Ask a historian: What was the worst day in Brooklyn history?
Joe from Flatbush asks: “What was the worst day in Brooklyn history?”
That’s hard to say, Joe. The day the Dodgers left Brooklyn? Its defeat, evacuation and retreat at the Battle of Brooklyn? The death of Walt Whitman?
I’d choose the Consolidation of the City of Greater New York, Dec. 31, 1897, as both the worst for Brooklyn and the best for New York City — eventually.
On that day, Brooklyn traded Mayor Frederick Wurster for Borough President Edward Grout. Brooklyn Eagle editorial writer, St. Clair McKelway, wrote a tribute to Brooklyn while poet Will Careleton recited his poem named “The Passing of Brooklyn.”
And it rained.
Brooklyn, the fourth largest city in America, was reduced to a borough, one in five. On that same day, the U.S. annexed the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
But Brooklyn deserved better. It had grown from a village to an important, independent city of 3 million residents, manufacturing for Manhattan employers. While it had Green-Wood Cemetery where Manhattanites buried their dead, Brooklyn also boasted the Brooklyn Museum, a park more perfected than Central Park, an extensive transportation system, an amusement center with a beach, cheaper housing and lower taxes. And the Brooklyn Bridge, to which Manhattan had refused to contribute until forced to by the courts.
What did New York City have? Tammany!
Brooklyn had ward bosses such as Hugh McLoughlin and John McKane, but none as infamous as William Tweed and Richard Croker. Because these unelected politicians skimmed from the city coffers, Manhattan’s taxes were higher. It even cost more to travel in Manhattan than in Brooklyn. Brooklyn loved its independence and civic identity. But Brooklyn had other problems, such as polluted water in the wells of southern Brooklyn, while Manhattan boasted a new Croton Reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
Discussions on feasibility of consolidating the two cities peaked in 1873—the same year as Tweed’s first trial—when Simon Chittenden from Brooklyn Heights introduced a bill in the New York State legislature, just as work on the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage had started. It failed in 1874, when work on the New York anchorage started.
The Brooklyn Bridge became the lynchpin that cemented the relationship of the two cities. The end of the 19th century was an age of bigness. Called the “Mauve Decade” because the color became fashionable, the era reflected both great wealth and poverty. All over the world, buildings loomed taller, machines such as dynamos enlarged, cities spread. London and Chicago, business rivals of New York, increased their populations. Both Philadelphia and Chicago opened industrial fairs to celebrate size and industrial strength. New York needed to compete in this city-hood. Combining both cities would dwarf the others.
In New York, Andrew Haswell Green — lawyer, city planner, head of New York’s parks, creator of the New York Public Library — was appointed to chair the Greater New York committee, which he designated the “Imperial City.” Debates in Albany continued in 1879 as the Brooklyn Bridge neared completion. Again the bill was defeated.
Then Sen. Thomas Collier Platt stepped into the fight as, symbolically, the Brooklyn Bridge opened connecting the cities. Platt, a Yale graduate, was a powerful Republican elected party boss and three-term U.S. senator. He held his private court in New York on Sundays at the Fifth Avenue Hotel at Madison Park and in summer at Manhattan Beach at “Platt’s Sunday School” or “Amen Corner” where he brokered political deals with cronies.
In 1893, a financial crisis hit America with a major recession. Progress halted. When Green was stymied by anti-consolidation forces who engineered a second defeat of a bill in 1895, Platt stepped into the fray.
He pushed his political weight in Albany, steering a new bill to passage in 1896. But Platt saw other reasons to interfere. He had presidential ambitions, and the governor, Teddy Roosevelt, stood in his way. If he could lure him to Washington to replace the recently deceased vice president, he could ride to success as the “father of Greater New York.” In spite of opposition from Brooklyn clergy and mayors of Brooklyn, New York and Long Island City, the new charter passed in Albany in 1897 by 277, votes taking effect in 1898.
On Jan. 1, 1898, Robert Van Wyck, a Tammany flunky under the thumb of Richard Croker, took office as mayor of Greater New York City; many thought it the “Greater Mistake.” With five boroughs and a chunk of Nassau County added to Queens, mighty Chicago was reduced to “Second City.” Green’s dream of “one city” became a reality with one government, one police department, one education system (although police, education and library systems were superior in Brooklyn). Only London was bigger.
With the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt moved into the presidency, killing Platt’s political dream. The same year, a Brooklyn name re-entered the competition: Reformer Seth Low was elected mayor.
Transportation improved in 1908, when the Manhattan subway extended to Brooklyn Borough Hall, eventually replacing the elevateds.
Politically, Manhattan was Republican while Brooklyn remained Democratic. Brooklyn continued to outstrip Manhattan in population size. Now the “outer boroughs” are competing with Manhattan-centric fame.
Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below.
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