They'll Take Manhattan


Will New York City secede from the United States? Well, no, not unless things get really weird. But New York magazine has some fun thinking about it:

If New York were its own country, its army, the New York City Police Department, would be the twentieth-best-funded army in the world, just behind Greece and just ahead of North Korea. Its GDP, $413.9 billion, would be the seventeenth largest, just behind the Russian Federation and just ahead of Switzerland. With more than 8 million residents, it would be more populous than Ireland, Switzerland, or New Zealand; roughly half the countries in the Middle East (including Israel); most of the former republics of the Soviet Union; and all the Scandinavian countries besides Sweden….

The idea of secession has been suggested before, and it has always been dismissed as patently inane. (So now we need passports to go to the Hamptons? How would we get our water, our electricity, our Social Security? Are we supposed to form a navy?) What is interesting, though, is how persistent the fantasy of secession remains in the New York imagination—how intuitively logical it seems, how tantalizing and how real, and how quickly everyone grasps the concept. "It's impossible, but it's not crazy to think about," says Leslie H. Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, "especially given that the city is chronically shortchanged by Washington and Albany and yet still retains financial strength and the great creativity of its citizens."

The article includes pictures of the future city-state's currency (it bears the faces of Woody Allen and Rudy Giuliani), suggests that Bill Clinton could serve as the country's president ("assuming, after eight years of presiding over the Free World, he has the patience to worry about potholes"), and mulls the new government's constitution ("gay marriage would be legal, of course, and shrieking car alarms would command a stiffer penalty than drug possession"). It also turns its attention, briefly, to the perennial proposal that New York City stay in the Union but secede from New York State:

In 1969, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin ran on a mayoral platform arguing that the city, needing local control of its services and finances, should become the 51st state. The most inspired part of their proposal contended that the city had dibs on the name "New York." The rest of the state, they suggested, should be renamed "Buffalo."

From the other side of the Hudson, the upstate libertarian Bill Kauffman once proposed that New York State secede from New York City. My question: Who gets the suburbs?

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  1. I think the worst blow to NYS/NYC relations in years has to have been the exporting of the Bloomberg smoking ban “upstate.” (Scare quotes because it’s an insanely provincial designation I only use for convenience; I once read an AP wire story about an event in Jamestown, NY, which is an hour and a quarter south of Buffalo, describing the town as lying ‘about 80 miles north of New York.’ And about 250 miles west, but who’s counting?)

    I think every state has this kind of sentiment. I remember hearing of it during the Grey Davis recall, and here in PA, you can generally get a barroom of heads nodding most places by suggesting that Philly ought to be auctioned off to NJ or DE. (And I suppose the opposite must be true, too….)

  2. As a Brooklyn man, I can attest that the city does send far more to Albany than it gets back.

    Read about state funding of city education here.

    I’ve found this, too. New York City sends $3.5 billion more to Albany than the state spends on the city. We have the state legislature in Albany to thank for that, those bums. Other posters might say, “Why vote for policies that screw the city?” I can assure you that the city-baiting state Senate majority leader, who controls the legislature like Don Corleone controlled Little Italy, is responsible, not us. Beware, upstaters–Atlas shall shrug!

  3. The “we pay all the money in and get little back” meme is complicated. For example, voters from the city are often more interested in limiting development in rural areas than the residents who live there are. In New York’s case, Upstate is the source of its water supply, and keeping that clean is a major value. The Catskills and the Adirondack preserve are popular vacation spots, as are the Long Island beaches. For some, just the idea of large amounts of unspoiled land is a social good. (Compare to the Arctic National Wldlife Preserve debate.) Albany’s spending tons buying and managing public lands outside the city can have great support there. The same goes for the State University of New York system. Not everyone wants to go to City College. Spending 4 years at Oneonta learning accounting and getting drunk on the weekends is an alternative to living at home and taking the subway to Hunter College. The New York article also mentions prisons, which have their possibly disproportionate percentage of inmates from the 5 boroughs, even as they are located outside the city.

    New York’s wealth was originally based on its siting on a great harbor at the mouth of one of America’s great rivers, giving the city’s merchants much easier access to the interior than, for example, coastal Virginia. The first great project to improve Upstate, the Erie Canal, increased the catchment area of New York City clear to the eastern shores of the Great Lakes. Shipping produce east to New York was now an alternative to sending it south to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississipi, if you could get it to a lake port. In the same way, building the New York State Thruway grew the economy of both New Yorks.

    The city’s defenders do tend to downplay the negative impact on the region of the social pathology of some New York neighborhoods, which are in large part offset by the hundreds of thousands who commute to their jobs in NYC each day. The suburbs surrounding the Big Apple probably get creamed even more than it does on a per capita basis.


  4. A while ago Michael Lind suggested that large states be carved up into several smaller states to partially even out some of the population differences in the Senate. Of course, that idea would be anathema to anybody who believes that the linchpin of American liberty is the notion that Vermont should have the same weight as Texas in the Senate…

  5. Oh, Lind’s article (just Google for “75 Stars” and “lind”) has some hilarious names for the new states. FL would be divided into several states, including Geritolia and Epcot. CA would be divided into several states including “Reagan”, “Vinland”, and “Siliconia.” No word on whether “siliconia” refers to the computer industry or the most common form of cleavage in California…

  6. It is all the more curious, incidentally, that while laissez-faireists should by the logic of their position, be ardent believers in a single, unified world government, so that no one will live in a state of ?anarchy? in relation to anyone else, they almost never are. And once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as being in a state of impermissible ?anarchy,? why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighborhood? Each block? Each house? Each person?

  7. BTW, how significant do you guys think the round number “50” is? Would these statehood movements have a much easier road if we presently had 49?

  8. This idea reminds me of a riddle:

    “How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

    Answer: Just one to hold onto the bulb, while the universe revolves around them.

  9. hey gary!

    excellent reference! i just noticed this headline and was about to make same leonard cohen reference. (i think he’s the poor man’s nick cave, but c’est la vie, n’est ce pas?)

    bien des choses de ma part ? toi et tes amis en france — Tu le sais au fait… (or something like that)


  10. “How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

    I’ve seen the New Yorker cover with the skewed map, too.

    The correct answer is:

    “Hey, whaddya lookin’ at?!
    I gotcher lightbub right heah!”


  11. “What is interesting, though, is how persistent the fantasy of secession remains in the New York imagination”

    The rest of the country has had the same fantasy too … for the last 30 years or so … ever since “Mr. Ford to New York City – Drop Dead!”

  12. given that the city is chronically shortchanged by Washington and Albany

    I’m not from New York, the state or the city, but it’s my perception that upstate residents would feel somewhat differently about the city’s relationship with the state government.

  13. Josh,

    I don’t know much about NY politics, but I’ll hazard a guess that people in Buffalo look at spending on highway projects in the NYC suburbs and in the city itself, and say “People in NYC get all the government money.” People in NYC see the same spending, on projects designed to make it easier for people who live outside of NY, and say “People upstate/outside the city get all the government money.”

    People in cities see the surrounding burbs as “the sticks,” while people in the sticks sees those burbs as part of the city.

  14. Whatever the problems with non-NYC New York, wouldn’t you think they could solve those easier by themselves, Mesh? It seems a bigger problem that Albany has to divide it’s efforts between the two, and NYC seems a, well, tad overambitious to be run by Albany anyways.

  15. It would never work. The second NYC seceded from NY state, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island would secede from Manhattan and then the Upper West Side would secede from the Upper East Side and then Harlem would secede from Washington Heights and, well, you get the picture.

  16. It’s refreshing to see liberals consider moving away from Federal control. (Taken to the extreme in this article) It’s refreshing for Liberals to think this way, too. Probably why the article was written.

    I wonder if New Yorkers will mind if other states start talking secession? California leaving. Utah leaving (and legalizing polygamy for example)

    My guess is probably that they would pitch a fit if it were anyone but themselves considered “good enough” to be free of the reigns of federalism.

  17. Back in 1969, when Breslin and Mailer proposed that NYC secede from the state, New York Magazine also ran a terribly earnest article by a good government type saying that the answer was actually regional government. The metropolitan area should be reconstituted. Take all of northern New Jersey and southeastern Connecticut, then add it to NYC and Long Island and the near Upstate and make it a new superstate.

    It could then be run rationally by the best and the brightest.

    Of course, in reality, the City people would still wind up complaining because they would consistently be outvoted by people in the suburbs.

  18. NYC secession plans often depend for their potential clout on Manhattan leading the outer boroughs out of NY State. It isn’t immediately obvious to me that Brooklyn and Queens wouldn’t be better off without New York County, in a new state of …Sewaunhaukee?….Pomanauk?….or plain old Long Island. L.I. would have a population of 8 million, and, since its connection to Staten Island by the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and thence to NJ, and by the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Whitestone to the Bronx, one needn’t even set tire on Manhattan pavement to come and go. Brooklyn could regain its status as an independent city, undoing its amalgamation into Greater New York. L.I. could become the third member of the Port Authority, joining NY & NJ.

    If B’klyn & Queens decided to stick with NYC, a state of L.I. of just Nassau and Suffolk counties would still have 3 million+ residents. One of the many plans to bridge Long Island Sound to Connecticut could be revived.

    The suburban and small-town areas from Yonkers north into the Hudson valley would probably stick with the mainland state – Hudsonia?… Adirondack?…Empire? One scary result could be TWO Senators Clinton, one resident in Westchester County, the other in Manhattan.

    There have been been quixotic attempts to divorce all or part of Long Island from NY State, as far back as the 1830’s. Scroll down about 60% on this page:

    There was also a light-hearted late 1970’s campaign for the secession of the off-shore islands and peninsulae, such as Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard south to the east end of Long Island, to form a new country, The Windmill Antilles. Instead of Uncle Sam, they’d have Windmill Aunt Tillie. Nantucket and the Cape had a statehood movement, motivated by losing legislative seats that got merged with ones on the mainland of Massachusetts.

    For every whine that NYC contributes too much to the Feds and gets little back, remember that Albany spends as much on the city as it does on the rest of the state. The metropolis also isn’t shy about taxing non-residents. The city income tax used to apply to non-residents.

    The State Legislature repealed the nonresident earnings tax for commuters who live in NY State, effective July 1, 1999. Out-of-state commuters then successfully filed a lawsuit in the NY State Supreme Court to have the repeal extended to them; the decision in their favor was upheld by the Appellate Division on April 4, 2000 and NY State has chosen not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The City has estimated the impact of the repeal in FY 00 for both in-state and out-of-state commuters to be $541 million.

    If NYC left NY State, it would lose any chance of restoring income taxation on commuters from Long Island and the counties north of the Bronx.

    The only point of an independent NYC would be to establish a Hong Kong or Singapore-type enclave off te USA mainland, exploiting that proximity by providing a less regulated environment for banking, manufacturing and commerce of all types. The politicos in charge there are tempermentally immune to an argument like that. Certain signature NY institutions would move back to “the States,” such as the NYSE. I don’t think the SEC would look kindly on U.S. corporations having their home bourse being abroad.

    Baseball’s Yankees getting kicked out of the country might be worth it all. 🙂

    (Let’s Go Mets!)

  19. “In the ideal secession fantasy, New York would keep the extra billions it sends to Washington and Albany and instead spend it on the things that are dearest to us: ”

    “It’d be both liberal and libertarian. ”

    I’m beginning to like this article more and more.

  20. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

  21. “First … we’ll take Manhattan … then we’ll take Berlin.”

  22. But really if they weren’t part of the U.S. they wouldn’t have near as much threat of another 9-11 now would they? Nor would they be under constant security warnings and periodically flooded with federal law enforcement. Nor would they have to put up with the Republican Convention and a whole city being near shut down for it’s benefit. Sounds all good to me and I don’t even live in NY.

  23. I don’t have the figures on NYC and state gov’t spending, but a number of studies have shown that populous urban states tend to send more to DC than they get back. It seems almost inevitable to me that urban areas will be net contributors to public spending.

    Why? Very simple. Urban areas, as major centers of commerce and industry, will almost by definition be the places where wealth is created. It might not be a popular sentiment on this forum (“urban leftists are bad!”) but if wealth weren’t being created then people and businesses wouldn’t concentrate in major metropolitan areas, and urban real estate wouldn’t be so valuable.

    Of course, what has always confused me is why the urban areas creating all that wealth would vote to send it to other areas. I don’t claim to have any answers to that one.

  24. thoreau,

    At this point, someone will claim that all the tax dollars sent from populous urban states come from the suburbs surrounding those cities, thus demonstrating the superiority of suburbs and wealthier people who live there.

    As if the people in the Hamptons would have that wealth were NYC a series of woodlands and swamps.

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