain it the city’s most venerable and prominent residents banded together to form the League of Loyal Citizens in 1894. These individuals didn’t mind New York as a source of income, but they loathed it as a social community. While New York was the “evil city” of Jacob Riis’s “other half,” “into which the political sewage of Europe is being dumped every week,” as the Rev. Richard C. Storrs put it, Brooklyn was the “city of homes and churches,” the bastion of family, religion, sobriety, and moral decency. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the city’s most influential newspaper, also joined the fray: consolidation would make Brooklyn “the fag end of New York,” prey to what former New York Mayor Abram Hewitt termed Manhattan’s “Imperial Destiny.”
In 1897, on a cold and rainy New Year’s Eve, with the official birth of the consolidated City of New York only hours away, the mood on the two sides of the East River could hardly have been more different. While a massive celebration took place around City Hall in downtown New York, Brooklyn hosted a sad and crestfallen “observance,” to mourn what some were already calling “the Great Mistake.”
Consolidation carried power over the Brooklyn Bridge to New York’s City Hall, and, like many of Brooklyn’s own progeny, it never returned. As the Eagle feared, it subjugated Brooklyn to the political energy and civic character of a more robust and disdainful neighbor. While Brooklynites could romanticize their past, they would no longer dictate the direction of their future. Those decisions would thenceforth be made by such notorious Tammany bosses as George Washington Plunkitt, who famously declared that “a Brooklynite is a natural-born hayseed.… I’d rather take a Hottentot in hand to raise as a good New Yorker than undertake the job with a Brooklynite.”
Richard Haw is an assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the author of The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History, due out from Rutgers University Press in July.