In 1897, Queens was a 396-square-mile area divided into six
townships - Newtown, Flushing, Jamaica, Hempstead, North Hempstead, and Oyster Bay - and
one incorporated municipality, Long Island City. It was a largely rural county of 150,000
residents, concentrated in Long Island City and in villages strung along roads and
Queens County in 1891, shortly before five disparate regions were
united into the five boroughs of New York City.
But on New Years Day 1898, Queens became part of "Greater New York,"
and lost more than two-thirds of its area in the process. The move , simply called
"the consolidation," expanded New York Citys land base to over 360 square
miles. It also enlarged the citys population to 3.4 million, making it the second
wealthiest and most populous city on earth at the time, after London.
The consolidation, which historians say was prompted by New York businessmen seeking to
alleviate chaos in New York Harbor, produced joyous celebration in Manhattan, muted
disdain in Brooklyn, and the nodding approval of most Queens residents. In an 1894
non-binding referendum on the proposal, 60 percent of Queens residents voted for
consolidation, with support concentrated in Long Island City. But in the towns of
Flushing, Oyster Bay and Hempstead, majorities voted against the plan.
As a mostly rural county, Queens could undoubtedly gain as part of the combined city,
which emerged with an estimated aggregate wealth of $4.5 billion.
But help was slow in materializing.
Political Corruption Feared
Historical accounts indicate that originally Queens residents were glad not to receive
financial help from Manhattan. Fear of the Manhattan political machine and fear of the
political corruption spreading into Queens posed the earliest and most pronounced
opposition to the change from localized government to NYCs new centralized
The consolidation produced some good and some bad.
"At the time, in 1898 New York, technology was not what it is today," said
Paul Kerson, counsel to the Queens Historical Society. "Then it was paved roads,
street lights, electricity and waterways. Being largely rural, the municipality of Queens
could not afford these things. In order to get these things the only way was to join New
York City. Queens benefited because it got developed faster, and the borough of Manhattan
paid for the Queensboro Bridge, and Queens could not afford it. After that its been
a mixed blessing."
The debate of what Queens gained or lost by becoming part of Greater New York is
According to Kerson, Queens residents - as well as those in the other four boroughs -
have lost far too much political control concerning local issues in exchange for being a
part of the "worlds greatest city."
"The consolidation was a good idea, but was not done properly ...Weve gained
an empire and lost democracy," Kerson said.
Kerson believes that the underlying question of how the citys outlying areas
would be governed was not properly addressed 100 years ago, and today remains the single
most detrimental aspect of the New York City consolidation.
Kerson has pointed to the decline of communities throughout the city such as the South
Bronx, East New York, and Coney Island as examples of the failure of local residents to
control local politics. Kerson calls the current government a "five-county
federation," and believes that demographic shifts indicate the frustration that most
New Yorkers feel to concerning political control of quality of life issues.
"No one moves from Nassau County to Queens," Kerson said.
Over 40 Governments
Before the consolidation there were more than 40 town, village, county and school
district governments in the five boroughs. Manhattan, was known as New York County. The
Bronx, which had already been annexed in sections by New York County, went on to become
its own county in 1914. Kings County became the borough of Brooklyn; Richmond County
(Staten Island) became Richmond Borough.
Queens County, a 396-square-mile area that encompassed what are now Queens and Nassau
counties, was divided into a section that was part of the city (modern Queens), and a
section outside the city (which became Nassau County in 1899).
After consolidation, the city portion of Queens was divided into five wards: Long
Island City (first ward), Newtown (second ward) , Flushing (third ward), Jamaica (forth
ward), and Far Rockaway to the Rockaway Beach inlet (fifth ward).
A new administrative body, under the direction of a mayor elected by voters from the
five counties in 1897, consisted of a comptroller, the corporation council, five borough
presidents and an appointed board of commissioners that directed citys water supply,
highways, street cleaning, sewers, public buildings, and lighting and supplies.
In Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties, separate town governments address local
issues and county wide issues are addressed by county government and their operatives.
In Queens and the rest of New York City, community boards handle such issues. The
community board structure was developed in the 1950s by Manhattan borough president Robert
Wagner, and was given formal status by City Charter in 1975. While the citys
community boards act in an advisory role, they have no enforcement powers. While most
current community board members support the current system, they see room for improvement.
Community Board Criticisms
Vincent Donato, chairperson of Community Board 1, said that the current structure, with
a centrally controlled City Council, is "how it really should be." However, he
said lines should be coterminous for community board and City Council districts so that
the Council and community boards could work on a "one-to-one basis."
Elizabeth Bratton, chairperson of Community Board 10, said that by giving more power to
the borough presidents and giving each borough its fair share of financial resources,
local issues could be more adequately addressed.
Kathleen Reilly, district manager of Community Board 6, said that "local access
has never been better, but he would like to see more authority and input given to
community boards on zoning and land use issues. "Developers should have to work more
closely with the committees traffic, transportation, schools and services," she said.
"The board needs more input."
Adrian Joyce, chairperson of Community Board 7, agreed that the current system is good,
and described local participation of community groups in the community board process as
"tremendous." Suggesting that that there is strength in numbers, she advised any
city resident who wants greater political clout to join or form a community group.
"If more people attend meetings they would get more" she said.
Kerson said he agrees with utilizing the citys 59 community boards, but said the
system should be overhauled. "The city government has a strong interest in keeping
the system the way it is. Which is mostly non-functional," he said.
To improve local clout in city government Kerson said, "Coterminous lines to
determine police, fire, health and sanitation coverage should be strictly adhered
to," and local issues such as public schools, zoning, street maintenance, sanitation
and misdemeanor policing should be implemented through the upgraded role of the
citys 59 community boards.
Larger issues, such as water supply, highway construction, fire control and felony
policing, he said, should be left to a regional municipal government.
"Being a part of the city is fine," Donato said. "Perhaps Queens could
be its own state. There are states that dont have the population that we do."