Brooklynites rue day the Big Apple took a bite

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The Independent Online
New York City is today commemorating the `consolidation' of 1 January 1898, when it expanded its borders to embrace Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn. Overnight, it became the world's second largest city after London. But, as our correspondent discovers, there are some who still believe it was all a huge mistake.

Ken White remembers when Brooklynites could walk the waterfront by its bustling shipping piers and recognise one another "from the backs of their heads 10 paces away". He recalls summer days when he and the other boys would skinny-dip under the Brooklyn Bridge, "waving naked at the tourist boats".

Those times are long gone. High chain-link fences block all access to the water and the piers are empty now, dark skeletons that have partially collapsed into the East River, their pilings rising from the water like rotting teeth. "There is no sense of neighbourhood here any more," says Mr White, over breakfast in the Coffee Shop on Atlantic Avenue. "All that's gone".

Historians could debate for years the reasons for the decline of Brooklyn; the decline of its shipping heritage to the evaporation of its industrial base and even the departure to the West Coast of its beloved baseball team, the Dodgers. But Mr White, 65, a retired warehouseman born directly under the famed brown-brick Brooklyn Bridge, is clear about the main culprit: Manhattan.

It is 100 years ago today that the then New York City, consisting only of Manhattan and a portion of the Bronx, made a wild landgrab, absorbing Queens, Staten Island and all of what, until the night before, had been America's fourth largest city and one of its proudest: Brooklyn.

The annexation, first proposed 30 years earlier by Andrew Haswell Green, in a stroke raised Gotham's population from 2 to 3.4 million and increased its land area from 44 square miles to 300.

Thus, it vaulted itself to becoming America's biggest city - eclipsing Chicago - and the second largest in the world, overtaking Paris and coming second only to London.

Today, and throughout the year, special celebrations will mark the so- called "consolidation" that gave birth to New York City as we still know it. Rudolph Giuliani, re-elected mayor last November, will hold inauguration parties in all five boroughs today. In the months ahead, there will be lectures, museum exhibitions and a centenary concert in Central Park.

If Manhattan is your viewpoint, especially lower Manhattan where Wall Street is showering wealth like never before, there is assuredly reason to give thanks. Assume that the purpose of consolidation was to establish New York as a hub for all of the Western hemisphere if not of the whole world - financial, mercantile and cultural - then you must conclude it paid off.

Imagine, says Kenneth Jackson, chairman of the history department at Columbia University, what might have befallen the city otherwise. "Just a bunch of tall buildings in a tiny city wouldn't be the same image," he suggests. "It's helped that it has this gargantuan size".

Similar enthusiasm is voiced by the historian Robert Caro. "Consolidation is a tame word for such a magnificent moment," he waxed. "What we're celebrating is the moment the city received critical mass. It's the definitive moment in the history of New York. By bringing together together the five boroughs in one instant, this became the greatest city in the New World".

In Brooklyn, sentiments are slightly different. While Brooklyn shares in some of the current fortunes of the city at large, such as fast-falling crime rates, it knows as well as any other borough how wide the gap has recently become between New York's rich and poor. Unemployment in the borough is at 10 per cent, one of the highest rates in all of the country.

Most residents still remember consolidation as the "Great Mistake", that was opposed at the time by preachers and by its once-mighty newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Among the concerns then expressed was that the union with Manhattan would open Brooklyn to an influx of Manhattan's immigrant hordes that would for ever change its character. As, in fact, it did.

Brooklynites, none the less, voted in favour of the merger in an 1894 referendum, largely in the hope of drawing on Manhattan's tax revenues to erase city debt. But they did so by the slimmest of margins - 65,744 to 65,467.

"What happened is that City Hall [in Manhattan] instead took everything out of Brooklyn and gave nothing back," laments Mr White. "They used our income to improve Manhattan".

Other, more famous Brooklyn natives would agree. "Manhattan's wealth has been a curse to Brooklyn," Fred Siegel, an author and history professor at the Cooper Union, told the New York Times this week. "It's like a rich gravy that covers the failure of the food below". Brooklyn's absorption into New York meant it gave up trying to stand alone and became dependent on hand-outs. "An independent Brooklyn would have had to develop the economic assets of its citizens," Mr Siegel argued. "But instead it had become an object of pity - an opportunity for rich Manhattanites to demonstrate their generosity by providing welfare and social programmes".

At a recent gathering at the New York City Museum, where the 600-page charter that established the new, enlarged metropolis will be on display for the rest of the year, the borough historian of Brooklyn, John Manbeck, offered this tartly-phrased birthday message: "In the words of Dodgers fans, `We was robbed'. Happy Anniversary to New York City from the forgiving people of Brooklyn".