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A Bit Of Old Logic Explained

The outline of New York City is odd. It’s partly explained by the natural geography of the harbor and the surrounding islands, but not entirely. As someone with a reputation for knowing the city’s history, I’ve been asked more than once “Why Staten island?” and “Why so much of Queens?” The map above provides a partial answer in a form that had never occurred to me.

I got the map from the New York State Archives online, but it’s not clear who made it. The circles indicating distance are in kilometers and the legend (hard to read in the unfortunately low resolution) seems to be in German. “A-A” and “B-B” are called out as “Neue Brücken” and are the locations of the Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, which were built shortly after 1900. 

The legend also states that this is the city in January 1898, which is when consolidation went into effect. The City of New York (originally only Manhattan Island / New York County) had previous swallowed what is now called the Bronx in two gulps (1874 and 1895); 1898 brought in the city of Brooklyn (Kings County), Richmond County (Staten Island), and the western portion of Queens County (Long Island City, Flushing, Jamaica, and Newtown). The eastern portion of Queens was reorganized as Nassau County, outside of the expanded city. The eastern boundary of Queens is shown in this map a bit too far east, encompassing Five Towns, Floral Park, and Valley Stream, all of which ended up on the Nassau side of the border. 

The center of the bullseye is roughly at City Hall, with distances measured out from there. And measuring from there, the far southwestern corner of Staten Island is just over 30 kilometers, the eastern border of Queens just about 25 kilometers, and the northern border of the Bronx just about 25 kilometers. In other words, the annexation was rather consistent in how far from the center things went. This is somewhere between an accident and a barometer of how people in the suburbs felt about the city, as the annexations were decided by popular vote. The much-closer land on the other side of the Hudson was immune from annexation since it’s in New Jersey and state boundaries are impassible for municipal boundaries. Had the business district remained focussed in lower Manhattan, the outline would make more sense today. But it spread north to midtown, the prime Manhattan residential neighborhoods moved north to the Upper East and West Sides, and the construction of Penn Station combined with the already-extent Grand Central to fix the transportation hub in midtown. From there, the northern edge of the Bronx is much closer, and the southern edge of Staten Island much further. The way the subway system developed further intensified that northern skew.