Editor’s note: This article is part of a series in which Newsday attempts to answer questions from Long Islanders about life on the Island. If there’s a question you want us to answer, send it to us here.
Why are Brooklyn and Queens a part of New York City even though they are physically on Long Island?
The short answer: As the City of New York sought to expand its boundaries, it enticed the residents of Brooklyn and Queens with the promise of improved services.
The long answer: Until the 1890s, Manhattan and New York City were just two names for one place. There were no other boroughs. Instead, New York City was surrounded by separate municipalities: Staten Island, the City of Brooklyn, Queens County, and East Bronx.
In the lead up to the 20th century, the city decided to expand.
Chicago had been annexing territory since 1851, and the benefits were obvious: A larger municipality could provide more services, like the construction of schools. Current and former city officials, namely former comptroller Andrew H. Green, decided it was time to stop playing second fiddle to the Windy City.
The Greater New York Commission was formed, with Green as its president. In 1894, the commission announced a referendum would be held in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn and the western portion of Queens County to decide the city’s future. It was up to the people.
The New York Times made its predictions: At least four would vote in favor of consolidation. Brooklyn was uncertain, as it was already the third-largest city in the United States.
Hundreds of thousands turned out for the referendum. Between all five boroughs, 176,170 voted in favor, and 131,706 dissented, according to city data. In Brooklyn, the consolidation passed by only 300 votes.
“As much as they didn’t like being little sister to Manhattan, they benefitted from it,” New York City historian Kenneth T. Jackson said of Brooklyn.
By combining into one, New York City would have more tax money to go around to build better roads and other infrastructure, Jackson said.
But on Jan. 1, 1898, when the present-day New York City was officially formed, there was a problem on Long Island. The referendum did not include the eastern portion of Queens County — the towns of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay. So who would govern them?
“It was an impossible situation,” said Queens historian Jeffrey Kroessler.
The towns were deliberately excluded, Kroessler said, because the eastern side of Queens County was mostly farmland.
“The City of New York is looking at that saying there’s no one living out there,” Kroessler said, “and we’ll be responsible for buildings schools, roads, sewage. So they kept it out.”
As soon as the present-day New York City was established, the local leaders in the three towns began working on legislation to create a new county. The measure was passed in Albany immediately.
On January 1, 1899, Nassau County was born.