January 5, 2018

A New Year's Eve Tale of Two Cities

Michael Miscione, Manhattan Borough Historian

A couple of weeks ago Keith Williams, the author of the "F.Y.I." column that runs in The Sunday New York Times, reached out to me (and others) for his end-of-year article. He asked us: If you could go back in time and attend any party in New York City history, which one would you choose, and why? 

I told him that there are two historic parties I would like to have attended. They took place at the same time, the night of December 31, 1897. They, and dozens of smaller simultaneous celebrations, marked the most transformative single moment in New York City’s history, when, at the stroke of midnight, the five-borough city was born. 

At that instant, two independent cities – Brooklyn and Long Island City – plus all the towns and villages of Richmond County (Staten Island), and a few more on Long Island were joined with New York City, then consisting of Manhattan Island and today’s Bronx. With the consolidation, as this contentious union was called, New York’s population increased by 70% and its territory expanded by a factor of five, from about 60 square miles to over 300 square miles. “Greater New York,” the second largest city in the world behind London, would be governed under an entirely new city charter, hastily drafted and approved just a few months earlier. The New-York Tribune called the consolidation, “the greatest experiment in municipal government that the world has ever known.” 

The first party was the parade that, beginning at Union Square, ran down Broadway and ended in a celebration outside of city hall. Despite the cold and wet weather, it was a raucous jubilee. “With the roaring of cannon, the thunder of bombs, and the crackle of thousands upon thousands of pieces of fireworks, with seven bands playing seven tunes, with 50,000 people gathered in and around City Hall, tooting horns or yelling, and with every steam whistle within ten miles of New York shrieking, the birth of the new City of New York was celebrated at midnight,” reported The New York Sun. 

Among the menagerie of marchers were fire companies; ethnic, fraternal, and trade societies; choral groups; performers; and trick bicycle riders. The event was financed by the aspiring politician and then-publisher of The New York Journal, William Randolph Hearst. The capstone of the celebration was supposed to be the raising of a flag above city hall at midnight by means of an electrical mechanism triggered by the mayor of San Francisco, three-thousand miles away. But according to The Sun, it malfunctioned, and the flag-raising was two minutes late. Judging from the account, no one seemed to care. 

If possible, I would have liked to have chatted with the early leader of the consolidation movement, Andrew H. Green, who was a guest of honor. Green was a life-long city planner, reformer, and preservationist. He was almost 80. He had conceived of the consolidation three decades earlier to promote efficiency and economy in city planning. He revived the proposal in the late 1880s and championed it for a decade more, often in the face of personal insults and jibes. The press and the public were now lauding him as “The Father of Greater New York.” No doubt the noise and hoopla of the evening made him uncomfortable. He was a flinty old-fashioned Yankee lawyer, not inclined to any extravagances or vices (except for a volcanic temper). I would have loved to know his thoughts at this moment of vindication. 

The other party I would have liked to attend was happening at the same moment at a different city hall, across the East River in Brooklyn. The Protestant gentry of Brooklyn – yes, there was such a thing at that time – had fought the consolidation more fiercely than any other group. They dreaded that Brooklyn, the third or fourth largest city in the country at the time, would lose its self-imagined genteel identity only to gain the corrupting influences of Tammany Hall and a growing stampede of unwashed immigrants. During the consolidation battle, the torch-bearer of the Brooklyn opponents stated that over in Manhattan, “there is an ocean of poverty and distress, of ignorance, vice and crime unequaled elsewhere in America.” 

Inside, the leaders of the gentry, resigned to their fate, were holding a ceremony that some cynics were calling a funeral. The current mayor and half a dozen of his predecessors were in attendance. Members of the Society of Old Brooklynites, the guests of honor, were given the front seats in the council chamber. There were many speakers, some of whom said they looked forward to Brooklyn’s partnership with New York. A poet named Will Carleton read his latest effort, “The Passing of Brooklyn,” which ended with the line: “Brooklynites are we!” According to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, it received prolonged applause. 

Outside, a crowd had gathered. When the clock struck midnight the people cheered as fireworks exploded. According to The Eagle, “… a hundred factory whistles in every part of the city screamed discordantly, yet jubilantly; the engines on the Brooklyn Elevated and the Kings County roads answered shrilly, and the booming of cannon came from the New York side of the river. The consummation had been reached. Brooklyn City no longer existed; its passing had taken place.” 

Link to Keith Williams' column which mentions these and several other great historical shindigs: "The Ghosts of Parties Past" ( https://nyti.ms/2E2QZ2s )