Mises Wire

Decentralize New York City!

New York’s Forgotten Borough Is Persecuted

Some New Yorkers have a devolution message for our Manhattan elites: let us go. 

The battle between liberty and runaway big government is a history of imperious empires crushing political, economic, and geographic minorities. We see such a battle in New York City, whose Manhattan-based municipal government, operating in a mostly one-party system, persecutes a unique part of the city called Staten Island as well other distant areas.

The city’s enforcement of covid regulations has been harsh on the island. Staten Island’s bars and restaurants have been badly hurt by city and state regulations. But Staten Islanders, whose political preferences are different from those of the city’s ruling powers, had had many grievances for years before the covid lockdowns.

A Battle for Local Liberty

Staten Island is so unlike the rest of New York City that many of its citizens have been trying to win a decentralization battle for decades. Indeed, in the 1993 municipal elections Staten Islanders voted overwhelmingly to leave New York City.

Ultimately, Staten Island and some other overtaxed New Yorkers in this mismanaged sprawling city hate being governed by a Manhattan ruling class that often scorns and misunderstands “outer borough” residents. (i.e., those not living in Manhattan). This Manhattan ruling class quietly regards most of us as bunch of Guidos, Archie Bunkers, or local Babbitts. We are the New York City version of “deplorables.”

It is the essence of imperious government: a big political unit will not let a small unit quietly succeed. The nature of imperial government is always to hold on to everything.

Staten Island to the Mayor—We’re Not Like You 

Staten Island, unlike most of the radical leftist parts of New York City, is somewhat right-wing. It went for President Trump in the last election. It is more suburban that the rest of the city. It has a lot of Italo-Americans. It has different attitudes about the police than much of the rest of the city, especially a city council and mayor who have reduced police funding. Staten Island residents depend less on the egregious city/state transportation systems through their nightmare government agency, the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), and more on the use of private cars.

Republicans Joe Borelli and Steven Matteo, two city council members, recently offered legislation to create a task force to examine the feasibility of Staten Island seceding from the left-leaning Big Apple.

“If the city wants to continue going in a radical progressive direction, please just leave us behind!” said Borelli. He believes left-wing mayor Bill de Blasio has no understanding of the borough. “Just consistently when there’s issues for Staten Island, we just don’t get a big reaction from City Hall.”

Not Like the Rest of the Big Apple 

Part of the city government disconnect is Staten Island’s uniqueness. It is the least populated borough, with only some four hundred thousand. That means its voice is hardly heard in a city of over 8 million. It has many reasons to want to escape from the tyranny of a majority but a huge city government that won’t let it go.

“The city is fighting a war on the cars we need to drive,” Borelli said. He added that many city officials “loathe police officers many [of whom] live here. Why wouldn’t Staten Island want to secede?” 

Borelli also said he believes residents of the so-called forgotten borough will back secession because they’re on the short end of the city’s unfair property tax system. He says it favors neighborhoods where property values have skyrocketed, such as Park Slope in Brooklyn, where Mayor De Blasio owns property. 

The city government’s inability to effectively govern goes beyond one borough. As a result of a program of aggressive expansion in the nineteenth century, New York City is unlike almost any other city: it is five entire counties. Most big cities are the biggest part of one county; not five entire counties. Each of New York’s five boroughs is unique.

Escape from Tax Hell 

Many of Staten Island’s taxpayers, like many other New Yorkers, also want to separate from a place Money magazine once called “tax hell.” 

This is because the city chronically overspends. New York City’s government payrolls have been exploding throughout the De Blasio mayoralty. These have been big spending years. The city virtually faces bankruptcy next year. De Blasio concedes that unless the coming Biden administration bails out the city, it will face economic disaster. Under almost any circumstances, the taxpayers will face bigger tax bills. Tens of thousands aren’t waiting for next year’s crisis: they’ve moved.

De Blasio, an unpopular radical leftist and onetime supporter of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, was asked about the secession efforts. “I can’t imagine New York City without Staten Island,” he said. 

But many Staten Islanders can.

In 1993, they voted about two-to-one in a nonbinding referendum to secede and become the independent city of Staten Island. The measure was sent to the state legislature. But the referendum was later invalidated. Staten Island advocates hadn’t received “a home rule” approval message from the New York City Council.

Imagine if before American revolutionaries had begun their fight they had asked the permission of the British Parliament? 

A Felon Determines the Island’s Fate 

The New York State Assembly speaker, New York City Democrat Sheldon Silver, citing the lack of a home rule message, ignored the referendum when it was presented in Albany. Silver, in a reaction typical of the lawmaker presiding over an empire, said he didn’t want to be the one who helped break up the city. Like so many New York pols, Silver was later convicted of corruption. 

Still, De Blasio and other city power players should be concerned about more than Staten Island. Once the independent spirit is awakened in an oppressed people, such as New Yorkers suffering under more than a century of socialist centralization, where would it stop if it were followed to its logical conclusions? The city’s politically oppressed aren’t limited to Staten Island.

More NYC Oppression Stories 

Queens County has more than 2 million residents. If it were a city and it had home rule, it would be one of the biggest cities in the country. Queens in the 1990s had its own secession movement. It ended when Staten Island’s independence movement was defeated by the legerdemain of the region’s ruling classes.

I have lived in Queens most of my life. The quasi-suburban Queens is also a very different place from Manhattan. For example, I have a five-hundred-acre forest in my neighborhood (It was actually created in the last days of the City of Brooklyn. I have written elsewhere about this wonderous, little-known place called Forest Park).

Unfortunately, by a very narrow margin, we voted to join the big city at the end of the nineteenth century. 

The Once Great City of Kings 

And Brooklyn in the nineteenth century became one of the biggest cities in the nation until “the crime of ’98.” This was the referendum that was narrowly approved in the 1890s that joined the borough of Kings and extinguished the independence of parts of the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens in a centralist movement called consolidation.

Brooklyn’s great newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, opposed the referendum, warning that it would destroy Brooklyn’s economy: “Manhattan’s elite gave up on the idea of upward mobility. And Brooklyn paid the price.”

Indeed, after Brooklyn had lost its status as a great city, Brooklynite novelist Pete Hamill would write of his beloved borough, “[A]n inner voice always seems to whisper: There was another place before and it was better than this.” 

The Bronx was also ruined by joining the city. It was once an industrial hub, especially the southern part of the borough. The South Bronx became one of the most infamous examples of urban blight, a place my family fled in the 1960s. Those neighborhoods have long since lost their industry, because city officials sacrificed it to a god called Manhattan. 

The Jeffersonian Staten Island Sensibility 

Staten Island is part of the huge badly governed city of New York. Many Staten Islanders believe local control would improve their quality of life. These liberty-minded folks believe in the Jeffersonian idea that the smallest government tends to be the least objectable. It tends to be more responsive since it is closer to the governed. 

Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, agreed. 

“Brooklyn and all the other boroughs would all be better off on their own,” wrote Jacobs over sixty years ago. Her criticism that consolidation was flawed was amazingly prophetic. 

“The richest borough, Manhattan, has received some economic and cultural benefits, and the others have been stultified in their development. Big bureaucracies,” she wrote, “can’t allow for the diversity and the experimentation that are essential to cities.” 

Indeed, true diversity and entrepreneurship arise best from the smallest, most decentralized units of government. Not surprisingly, one of the greatest libertarian historians, Lord Acton, said the issue of centralization versus decentralization is one of the most important themes in history. 

A Flawed NYC 

But this flawed leftist ruling class imposing centralization is unfit to govern us, or anybody, given the widespread venality, overspending, municipal socialism, and countless other forms of mismanagement. But some of it is understandable. It’s tough to govern people you don’t understand. 

Most city officials have either lived all their lives in Manhattan or moved to Manhattan once they became power players.

I believe Lord Acton would have understood the frustrations of Staten Islanders, their anger with being governed by a huge, distant centralized city government.

He warned of “the threat to freedom from centralized governmental absolutism, the tyranny of the majority, bureaucratic administration, democracy and socialism.” Acton could have been speaking about Staten Island today or thirty years ago. 

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority,” Acton wrote, “but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.”

Image Source: Peter Miller via Flickr
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