Why Does New York City Have Five Boroughs?

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New York City is almost like several cities in one, with many divisions among the millions of people who call it home. Perhaps the most noticeable of these divisions: New York City's five boroughs. The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island are each a smaller government entity within the city's broader system of government. Each has its own borough president and limited governing powers, plus its own culture and reputation, and each overlaps with a county of New York State and has its own district attorney.

Why is this? How did these five boroughs come to be?

Four of the five boroughs correspond to counties that the English etched out when they seized control of the area and created the colony of New York. Their 1683 map includes the counties of New York (Manhattan), Richmond (Staten Island), Kings (Brooklyn), and Queens (Queens, of course). The actual City of New York was limited to the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. The rest of what is now the city was a hodgepodge of rural villages and farming communities, which came and went and sometimes merged over the centuries. Before long, the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn had emerged. These shifts are detailed in "Before the Five-Borough City: The Old Cities, Towns and Villages That Came Together to Form ‘Greater New York,’" an article by Harry Macy Jr., published in the September 1998 issue of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s newsletter.

By the late 19th century, 40 separate municipalities controlled what is now New York, creating a headache for the industrial elites trying to install utilities and move goods by railroad and harbor through the area. According to various articles in Columbia University professor Kenneth T. Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City, lawyer and city planner Andrew Haswell Green argued for consolidation of the four counties into one massive city. He also proposed annexing a valuable chunk of the main land from Westchester County. This became The Bronx.

All towns and cities affected held referendums on the plan. According to the Pulitzer-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, most New Yorkers were keen on the idea, partially due to fear that Chicago would surpass the city as the nation’s most populous. Brooklynites and other residents of outlying areas were hesitant. Newspapers and civic organizations decried the loss of local control and a threat to Protestant homogeneity. But ultimately, the promise of lower taxes via the consolidation of city services—and the bragging rights that came with living in the nation's largest metropolis—won out.

Out of the consolidation of 1898, a city of 3 million was born. The state legislature set up a special committee to draw up a new city charter. Finalized in 1901, according to Jackson’s encyclopedia, it outlined the roles of the mayor, comptroller, and Board of Aldermen. It also created the five boroughs and the office of borough president. The main role of the five borough presidents was to vote on the Board of Estimate, which oversaw budget and land use issues.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional. The justices reasoned it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because one borough president got one vote, although the boroughs themselves had widely disparate populations.

Since then, the boroughs have had little governing power, and the borough presidents have become primarily boosters, working to organize nongovernmental civic groups and nonprofits. The boroughs are now mostly names on a map—and sources of overwhelming sectarian pride for New Yorkers.