Imperial City

On New Year’s Eve, with 1897 turning into 1898, thousands of New Yorkers cascaded into lower Manhattan’s streets despite a cold and driving rain. Soaked but celebratory, they were gearing up for one of the greatest Festivals of Connection in the city’s history. This time they would not be hailing New York’s insertion into some larger grid—as they had on completion of the Erie Canal or the Atlantic Cable—but rather the city’s new internal linkages, its own municipal consolidation. At midnight, the nation’s first- and fourth-largest cities would merge into a supercity—Greater New York—that would encompass not only Manhattan and Brooklyn, but Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx as well. Other metropolises had been engaging in similar combinations, but New York’s would be the grandest—a municipal counterpart of the giant corporations busily being born.

The master of ceremonies, oddly, was not Mayor Strong. The lame-duck reformer had grumpily suggested holding a funeral service for the old city rather than a jamboree for the new one. When this met with widespread derision, William Randolph Hearst had stepped forward to volunteer as producer and ringmaster. The publisher raised funds (mostly from his own pocket), purchased fireworks by the cartload, enlisted military and civic groups and marching and singing societies, and arranged for a spectacular parade. An immense crowd formed up in Union Square, umbrellas aloft, well fortified by visits to local saloons, and prepared to accompany the long line of brilliantly illuminated floats down to City Hall, itself bedecked with hundreds of electric lights.

For all the rejoicing, mutters and imprecations could be heard in many quarters. The road to Consolidation Eve had not been an easy one. Some Brooklynites felt like victims of an imperial expansion they had tried and failed to halt. Tammany Hall was exceedingly ambivalent, despite the fact that Croker and company would control the new colossus, thanks to Van Wyck’s triumph in the recent mayoral election; the pols couldn’t help being suspicious of an enterprise so largely engineered by their Republican and reformer enemies. And even consolidation’s sponsors, the businessmen and professionals over at the Chamber of Commerce and the Citizens Union, were lukewarm about their creation and apprehensive about the future. This melange of mixed feelings was the legacy not only of the previous decade of struggle but of two centuries of interurban rivalry.


Manhattan had first gained dominance over Brooklyn when the Dongan Charter (1686) and Montgomerie Charter (1730) granted it domain over the East River and its ferry traffic, effectively depriving Brooklyn of control over its own waterfront. When Brooklyn pursued city status in the early 1830s, New York resisted, to maintain its lucrative privileges and because (as Manhattan officials argued) constituting a “distinct and rival commercial community” would lead to “contentions, inconvenience and other calamities.” Besides, Brooklyn was obviously destined to be folded into the larger and wealthier city, and making it a separate polity would only impede the inevitable. Brooklyn community leaders successfully demanded independence, insisting that “between New York and Brooklyn, there is nothing in common, either in object, interest, or feeling—nothing that even apparently tends to their connexion.”

In 1857 the two cities were subjected to something of a shotgun wedding when the state combined their police, fire, and health departments into joint metropolitan boards. There were those who hoped the merger of functions might evolve into a more thoroughgoing consolidation, and indeed it was from one of these supra-boards that conglomeration’s strongest champion emerged. It was in the course of pursuing Haussmannesque authority for the Central Park Commission—allowing it to plan and develop bridges, roads, and sewers on both sides of the Harlem River—that Andrew Haswell Green first developed the arguments he would promote for the next forty years. And it was in the course of convincing uptown and Westchester property owners that comprehensive development was in their mutual interest that Green began to assemble a constituency powerful enough to translate his ideas into action.

In 1868, when Green was proposing that Manhattan should annex the portion of the mainland just across the Harlem River, he alluded to what for him was the obvious end point of such an initiative: formation of a metropolitan totality out of the discrete political entities grouped around the harbor. It was, he asserted, desirable to bring “the City of New York and the County of Kings, a part of Westchester County and a part of Queens and Richmond, including the various suburbs of the City, under one common municipal government, to be arranged in departments under a single executive head.”

In 1870 Green’s plans seemed to have been short-circuited by Tweed’s city charter, which abolished the state boards and deprived Green of his power base. But Tweed, in his own way, was a master planner too. Following Green’s logic, he gave his new Department of Public Parks the power to expand street mapping into Morrisania and West Farms and eastward to the Bronx River. Meanwhile powerful Westchester residents like Colonel Richard M. Hoe and Lewis G. Morris, whose interests were entwined with those of Manhattan, had taken up Green’s cry for full-scale annexation. They wanted New York to build connecting bridges and perhaps even deepen the Harlem River into a viable link between the Jersey railheads and Long Island Sound, thus making Port Morris a major transportation hub.


Manhattanites were divided about annexation. Using arguments that would be recycled repeatedly during the next decades of debate, downtowners balked at underwriting Bronx-based competitors, though their objections were partly alleviated when local property owners agreed to shoulder half the improvement costs. They also protested the notion of paying to enhance the quality of life for suburban commuters who deserted the city each night. Proponents countered that annexation would corral the fleeing middle class back into the taxpaying fold, provide room for downtown to expand, and boost upper Manhattan’s real estate values. Put to the electoral test in November 1873, annexation passed overwhelmingly, and on January 1, 1874, the city’s territory jumped from fourteen thousand to twenty-one thousand acres, its thirty to forty thousand new citizens assembled in two new wards.

Not coincidentally, consolidation sentiment surfaced in Brooklyn that year. In 1874 a cohort of property owners, developers, and businessmen (including such potentates as J. S. T. Stranahan, D. D. Litchfield, and A. A. Low) formed the Municipal Union Society of the City of Brooklyn and the County of Kings. These gentlemen sought a merger between the two great cities and the five county towns. Union, they argued, would enhance property values, sustain the area’s commercial supremacy, and end boundary disputes. But even after they pointed out the benefits achieved by annexationist movements in Paris, London, Boston, and Philadelphia, public response in Brooklyn remained unenthusiastic, and consolidation, though it passed the Assembly, was defeated in the Senate.

Further such efforts were derailed by the depression of the 1870s. Andrew Haswell Green busied himself with estate management and with projects that secured de facto if not de jure linkages. Green was one of the original commissioners of the Brooklyn Bridge—as was Stranahan, who on opening day in 1883 prophesied that its bonds of steel would usher in political union. Green also helped get a bridge thrown across the Harlem River at 183rd Street in 1886 and was appointed in 1890 to a commission charged with planning a railroad bridge across the Hudson.

In the meantime, the harbor’s constituent communities had undergone such a degree of interlacing that the editor of the 1880 census’s volumes on social statistics suggested that a greater city had in effect already come into being. The population was separated “by physical and political lines,” he said, but as these “have had little influence on the character of the people, their industries, or their modes of life,” it “seemed proper” to consolidate the data on them under “the one head of ‘The Metropolis’ which they constitute.”


A statistical consolidation had been wrought, but it was only after the Henry George campaign that Manhattan elites, jolted by the challenge of the radical and labor movements to their vision and command of New York City, wholeheartedly joined Green’s campaign, and his project began to rumble toward realization.

In 1887 the New York Chamber of Commerce officially urged that Brooklyn be added to New York. The assembled merchants expressed concern that the port was losing ground to the more efficient facilities of New Orleans, Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia—and between 1880 and 1890 New York did indeed suffer an absolute and relative decline in its percentage of the country’s exports and imports. The slovenly state of metropolitan infrastructure—decaying docks, clogged streets, and turtle-paced transit systems—was costing the city its competitive edge. But efforts to coordinate port administration, build new bridges, and improve city services were thwarted by divided political jurisdictions. The chamber considered competition between the area’s municipalities to be annoyingly irrational, much as big businessmen were rethinking the virtues of economic competition. As an aid to planning piers, wharves, warehouses, and transportation, the chamber urged putting “New York and its environs under one general scheme of municipal rule.”

In 1888 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, organ of New York’s propertied interests, also came out for consolidation. Only a centralized authority, it argued, could push through the improvements that would boost land values and provide insurance companies, savings banks, and estate trustees with profitable investment opportunities.

That same year Mayor Hewitt, himself a Chamber of Commerce stalwart, issued a proposal for a vast and coordinated program of public improvements and sketched a grand vision of New York’s future. “With its noble harbor protected from injury, and the channels of its approach straightened and deepened”; with its wharves and docks improved and its streets paved and cleansed; with “cheap and rapid transit throughout its length and breadth” and “salubrious and attractive parks” sprinkled throughout the area; and with a system of taxation “so modified that the capital of the world may be as free to come and go as the air of heaven”—then, Hewitt said, “the imagination can place no bounds to the future growth of this city in business, wealth, and the blessings of civilization.” Indeed New York’s “imperial destiny as the greatest city in the world is assured by natural causes, which cannot be thwarted except by the folly and neglect of its inhabitants.”

For all its upbeat energy, this “imperial” urban vision—like those of nationalist jingoes, railroad magnates, and corporate financiers—was also fueled by fear. Inaction might leave the field to rival empire builders, which in New York’s case meant Chicago. In 1889 Chicago swallowed up 133 square miles of suburban terrain, and when the 1890 census was tallied, the results showed the midwestern metropolis (population 1,100,000) gaining fast on Manhattan (1,515,000).

The Real Estate Record assessed the threat bluntly: “New York would undoubtedly lose a great deal in prestige the world over—and in actual dollars and cents, too—should Chicago or any other city on the continent count a larger population.” European banking and export firms might shift their American branches to the heartland; corporate headquarters would soon follow, taking professional firms along; the market prices of stocks and commodities would get set in the interior; manufacturing would steal away; New York’s property values would scud downward. Doomsayers recalled how the power and prestige of Philadelphia, once America’s chief city, had slowly bled away once it was surpassed numerically by its Hudson River rival.

If Chicago became the first city in population, moreover, it might relegate New York to secondary status in other spheres—those of arts, culture, and politics. This fear took tangible form in 1890, when Congress gave the midwesterners the go-ahead to host a giant celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. The idea of a World’s Fair had been broached back in 1882, and ever since the two colossi had been competing for it furiously. Defeat seemed another doleful indicator of metropolitan decline.

How to hold the front rank? Immigration was important but inconstant and slow. Green underscored the fact that Chicago, like Paris and London (which had obtained a regional government with establishment of the London County Council in 1888), had “become great and prosperous, not alone by accumulation of number, within their first restricted bounds, but by expansion, annexation, and consolidation”—and the city’s leading businessmen agreed.


With the Chamber of Commerce opting for decisive measures, Andrew Haswell Green turned to the state legislature in 1890 and got it to establish a Greater New York Commission to examine the issue of consolidation. The new body quickly elected Green president and Stranahan vice-president, and in a series of addresses and memorials that year, Green proceeded to lay out, with great sweep and power, the arguments on its behalf.

Green began at the beginning, the prelapsarian age when the area’s European settlers had lived in harmony with one another. The three islands they settled—Manhattan, Long, and Staten—remained “in close indissoluble relation” at the mouth of the great river, serving as common “buttresses and breakwaters of a capacious harbor.” Then came the Fall. Natural unity gave way to artificial divisions: states, cities, counties. Waterways became walls, as residents perversely turned them from “bonds of union” into “symbols of division.”

But it was absurd to treat rivers as barriers. Green pointed out that the chief cities of the world—London, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna—were municipally and commercially unified by rivers. Paris alone boasted twenty-seven spanning bridges. Far more troubling was that under existing political arrangements, protection of the navigable water system—the concern of all—had become the duty of none. Fragmentation of authority led to pollution and subversion of the area’s single greatest asset, even though all were affected equally by the decay. The tides marched through all the municipalities, collecting and distributing everywhere “offal and sewerage loaded with contagion,” and “exotic microbes, bacteria, and all variety of poisonous germic life” were not hemmed in by city boundaries.

Such harbor-level problems—garbage, smoke, stench, bad drainage, noxious manufactories—could not be attended to by municipalities in hostile array. In the absence of a supra-government that could make a corrective plan for the entire port, the area would continue to suffer from the depredations of a vast number of private “marauders, who by encroachment, appropriation and misuse, deplete the general system to transfuse its vitalities into some niggard scheme of individual profit.”

This situation was as unnecessary as it was ridiculous. Perhaps long ago, when it seemed there would not be enough commerce to go around, there might have been some sense in a hoarding of territorial advantages. But with benefits now clearly illimitable, interests had become interlocking; the prosperity of one territory promoted that of the others. Brooklyn’s lawyers did more business in New York courts than in their own, and its merchants’ mansions were paid for with profits from their New York-based trade. The reverse was also true: the waterfront from Astoria to Bay Ridge was largely owned, developed, and used by New York merchants.

If all could swim together, they could sink together too. One common problem was the port’s vulnerability to modern foreign fleets. Wherever the next war came from, Green warned, “New York must first answer at the muzzle of the gun.” It was essential that it “be allowed to answer at the muzzle of another gun as heavy as that by which we shall be challenged.” Local divisions only impeded the combined effort that alone could induce the national government to provide adequate defenses.

Access to the interior was another common predicament. Green reminded the citizenry that New York had become the nation’s chief emporium not simply because it commanded foreign commerce but because it controlled routes to continental markets. Norfolk’s was a better harbor, but it remained a summer watering place because it lacked inland connections. The Hudson seaport had long relied on its Erie edge, but that was no longer enough, as modern engineering skill whittled away mountainous impediments. New connections were essential—crucially, a bridge across the Hudson—and only a Greater New York could muster the resources to act without waiting for state or national governments.

Planning the city’s physical development was as critical as arranging its commercial future. New York had to prepare for the immigrants who would clearly be flooding in for the foreseeable future, not just from overseas, but from the countryside. The percentage of the U.S. population living in cities had been rising steadily since 1790. Urbanization was rapidly speeding up as machine farming dispensed with field labor and city factories attracted former agricultural workers. If the process of incorporating this populace were left to pell-mell development, the results would be as inadequate to the needs of future generations as the colonial-era streets and alleys of lower Manhattan were to the present one.

Planning the whole area as a single unit—as Green had on a smaller scale while head of the Central Park Commission—would ensure better relations between centers and suburbs. Only if a Greater City controlled its outlying territories could it reserve them for, say, healthful parks, rather than having them eaten up piecemeal. Only a Greater City could solve the “difficult question of taxation of non-residents that now exists,” with people on the periphery drawing sustenance from New York’s commerce but contributing little to its governance.

If taxpayers could easily cross city lines, so could rogues and criminals. Lawbreakers were truly “cosmopolitan,” Green noted, heedless of political boundaries, and disorderly persons often overwhelmed small towns. Only a unified metropolitan police command could check them.

There were other, more dangerous criminals on Green’s mind: he believed New York was in mortal peril from “lawless enterprise,” by which he meant modern combinations of capital—“leagues, guilds, combinations, federations, monopolies, pools and trusts.” For a man who’d spent much of his career helping Samuel Tilden arrange giant mergers—or perhaps precisely because of that experience—Andrew Haswell Green was extremely wary about the growth of corporations.

Their rise and impact was nowhere more evident than in cities, where “people live, move, and have their being by sufferance of the corporate power.” A citizen buys food from one, water from another, light from a third, and heat from a fourth, works on the road of a fifth, is paid in bills from a sixth, has his life insured by a seventh, and is buried in the grounds of an eighth. Green was not hostile to “modern forms of corporate contrivances” but insisted they “must be regulated and controlled by governmental intervention.”

The consequences of insufficient public purview were most apparent in the case of Green’s bete noire, railroad corporations—one he shared with merchants, populists, labor unions and social gospelers. While it was true that their lines made cities possible by allowing them to draw upon the resources and markets of a vast hinterland, they also “usurp[ed] control over approaches from the interior by land” and forced their way into the city, plowing through areas of their own choosing, laying tracks with no regard for street patterns, topography, or the public welfare. Their decisions, moreover, were laying down “lines of abnormal development or desolation,” deciding the character “of future growth or decay”; yet “if there are any who dispute their right, there are none to resist their might.”

The populace massed in cities represented a potentially countervailing power, but at a time when all private interests, “actuated by selfish motives,” were tending to consolidation, the only interests not combining were “our unselfish, thoughtless peoples, and their fatuous municipalities, which in broken form, carry on desultory and futile war against the organized forces of relentless and absentee capitalism.” For all his angry declamations about “popular rights” being subordinated to “corporate power,” however, Green had nothing much to say about actual people, and the issues like slums and sweatshops that agitated working people didn’t make it onto his agenda.

Green was hopeful about the future outcome of this war “between the corporate power and the power of the people” because he discerned evolutionary laws at work in the history of great cities, and of New York especially—laws that were the counterpart of those that had led to creation of the great corporations. Both developments were equally part of mankind’s great progression from barbarism to civilization.

But if Green was hopeful, he wasn’t smug. There were no guarantees that “the scheme of civilization, even in the hands of the Caucasian race, is beyond the hazards of deterioration.” Faulty government—and tribal (read: Tammany) divisions—jeopardized progress. New York unfortunately still had “our Sachems” who, clinging to traditions of barbaric times, “seek to preserve their clans and clanships.” Only through struggle could evolutionary destiny be attained, Green exhorted: “The encounter is one between the retreating forces of the tribal system and the coming forces of the cooperative system, between barbaric tradition and educated aspiration, to which there can be but one result, when the frontier lines of the Manhattan, the Montauks and the Raritans shall be obliterated, and New York, Brooklyn, Long Island City and Staten Island shall be one politically as they are already in every other relation.”

Finally, in the Rooseveltian spirit of the times, Green urged New York to recognize and grasp its imperial destiny. He realized there were carpers who believed his unification project was irrational, a lusting after magnitude for its own sake. But magnitude was already there, its real dimensions hidden but not erased by the sham separation into contending municipalities. New York had become, in fact, the second city in the world but was refusing to claim its title. It should do so, joyously. “Cities are the crowns, the signs, the factors of empire,” Green proclaimed, and “the imperial city has won an honorable renown throughout the world which all her colonies may proudly inherit and which they cannot avoid accepting.” For all his upbeat assertions—and in the case of such impolitic references to Brooklyn’s secondary status, precisely because of them—Green’s cosmic vision was about to collide with local realities.


Green and his Greater New York commissioners now proceeded to map out the precise dimensions of their proposed super-city. They included all New York State territories fronting on the harbor, added enough of Queens to embrace potential rival ports such as Jamaica and Little Neck bays, and threw in enough of Kings and Westchester counties to provide housing for uncounted future generations.

Next Green and his colleagues pushed for legislative authorization of a merger. This smoked out the opposition: upstate Republicans, who feared creating a monster metropolis; Tammany politicians, who shuddered at the thought of trying to organize such a vast territory; northern Manhattan and North Side (Bronx) developers, who dreaded a diversion of resources to Canarsie and Flatlands. But the most obdurate opponents came from Brooklyn itself. More precisely, they came from the old Anglo Protestant community centered in Brooklyn Heights.

These worthies had a peculiar relationship with Manhattan. They were well aware that Brooklyn was fundamentally dependent on New York: part bedroom suburb, part industrial hinterland, part agrarian supplier, part commercial backup. Yet they also maintained and treasured a separate identity, organized in large part around their difference from and presumed superiority to the metropolis. Protestant middle-class Brooklynites liked to think they embodied New England virtues, seasoned, mildly, with a dash of Dutch character. Theirs was a “city of homes and churches.” It was free from millionaires and the fashionably wicked ways of Fifth Avenue; free from the huddled immigrant masses and the squalor of Five Points or Hell’s Kitchen; free from the sordid pleasures of the Tenderloin and the Bowery; free from the corruptions of Tammany ward heelers; and free from the fast pace of scurrying big-city life. Yet, withal, it was not provincial. The town prided itself on its modern cultural appurtenances: parks, opera houses, clubs, educational institutions, newspapers, a historical society, and, on the drawing boards, a museum that would surpass the Metropolitan. Keeping Manhattan at river’s length would preserve this lovely way of life.

This was, however, a badly overstated case. It is true that the big rich stayed mainly in Manhattan, though the Pratts, Lows, and Pierreponts were no pikers. But the percentage of non-Protestants in each city, while different (52.7 percent in New York to 40 percent in Brooklyn), hardly justified such sweeping characterizations. The workingclass Irish around the Navy Yard, the Germans of Williamsburg, the Italians of Red Hook, the Jews of Brownsville, the African Americans of Fort Greene may have been out of sight (from the perspective of the Montauk Club or the Church of the Pilgrims) but they were hardly out of power, as repeated failures to impose a Dry Sunday attested.

There was, moreover, still another Brooklyn to contend with, the developmental powerhouse centered in the commercial section around City Hall. Montague Street’s residential buildings had given way to banks, real estate offices, insurance companies, and law firms (like Gaynor’s). New public buildings were everywhere—most strikingly a Hall of Records and a huge Romanesque Revival post office. Fulton Street by 1893 was crowded with hotels, warehouses, newspaper offices, theaters, and stores. Real estate values had zoomed to such levels that the downtown mercantile district was flowing farther from the piers, a development fostered by the traffic funneling in over the Brooklyn Bridge. A new satellite commercial district had emerged between City Hall and Flatbush Avenue, thick with Romanesque department stores, power stations, fire headquarters, libraries, and churches.

Yet the piers remained crucial to this booming Brooklyn—the thriving termini of great transatlantic fleets, vessels from South and Central America, domestic coastal freighters. In one week in 1886, the ships along Brooklyn’s wharves and piers had carried a combined cargo of roughly 45,000 tons, compared to the mere 12,000 or so tons’ worth tied up at New York during the same seven days. By 1897 an average of four thousand ships unloaded cargoes annually.

Manufacturing and the processing of agricultural commodities reached record levels. Half the sugar consumed in the United States was refined in Brooklyn; almost all the oil for the Atlantic seaboard was refined in Williamsburg and Long Island City (along with plants in New Jersey). Bakeries and breweries drew from grain elevators with four times the capacity of Manhattan’s, and its myriad ironworks and factories made Brooklyn the fourth largest industrial city in the country.

The economic expansion that had commenced with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge had pulled in a huge workforce—the city’s population had gone from 570,000 in 1880 to 800,000 by 1890, and in 1894 it was approaching 900,000. This demographic explosion had in turn generated a frenzied building boom. Construction of genteel housing was rampant from Brooklyn Heights to Fort Greene, to the newly (at last) fashionable Park Slope. Williamsburg was thriving, and Greenpoint’s population had tripled (from twenty-three to seventy-five thousand) between 1880 and 1890. New Utrecht, only recently a farming town, had been transformed by the arrival of the Second Avenue Trolley, and thousands of houses were going up in real estate developments named Bensonhurst, Blythebourne, Bay Ridge Park, and Van Pelt Manor.

Most of the people presiding over this Brooklyn, and the spectacular run of prosperity it had been enjoying, craved consolidation because without it—they knew—it was all going to come to a halt. Roused to action by a William Gaynor speech at the Montauk Club, promerger merchants, bankers, real estate developers, large retailers, warehousers, lawyers, speculators, manufacturers, hotel proprietors, and streetcar company presidents came together, at a public meeting in the Real Estate Exchange, and organized the Brooklyn Consolidation League (BCL, 1893) to fight for ties with Manhattan. Launching a massive propaganda campaign, the BCL would issue two million pieces of literature, nearly all of them insisting Brooklynites face up to some unpleasant facts of life.

The Brooklyn Bridge, linchpin of the new prosperity, was a casualty of its own wild success. In 1890 over forty million people used it, roughly a quarter million each day. The thousands of Brooklynites descending on it at rush hour made it a human maelstrom. Men fought women and children for places in the cars, and the weaker were forced to walk over or take the ferry. Brooklyn and Williamsburg merchants clamored for additional East River bridges, but New York’s commercial and political establishments were hostile; Mayor Grant, not atypically, worried in 1889 that the benefits of new construction would accrue wholly to Brooklynites.

The bridge was symbolic of other irrationalities. There was no through transport across it. Manhattan transit cars traversed the bridge, dumped their passengers, turned around and returned to Manhattan; and vice versa for Brooklyn trolleys. Neither the Metropolitan nor the BRT was prepared to establish the coherent, integrated, and vastly expanded rapid transit system that was patently key to keeping real estate values surging.

The transport dilemma, however, was as nothing compared to the water crisis. Brooklyn was about to run dry. In 1896 its water system was delivering ninety-four million gallons a day. Sober estimates suggested demand would reach that level within three years; some people were already experiencing shortages. Wells had been sunk down to suck water from layers of gravel 150 feet deep, and the city was pumping in fifty million gallons a day from the wells, ponds, and streams of Long Island, but the only remaining expedient—imperial expansion eastward—was about to be foreclosed.

In January 1896 Alfred Tredway White, then serving as commissioner of city works, urged Brooklyn to buy land in central Suffolk, suggesting that eastern Long Island’s streams, and the watershed beneath its pine barrens, might well bring in an additional eighty million gallons a day. But Suffolk farmers, baymen, and homeowners had no intention of letting that happen, having witnessed the ecological impact of extractions to date. They had been forced to dig their own wells deeper and deeper to reach the sinking water table; oystermen’s creeks were filling up with mud; ponds were turning into stagnant bogs teeming with the germs whose significance had recently become menacingly apparent. In June 1896, accordingly, Suffolk went to Albany and got a law preventing Brooklyn from drawing off its water without the approval of a majority of the county supervisors. This meant that for the foreseeable future, Brooklyn had reached its limit. Without a new source of supply, it could look forward to outbreaks of pestilence or an unquenchable conflagration that might lay half the city in ashes.

New York, meanwhile, was swimming in water. The original Croton Aqueduct’s capacity of ninety million gallons a day had been exceeded by the early 1880s. Thanks to lobbying efforts by Andrew Haswell Green, among others, a New Croton Aqueduct had been authorized in 1883, begun in 1885, come partially on line in 1891, and fully completed in 1893. It had already expanded carrying capacity to three hundred million gallons daily, and plans were afoot to expand the Croton watershed itself by building new dams and reservoirs. Even without these, the new system, when added to the former Croton’s ninety million and the Bronx River’s twenty million, could supply roughly four hundred million gallons per day, enough to support four million people, or a million more than the combined population of both Brooklyn and New York. Immediate relief via connecting pipes under the East River was therefore only a consolidation away—an argument deployed with equal cogency and force in Queens and Staten Island. Even the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one of the staunchest Brooklyn independista organs, came out for a merger of the two cities’ water supplies, though nothing else.

Water, the BCL noted, wasn’t the only thing about to be in short supply. Development to date had required immense expenditures on roads, lighting, sewer mains, and the like, but Brooklyn would soon be unable to afford any of these. In 1884 New York State—in line with the post-Tweed fiscal clampdown engineered by, among others, the tight-fisted Andrew Haswell Green—had forbidden cities or counties from incurring a debt greater than 10 percent of the assessed value of its property. The postbridge expansion had been very costly for Brooklyn; apart from its layouts for basic infrastructure, it had assumed obligations for the $1.2 million purchase of Wallabout Market from the U.S. government, and it was about to be burdened with the debts of several Kings County towns. As a result, Brooklyn was bumping up against its debt ceiling. Some banks had already rejected its bonds, the depression was not helping its revenues, and it seemed that rather than expanding city services Brooklyn would have to contract them, laying off clerks, teachers, policemen, firemen, and other employees. The gloomiest observers talked of impending bankruptcy.

The problem, most agreed, was Brooklyn’s narrow revenue base, composed essentially of residential housing. In 1891 Brooklyn’s population was fully half that of New York’s, but it had only a fourth as much taxable property. New York was home to the big corporations—even railroads and steamship companies that did business in Brooklyn paid taxes in Manhattan—and it housed their offices too: in one year a single New York skyscraper paid more taxes than five hundred homes in Brooklyn.

In 1894, accordingly, New York was still fifty-five million dollars below its debt limit and it could sell its bonds for a negligible 3.9 percent. Brooklyn, meanwhile, had been forced to curtail its per capita spending, which was down to $9.75 a head, compared to New York’s $22.46, while raising taxes steadily: Brooklynites paid an average of $2.85 per hundred dollars of property to Manhattanites’ $1.82. To irate citizens who said the wealthy could well afford still higher taxes, the BCL counterargued that owners would invariably pass such increases on to renters, cutting demand, slowing building, and in the end mainly hurting construction workers, tradesmen, clerks, and shopgirls.

Consolidation, on the other hand, would allow construction of yet another crossriver pipeline, this one to Wall Street’s capital pool. The resultant money flow would fertilize bridges, tunnels, waterworks, parks, roadways, rapid transit, and jobs. It would also lower taxes for property owners, with the slack picked up by underassessed Manhattanites—as lawyer Edward C. Graves pointed out in a winning BCL pamphlet called “How Taxes in Brooklyn Can Be Reduced One-Half.”

Finally, to those concerned with moral order and good government, the league argued that unification would not bring what one paper called the “horde of plug-ugly politicians that control New York” streaming across the bridge; rather, the combination of the virtuous of Brooklyn with the best men of Manhattan would overwhelm the politicos. Greater New York would be so immense that no Ring could possibly control it. And to those who feared the evils of Manhattan’s slums and costs of welfare, Edward Bradford of the BCL wrote that there was no escaping such ills in any event. A man might “withhold charity, but he cannot dodge taxes swelled by crime and pauperism,” and every breeze was freighted with tenement-spawned germs.


In March 1893, William Gaynor led a two-hundred-man BCL delegation on board a charter train to Albany, where they presented all these weighty arguments to the legislature, only to see the measure killed by Brooklyn’s representatives, who took their orders from Boss McLaughlin. At this the BCL plunged into politics, merging with that fall’s Good Government, anti-McLaughlin, anti-McKane crusade. Both causes triumphed together, and the new delegation of Brooklyn’s representatives was solidly behind consolidation. When Andrew Haswell Green submitted a bill in February 1894 that called for submitting the issue to a nonbinding yea-or-nay referendum, it sailed through both houses and was signed into law by Governor Flower.

Now the Pros and Cons took their case to the electoral marketplace, and the battleground widened. In Manhattan, among the forces calling for a yes vote were the City Club, the Good Government Clubs, the leading commercial associations, and most major papers, including the World, Herald, Sun, Tribune, and the Times. Adding to consolidation’s appeal among these wealthy and powerful men was the argument advanced by municipal efficiency advocates like Albert Shaw, who suggested—rather as Hamilton had a century earlier-—that creating a metropolitan-scale government, with at-large elections, would allow “representatives of the best elements of business life” to edge out the politicians who excelled at ward-level combat. Shaw pointed to the new London County Council as a model for Greater New York, noting that there “were no saloon keepers or ward bosses in this London council.”

Consolidation was thus presented as a device for achieving the circumscription of democracy that the “best men” had been seeking ever since the Tilden Commission—led by Green’s mentor back in 1877—had urged municipal power be vested in taxpayers only. Simon Sterne, a lawyer who had served on that body, was now in the forefront of consolidationist advocates, arguing that “we must stop organizing on the basis of arbitrary population and organize on the basis of interests, and let the elected few or the chosen few who are at the top of these interests ipso facto go into government.”

For the Manhattan masses, proponents stressed the benefits of lebensraum. Betteroff clerks, bookkeepers, salesmen, mechanics, and operatives, suggested the Real Estate Record, would be able to flee congested apartments to modest free-standing cottages available in Brooklyn at twenty-five dollars per month, or two-family houses at ten dollars per month. While this would not eradicate the slums, it would separate “the industrious and self-respecting poor” from “the less regenerate people by whom they are surrounded.”

This prospect also appealed to the development-minded in Brooklyn, but it terrified those who feared the unworthy might follow hard on the heels of the respectable. In part to soothe such fears, and win additional backing for a yes vote in the referendum, the city’s new Republican-Fusion leadership embarked on its own campaign of urban imperialism. In 1894, to extend the sway of Good Government over the rest of Kings County, Brooklyn called for annexation of the seventeenth-century Dutch and English towns that still retained their independence. Gaining control over Gravesend’s Coney was of particular concern, said the Eagle, for “the rescue of the island from barbarism, brigandage and bestiality requires that it be made part of the limits and jurisdiction of Brooklyn.” Gravesend, Flatbush, and New Utrecht became wards of the city that year, and in 1896 the last remaining town, Flatlands, would be gathered in, making Greater Brooklyn coterminus with Kings County.

Given the Brooklyn Consolidation League’s multidimensional and extremely well funded campaign, it appeared that even in Brooklyn the referendum was heading for easy passage. A BCL canvass of selected districts that spring showed 64 percent of voters in favor of consolidation.

Then came the Lexow investigation of corruption among Manhattan’s police and politicians, and many Brooklynites backed away from the idea. Between May and November of 1894, as the exposes dragged on, hundreds of columns and cartoons appeared in the anticonsolidation press warning of the horrors that would flow from incorporation into a Tammany-run super-city. Republicans, hi particular, took fright at the prospect of having their new-minted victory overridden and being forced to relinquish power to Democratic crooks and connivers.

In November 1894 the referendum went to the voters.

In Manhattan, 96,938 voted for consolidation, 59,959 against. The Pro forces did best in upper- and middle-class districts and among native born and more assimilated German and Irish Americans; they did worst in poor districts and Tammany strongholds.

In Queens, over 60 percent of the electors voted for consolidation, with the greatest tallies being registered in the urbanized areas closest to Manhattan. Long Island City, in particular, was counting on reaping such benefits as a Blackwell’s Island bridge, a bevy of new streets, and the assumption by Manhattan of its substantial debt, product of both honest construction and blatant thievery. Such resistance as there was in Queens came from its sparsely settled periphery, though only Flushing failed to cast a majority in favor.

On Staten Island, the results were crisply clear: 5,531 for consolidation, 1,505 against.

In the eastern districts of the Bronx: Mount Vernon declined, by a large majority; Westchester said no, but only by one vote; Eastchester, Pelham, and the remainder of the territory said yes, convinced of amalgamation’s benefits by the flurry of improvements that had begun in 1890, when the state transferred development oversight from the Department of Parks to a local group, the Department of Street Improvements of the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth Wards. This body had gotten lots of streets paved and sewers built and had extended the grid throughout the area’s irregular terrain. The new North Side Board of Trade (1894) pushed successfully for consolidation to keep the process in motion.

The referendum passed in Brooklyn too, but by less than the proverbial whisker. The final tally was 64,744 for merger and 64,467 against—a winning margin of 277 out of 129,211. Ironically, it was the newly conquered colonies of Gravesend and New Utrecht that, in voting heavily for consolidation, overcame the negative majority in Brooklyn’s imperial center.


A benevolent “Father Knickerbocker” welcomes “Brooklyn” to the family of Greater New York after the 1894 referendum. Another two years would pass, however, before opposition to consolidation on both sides of the East River had been finally defeated. (Brooklyn Historical Society)

The result emboldened opponents, who immediately after the election organized a League of Loyal Citizens, assembled their own roster of bankers, merchants, landlords, reformers, and clergymen, and launched a campaign to block consolidation at the state level. In pamphlets, circulars, leaflets, and a weekly bulletin called Greater Brooklyn, the Loyal Leaguers attacked Manhattan as a social and political failure (citing Jacob Riis to good effect); expressed doubts that a Manhattan-dominated Greater New York would ever dispense Brooklyn its fair share of anything; reiterated its objection to being swamped (as the Rev. Dr. Storrs of the Church of the Pilgrims put it) by a flow from Manhattan to Brooklyn of the “political sewage of Europe”; and expressed a desire not to “vote away our religion” and to remain “a New England and American city.”

The Loyalists appealed as well to traditions of local self-government and against a centralizing state, rather as had the Antifederalists a century earlier. They also sought to rouse middle-class ire against big developers on both sides of the East River. Thus Eagleeditor St. Clair McKelway declared that in Brooklyn, every plain citizen was “the political peer of every capitalist or of every lot boomer,” that they preferred homes to tenements and houses to mansions, and that as residents of a “manly city” they would not “sell their rights or dodge their responsibilities for dirty money, no matter how high it be heaped.”

Finally, Loyalists appealed to municipal patriotism, wrapping themselves in the flag of Brooklyn, recalling with St. Clair McKelway the glorious days when “Washington’s army saved the Union’s life and afterward were able to beat the consolidation attempted against American liberty.” Seeking to tap popular levels of affection for Brooklyn, they denounced those consolidationist-minded gentlemen as being people who (in Storrs’s opinion) considered the city as a mere convenience on the order of a trolley car.

A disgusted Andrew Haswell Green dismissed the Loyalist campaign as a mix of “senile sentimentalism” and cynical manipulation by officeholders who hoped to “stay the wheels of beneficent progress by a display of flags and banners, the din of brass bands, and other claptrap, to capture the thoughtless and unwary.” Whatever it was, it worked, and in 1895 the Loyalists, claiming a membership of fifty thousand, stormed Albany and succeeded in setting aside the referendum’s verdict. The merger movement—apart from a decision that year to bring the eastern Bronx on board—was dead.


Then Boss Thomas Collier Platt revived it. As Republicans in 1894 had made a strong showing in all local municipalities, Platt had high hopes of capturing the first mayoralty of Greater New York. He believed he could enhance his party’s chances by combining Tammany-prone Manhattan with more Republican-friendly Brooklyn. Consolidation might also strengthen Plan’s hand against excessively independent Republican reformers like Mayors Strong and Schieren, who had sorely disappointed the boss in matters of patronage. Indeed he had received fewer political plums from the likes of Strong, Waring, and Roosevelt than he had from Tammany Hall. Perhaps, Platt reasoned, he might re-establish state-run commissions to seize control of police, fire, and public works departments from the reformers, at the very least until a supra-city charter took effect. Finally, by stepping forward as the Father of Greater New York, Platt could demonstrate to his big business backers how capable he was of energetic leadership on their behalf.

In 1896, accordingly, Platt rammed a bill through the legislature calling for consolidation of precisely the territories Green’s commission had proposed, to take effect as of January 1, 1898. The new law also empowered Republican Governor Levi Morton to appoint a nine-member panel to draft a new charter. As required by the state constitution, the bill was submitted to mayors of the affected cities.

Brooklyn’s Frederick Wurster vetoed it. So did Mayor Strong. Poised on the brink of victory, the Chamber of Commerce crowd allied to the Strong administration had gotten cold feet. Maybe the deal was too favorable to Brooklyn. Maybe Manhattan taxpayers would get stuck with the tab for improvements in the Bronx or be forced to shoulder debts racked up by profligate villages in Queens. The Union League Club, the City Club, the Reform Club, the Association of the Bar, the Real Estate Exchange, the Board of Trade and Transportation—all counseled delay.

Platt shut his ears and pressed ahead relentlessly with repassage. The recalcitrant mayors were overriden on April 22. Now last-standers from both sides of the river descended on Governor Levi Morton, pleading for a veto. But Levi Morton very much wanted to be president, and Thomas Collier Platt was the only man who could obtain the nomination for him at the Republican convention upcoming in five weeks’ time. Morton signed on May 11, 1896. Greater New York had arrived, though apart from its spatial boundaries, no one had the slightest idea of what it would look like.

Only now did the governor appoint a Charter Commission—ten Republicans and five Democrats. It included both notable consolidationists like Andrew Haswell Green (though he would fall sick and be unable to participate in the drafting process) and a strong contingent from Brooklyn (which Platt was anxious to placate). The members were virtually all lawyers, politicians, and men of property; there were no representatives of labor.

These gentlemen prepared an immense and rambling document that represented a series of compromises. It strengthened the mayor and the Board of Estimate and maintained the position of independently elected comptroller—features applauded by taxpayers and bondholders. It retired the Common Council, after more than two hundred years of service, and replaced it with a two-chambered municipal assembly. This body, together with the five newly instituted borough governments (complete with elected borough presidents) was intended to satisfy the desire of Brooklyn’s Loyal Leaguers for decentralized, local self-government. It also gave Boss Platt four potential footholds outside Manhattan should Tammany manage to hold on to New York County.

The charter commissioners pleased home rulers by shifting the right to grant street railway franchises from the state legislature to the municipal assembly and permitting the city to impose conditions on owners of shoreline property. Developers and planners appreciated creation of a Board of Public Improvements, with modest powers to coordinate public works throughout the city. Housing reformers applauded the charter’s call for a commission to establish a uniform building code for all five boroughs. And charity reformers were delighted when Commissioner Seth Low wrote in a provision that explicitly banned all outdoor relief (apart for subsidies to the blind)—including the spirit-sapping free handouts of fuel supplies they had been trying to outlaw for over a decade. The charter would thus force Richmond and Queens to terminate their relief programs, and Manhattan to cut off coal.

Though New York Good Government forces assailed the final product, Brook­lynites professed general satisfaction (or exhaustion), and with Croker’s support Platt got the nine-hundred-page document safely through the legislature by March 23, without, he boasted, “the crossing of a’t’ or the dotting of an ‘i.’” After one last stubborn mayoral veto from William Strong had been overcome, the Charter of Greater New York was presented to Governor Frank Black for his signature, which he affixed on May 5, 1897.

By the rainy evening of December 31, 1897, therefore, the city was poised for transformation.


Marching through soggy streets, the parade of revelers poured into City Hall Park, brilliantly illuminated by five hundred magnesium lights. Bands and choral societies regaled them (while competing for silver cups, with Tony Pastor and his fellow judges straining to hear over the wind and din). As midnight approached, the rain turned to damp snow. When Trinity’s bells chimed the hour, Hearst’s coordinated cacophony rolled over the assembled merrymakers. A battery of field guns near the post office boomed out a hundred-gun salute. Red and green flares and aerial bombs soared aloft. The city’s tugs and ferries shrieked their whistles. And as the throng (led by German singing societies) joined in singing “Auld Lang Syne,” Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco pressed a button that sent a charge of electricity hurtling across the continent to unfurl Greater New York’s new blue and white flag atop City Hall. At the same moment, the glum crowd assembled outside what was now merely Brooklyn’s Borough Hall fell silent, marking their city’s passing.

A colossus had been born. Over three million strong, over three hundred square miles huge, larger than Paris, gaining on London, New York was ready to face the twentieth century. But when the fireworks faded away and the crowds dispersed, what—apart from an end to free coal for the poor—would consolidation mean for the city and its people?

Consolidation, which would take many forms other than the merely municipal, would be key to the new century’s first decades. As we will see, J. P. Morgan and his colleagues would press relentlessly ahead with the process, begun in the 1880s, of consolidating rival companies into giant corporations. A great merger movement from 1897 to 1904 would forge the modern American capitalist economy, of which New York City would be the headquarters, its ever taller skyscrapers affording the new order both shelter and symbolic expression.

Greater New York would undertake mammoth building projects, creating the infrastructure of bridges, subways, railways, water tunnels, and power lines that would make consolidation a reality, not just a constitutional artifact. Its populace, swollen by massive immigration, would move out along the new rapid transit lines, filling out Brooklyn, creating an instant city in the Bronx.

Culture wars would continue, with the upper and middle classes consolidating their museums and libraries and housing them in grand Roman Imperial temples, for their own enjoyment and to elevate the retrograde. The city’s commercial culture would also expand, however, giving rise to such novelties as cabarets, nickelodeons, and Times Square, all of which genteel reformers would vainly attempt to rein in.

Businessmen and professionals would continue their efforts, intermittently sue­cessful, to wrest control of municipal politics from Tammany Hall, while middle-class reformers would struggle to refurbish the civic order by consolidating the agencies of public health, law enforcement, housing, welfare, and schooling.

A new generation of socialists, unionists, feminists, artists, African-American activists, and settlement workers would come together: to criticize corporate power; to protest and improve working conditions in shops and factories; to suffer from and fight against unemployment, poverty, and high rents; to organize a series of mammoth general strikes that would force Tammany into taking up a progressive agenda; to promote a radical assault against the ramparts of genteel culture; to win suffrage for women; and, after a race riot in 1900, to generate a civil rights coalition that would contest Jim Crow at home and throughout the country.

New York’s financiers and industrialists, finally, would steadily expand New York’s imperial outreach, their efforts reaching an apotheosis during the First World War, when the United States was transformed from a debtor to a creditor nation and its leading metropolis began to replace London as the fulcrum of the global economy, emerging as heir presumptive to the tide of Capital of the World.

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