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How Queens Became New York City's Largest Borough

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Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries.

From an 1891 map. Notice how few roads have been built in Queens compared with Manhattan and Brooklyn. (NYPL)

Last year, we brought you a post on the evolution of Kings County's municipalities from 1664, when the English took over for the Dutch, through its annexation by New York City as the Borough of Brooklyn in 1898. During that same span, its neighbor to the north and east, Queens County, also underwent a number of changes—including the loss of nearly three-quarters of its area.

With a land area of 109 square miles, Queens is by far the largest of the five boroughs. (Its population of 2.3 million is second to Brooklyn by 300,000.) Had Queens County maintained its original size, however, it would be almost four times bigger; what is now known as Nassau County broke away in 1899, making the County of Queens coterminous with the one-year-old Borough of Queens.

Before we begin, a bit of background is needed. First: just as with Brooklyn and Manhattan, there's been a lot of land-filling over the years, so the geographic extremities of these maps won't be true to what they were in the 19th century (hello, airports!). For practical purposes, changing water boundaries have been left out. And second: a few borders were based on now-covered creeks and now-obliterated roads. As such, a few of the boundaries on these maps (particularly the ones covering the entire county) are rough approximations.

Like Kings, Queens County was established in 1683 as one of the original 12 counties of the Colony of New York. It was named for Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese queen consort of England's King Charles II. At the outset, it consisted of five towns:

Hempstead (established by the English in 1644): named either for the Dutch town Heemstede, near Haarlem and Amsterdam, or for the English town Hemel Hempstead, home of one of the co-founders.

Flushing (Dutch, 1645): originally Vlishing, from Vlissingen, a Dutch town on the North Sea. In 1657, 30 Vlishing residents sent an appeal to Director-General Peter Stuyvesant urging him to lift a ban on Quakers. Many view this document, known as the Flushing Remonstrance, as the birth of religious freedom in the New World.

Jamaica (Dutch, 1656): originally Rustdorp ("rest town"), later renamed after Yameco, "beaver" in the Lenape language. It has a distinct derivation from the Caribbean nation: that comes from the Arawak word Xaymaca ("land of wood and water").

Newtown (Dutch, 1652): originally Middenburgh; populated by settlers from nearby Maspat (today's Maspeth). Changed to Hastings in 1663 upon the English takeover, then New Towne in 1665.

Oyster Bay (English, 1667): after nearly thirty years of boundary disputes between English and Dutch settlers in the area between Hempstead and today's Suffolk County, the English government of New York incorporated the township.

Before the British took control of the greater region in 1664, Oyster Bay (the waterway, that is) marked the dividing line between western Long Island (part of New Amsterdam) and eastern Long Island (part of Connecticut). That line more or less divides Nassau and Suffolk Counties today, but when Dutch power had begun to slip, there was some confusion over whether the towns in the future Queens County would be part of New York or Connecticut. (All of Long Island was turned over to New York in December 1664.)

In 1784, the northern part of Hempstead broke away, giving itself the inventive name of North Hempstead. This stemmed from a Loyalist-Patriot divide in the Revolutionary War; the northern half declared "independence" in 1775, as Hempstead wished to remain part of the British Empire.

The county seat was originally in Jamaica; after the British burned the courthouse in the Revolution, the seat moved to the village of Mineola, in North Hempstead, close to the geographic center of the county. (For context, Mineola is about 10 miles due east of today's Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and 16 miles due east of today's Long Island City waterfront—as the crow flies. Imagine making that journey on horseback—or foot—over winding, muddy paths.)

But as ferry service became more reliable in the early 19th century with the introduction of the steam engine, western Queens became more popular. Much of that growth came at a place called Hunter's Point, which developer (and president of Union College) Eliphalet Nott divided into lots starting in the 1830s. Ferry service came in 1858, allowing travelers for the first time a two-seat trip from Manhattan (by ferry) to Flushing (by train); by 1869, Hunter's Point had developed a gravity of its own. Residents clamored for incorporation as a village so that they could oversee their own development, rather than listen to the bigwigs of Newtown.

Due to opposition by manufacturers, who feared increased taxes, this push was defeated by the state Legislature. Undeterred, Hunter's Point formed an alliance with neighboring villages, particularly Astoria, and the next year succeeded in forming a new entity: Long Island City. The county seat moved to there in 1874, much to the chagrin of the residents of rural eastern Queens County.

The boundary between Long Island City and Newtown was an old path called the Bowery Bay Road, which ran from the now-destroyed Penny Bridge over Newtown Creek to Bowery Bay in Long Island Sound. While most of the winding route was obliterated by the grid that eventually came into place, a few vestiges remain, among them Celtic Avenue in Woodside, the hypotenuse of John Downing Park in Woodside, Hobart Street in Long Island City, and 19th Road in East Elmhurst. (Fun fact: "Bowery" comes from the Dutch word bouwerij, "farm.")

"City" was a bit of a misnomer for the area. Unlike the City of Brooklyn, which was rapidly approaching a population of one million, Long Island City had just 17,000 residents by 1880. It was really just a confederation of villages with plenty of empty space between them.

From an 1891 map. Notice how few roads have been built in Queens compared with Manhattan and Brooklyn. (NYPL)

The city's government was basically neutered, as there was a very low cap on how much money it could raise. Rather than use normal budgetary means, officials could create commissions to address the growing area's numerous problems, such as lack of fresh water and the flattening of hilly terrain. This provided plenty of opportunities for graft. A few parcels of land were wrested away from Queens County in the 1880s: New York County (Manhattan) took North Brother Island (1881) and Rikers Island (1884), while in 1885, Lloyd Neck joined Suffolk County. South Brother Island would be transferred to the Bronx in 1964.

In 1896, consolidation was looming. Newtown changed its name to Elmhurst in order to distance itself from the wasteland known as Newtown Creek, which had been an industrial dumping ground since the Civil War. Among the first polluters had been Peter Cooper, who was ordered to move his glue factories there from Manhattan in the 1850s.

The vote to create a consolidated City of New York had taken place two years prior, in 1894. Overall, 62 percent of voters in the future borough of Queens were in favor of the consolidation plan, but the outcomes varied widely among the various jurisdictions.

Long Island City, population 35,000, voted overwhelmingly for consolidation, with 82 percent in favor. The Democratic machine had been incredibly corrupt, serving bloated contracts to contributors and doing a terrible job improving infrastructure. The water supply was so poorly managed that fire insurance was much higher than in other municipalities along the East River. Of note in this part of history was three-time mayor Patrick "Battle-Axe" "Paddy" Gleason, who formed a private water company in an attempt to gouge his own citizens, among many other exploits.

Flushing, on the other hand, had 55 percent of voters against the proposal. Residents feared an incursion from Tammany Hall; the town had also built an advanced infrastructure, including a steady water supply and systems for sewage and gas. Unfortunately for them, the referendum was simply advisory.

On January 1, 1898, the western part of Queens County—Long Island City, Newtown, Flushing, Jamaica, and the Rockaways portion of Hempstead—became the Borough of Queens. This created a strange situation for the remaining parts: they were technically still part of Queens County, but the bulk of the county was now controlled by New York City.

On April 28, 1898, the state Legislature approved the creation of a new county, which some in the eastern half of the former Queens County had wanted for nearly 60 years.

It was called Nassau, taking the original name for Long Island, which honored William III of the House of Orange-Nassau. It became the 61st county in New York State, and the first created in 45 years; only Bronx County, which broke away from New York County in 1914, is younger.*

Many in Queens did not like the new partition, as county officials wanted to sell off land in Nassau to pay off debts incurred before the split. In fact, in October 1898, the county clerk refused to grant certificates to the nominees for elected offices in Nassau County. In doing so, he cited his belief that the legislation creating the new county was unconstitutional. He was promptly overruled in court, and there is no evidence that he pursued the matter any further (or subsequently went to jail for contempt).

Rawson-33rd Street on the IRT Flushing Line, 1917. (NYC Transit Forums)

The opening of the Queensboro Bridge (1909) and the completion of a railway tunnel under the East River (1910) spurred development even further. Compared with today, politicians were incredibly forward-thinking when it came to transit: the IRT Flushing Line (today's 7 train) was built through open fields in anticipation of future development – the best way to get land on the cheap.

There were a few changes to both counties in the early 20th century. In 1917, Glen Cove, on Long Island Sound, broke away from Oyster Bay and became an independent city. Hempstead lost Long Beach in 1922. And in 1925, Brooklyn and Queens redefined their border to align with the street grid.

Even today, there are reminders of the original boundaries of Queens. ZIP codes are mostly aligned with those borders: what was once Long Island City is 111xx, Newtown and Flushing share 113xx, Jamaica is 114xx, and Far Rockaway (what used to be part of Hempstead) is 116xx.

Fun fact along those lines: Ridgewood and Glendale used to share ZIP code 11227 with Bushwick, Brooklyn. But after the riots in the wake of the blackout of 1977, residents found their insurance rates rising, and they successfully petitioned Representative Geraldine Ferraro to grant them a 113xx ZIP code.

*Correction: this post originally said Bronx County was separated from Westchester County in 1914. What is now Bronx County was originally part of Westchester County, but the land was annexed by New York County (now coterminous with the Borough of Manhattan) in 1874 and 1895.

· Blurred Lines archives [Curbed]