Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Primer on New York City's Unique Form of Government

I just want to give everyone a little lesson on New York City, because it seems to simultaneously be the best-known and yest least-understood city in the country. People use terms imprecisely, which doesn't help matters. Worse yet, there is such a strong sense of "neighborhood" in that huge city that the casual observer is misled and confused at every turn. It has taken me, ME- the big political/government wonk- almost 2 years of living in NY state to finally unravel that weird Gordian knot of a city that lies 150 miles downstate.

Here's the deal:

Myth: "New York City" = Manhattan
Fact: "New York City" actually consists of 5 "boroughs": Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island. There are about 8 million residents living in these 5 boroughs, any of whom might properly say they are from "New York City."

Question: What the hell is a "borough"?
Answer: A borough is an administrative subdivision of a state. Since each state is free to organize itself as it wishes, "borough" means different things in different states, adding to the confusion. New York State has only the 5 boroughs that make up New York City, and boroughs are not used elsewhere in the state. Alaska, by contrast, uses the term "borough" as other states would use the term "county."

Question: No, really, what the hell is a "borough" and why does NYC have them?
Answer: Try this- think of NYC as "the United States" and each borough as an individual state. This sort of "federalism" is sort of like NYC, with each of the five boroughs retaining a lot of local control over things like land use, and each with its own "borough president" (like each state has a governor), but all falling under the control of a strong mayor (like the President) who leads on issues of importance to the city as a whole (which is why he has power over the school system, hospitals, transportation, etc.)

Just when you said to yourself, "Got it. NYC consists of 5 boroughs, which are like states, but the mayor runs the whole show for all 8 million people on the overriding issues of civic importance," I have to throw in a curve ball, and here's where it gets really screwy: each of the boroughs is "coterminous" (meaning, geographically one and the same) with a county, so NYC actually has 5 counties within it. Even worse- not all the counties have the same name as the borough, but some do. Here:
Question: What did you just say?
Answer: Each of those 5 entities (Brooklyn, etc.) acts like a borough for some purposes (local, municipal stuff) and a county (bigger stuff) for other purposes, and has a separate borough and county government. So if you get arrested in Manhattan for shoplifting, you will be prosecuted by the District Attorney of New York County. But if you want your trash picked up, you could take the matter to your borough president (or your local city councilman, of which there are 51!)

Myth: Manhattan is the most populous part of NYC.
Manhattan is the most densely populated part of NYC, I was shocked to learn that Manhattan, with approx. 1.5 million people, is home to fewer people than Brooklyn (2.5 million) and Queens (2.3 million). Manhattan's population is about 70,000 people/square mile, compared to 8,000/square mile for the City of Los Angeles and about 15,000/square mile for Hermosa Beach.

Myth: New York City is an island.
Sort of true: 4 of the 5 boroughs that make up New York City are islands. Only The Bronx is physically connected to the U.S. mainland.

How come NYC has such a wacky form of government?
This is the $64,000 question and I figured out the answer: In 1898, The City of New York was formed out of what used to be something like 20 independent cities and 4 counties. Brooklyn, for example, was, I think, the fourth largest city in the entire country at the time, which is why it has such a strong historical identity and so many people say the are from "Brooklyn" instead of identifying with the relatively recently manufactured "New York City." (Staten Island, by contrast, was mostly farmland and had only a few thousand people at the time it was folded into the City of New York.)

Now that I've thoroughly confused you, here is a recap of what we've learned just now, courtesy of wikipedia:

"New York City is subdivided into five boroughs, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. Each of these is coterminous with a county, Kings, New York, Queens, Bronx and Richmond Counties respectively. There are no county governments within New York City for legislative or executive purposes, but there are borough governments composed of a borough president, members of the New York City Council which represent parts of the borough, and the chairmen of the local community boards (see Government of New York City). The powers of the borough governments are inferior to the powers of the city-wide government. The boroughs of New York City are still treated as separate counties for judicial purposes, and for business and legal filings."

All of this just scratches the surface. I've been reading what I call "the paper" (that is, the historic Los Angeles and New York Times, for the past 125 years) for the past few months on this topic, so I'll have to stop myself here because I'm full of so much random information, it starts to get ugly from here on out. :-)

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