LONG ISLAND OUR PAST / LI to NY: Hey, You Owe Us / A prize-winning historian points out where the city would be without the suburb
ONLY A HISTORIAN who has recently published a Pulitzer
Prize-winning history of Manhattan of epic proportions could get away with
publicly thinking the unthinkable: What would Gotham be without Long Island?
That he concludes "not much" is pretty audacious stuff. The formidable
current mayor of New York might snarl that Edwin G. Burrows is a Long Islander,
so what would you expect? Well, Burrows does live in Northport, and he does
teach history at Brooklyn College-and any decent map will show you that
Flatbush is still part of Long Island-but his upbringing and education were
elsewhere and, anyway, his academic bona fides transcend such pettifoggery.
This guy is worth listening to.
And worth quoting at length. Burrows was the main speaker recently at the
annual Hofstra Conference on Long Island Studies, and his talk-"Gotham Without
Long Island: Thinking the Unthinkable"-was provocative. A reminder: Burrows and
Mike Wallace of John Jay College of Criminal Justice were the co-authors of
"Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898," which won the 1999 Pulitzer for
"We've grown accustomed to thinking of Long Island as the needle of a
compass that points unwaveringly toward New York City-held fast, immobilized,
by the powerful gravitational field of Manhattan," Burrows began. "The Island's
residents, as if they were made of iron, walk with a pronounced westward list,
pulled relentlessly toward what they call 'the city,' whence cometh their
daily sustenance, their news, their entertainment. All roads on the Island lead
Then Burrows states his premise:
"I certainly don't deny New York's importance in the shaping of Long
Island. Rather, I want to encourage us to consider Long Island's decisive role
in the shaping of Gotham as well... There is ample reason to believe that
without Long Island, New York City as we know it would have been impossible."
Consider, Burrows asks, a few of the ways that Long Island has figured in
the city's 300-or-so-year history:
"Not long after the founding of New Amsterdam in 1626, Native Americans on
Long Island were making wampum for the Dutch, who relied on it to obtain furs
from native populations as far away as the Great Lakes. Indeed, Long Island
wampum became so crucial to the survival of the European community on Manhattan
that it would remain the basic coinage of New York until the end of the 17th
"For more than a century, from the second half of the 17th Century to the
American Revolution, western Long Island supplied Manhattan merchants with
beef, pork, grain, cheese and butter for sale in the West Indies...Without Long
Island farmers - and their slaves - New York merchants would never have been
19th Century and into the 20th, Long Island continued to supply New York with
a long list of commodities - cordwood and charcoal, then sand, then cucumbers,
pickles, potatoes, oysters, ducks - and now, wine."
As the East River shipyards became increasingly expensive, city merchants
turned to Long Island yards for their seagoing vessels. And the Island's
irregular North Shore coastline provided a smuggler's paradise. "Scratch the
surface of any New York City fortune in the 18th Century and you're likely to
find a Long Island smuggler...Hard to imagine -no, impossible to imagine - the
prosperity of Gotham without the rich and productive hinterland of Long Island."
Burrows then turned his thoughts to the master builder, Robert Moses.
"Like the roads and viaducts and walls with which Roman engineers tamed
primitive Gaul and Britain, the many works of Moses-bridges, highways, tunnels
and parks -subdued Long Island and made it safe for city folk...It is
important, in my view, to see his many works not simply as a chapter in the
automobilizing of America, but as the culmination of a long struggle by New
York to ensure its domination over Long Island. Thus it is a matter of great
significance, for New York as well as Long Island, that the Island's economy is
becoming more diversified, more self-sustaining and less dependent on that of
But Long Island as New York's suburbia, Burrows pointed out, happened long
before Levittown. When 18th Century New Yorkers wanted to get away from it all
for the weekend, they went over the East River onto Long Island, which to them
was primarily Brooklyn. Eventually, they built permanent homes in Brooklyn and
commuted to the city, especially after the development of steam-powered ferry
boats in the early 1800s. "Well before 1839, the Heights had become the
country's first commuter suburb," Burrows said. "...It is hard to imagine how
New York would have fared without the lebensraum afforded by Long Island."
"And finally," Burrows said, "New York has used Long Island as a graveyard.
Well before the Civil War, the Common Council prohibited further burials
within the city limits. But what to do with the bodies? The answer: Plant them
on Long Island. In this sense, Long Island is to mortuary science what Staten
Island is to sanitary engineering."
Burrows wound up with some lighthearted, "what-if" speculation. What if,
for example, Long Island had been left completely under water by the retreat of
the last glacier?
"Without Long Island there would be no harbor. What is now the East River
waterfront would lie directly on the Atlantic...completely at the mercy of the
ocean's raw winds and battering waves."
What if the duke of York had failed to capture New Amsterdam from the Dutch
"Peter Stuyvesant's New Netherland would remain Dutch for another 200
years. However...the Netherlands surrendered all of the Island to the English
crown. The East River becomes an international border...Sag Harbor, on the
Island's East End, flourishes, first as a whaling town, then as a manufacturing
center employing millions of immigrants from Europe."
What if the consolidation movement of the 1890s had failed, and Greater New
York City, including Kings and Queens Counties, never was created? "Queens
soon surpassed Brooklyn in population and wealth. Its supremacy was assured
when Gov. Robert Moses launched a road-and-bridge-building campaign that tied
the county securely to the mainland. The Syosset Bridge, longest suspension
bridge in the world, extended the influence of Queens into southern
There was more. But, as Burrows said, you get the picture.
"Gotham's pre-eminence among world cities was at the very least facilitated
by, and arguably, even dependent on, the existence of Long Island," Burrows
said. "Gotham without Long Island would be no Gotham at all."
This page appears occasionally on Tuesdays. Send ideas or queries to Long
Island history writer George DeWan at Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville,
N.Y., 11747-4250. Or e-mail to email@example.com