I did not attend the waterfront conference in Manhattan yesterday, sponsored by Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. For those of us in the contingent work force, that would be rough. What I earn each week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday pays the rent. However, the post-event reports about the conference lead me to believe that Rockaway may have lost out in the prestigious race for the esteemed title of “Sixth Borough” of New York City, unless we move quickly for trademark or copyright protection. As one of several contestants who claim a passing expertise in Rockaway history, I shall elaborate.
The earliest coining of the term locally appears to have come from the arts community–a 2001 Jamaica Bay Softball tournament in Broad Channel featured a live band called “Sixth Borough” and a rapper wrote a song called “Far Rockaway-Sixth Borough” in 2002. There were several repetitions in letters to the editor of The Wave in the past decade, including a columnist who used it twice in late September 2010.
This summer, I was reading a blogger named “Tugster” who used the term to refer to the waterfront, but I was very skeptical, because such a usage lumps together the down-at-the-heels areas of Gowanus Canal and Newport Creek with the Chelsea Piers and Brooklyn Bridge Park (neither of which can be called neglected, for sure). Also, is the “High Line” considered on the waterfront? Can’t call that neglected! I knew Rockaway had a better claim of being even more uniformly ignored by the city than the “waterfront,” so I mentioned it in my September 5, 2010 blog entry “You Can’t Fight City Hall… if You Can’t Get to City Hall.” The neglect of Rockaway’s waterfront (and every other aspect of our life here) by the city, coupled with the long-documented, fabled “dumping ground” status we enjoy, leads me to conclude that neglect is not the right term at all–“scourged” by the city is more like it.
I’ve been so intrigued by the term “Sixth Borough” that I did the research and found what I believe to be the definitive blog summary, researched by a guy named “Barry Popik,” with links to news stories dating back to 1911. It’s even better than Wikipedia. Now there’s a back-handed compliment! Link is here:
The five boroughs were formed in the late 1890’s. A decade or two later, there were moves to annex Yonkers (1911), and Southern Westchester (1927), but both “Sixth Borough” references were to be taken literally, as there were contemporaneous efforts ongoing to form an actual legal borough entity.
The first figurative usage, according to Popik’s research, was in 1954, during the heyday of immigration into NYC from the “Sixth Borough” of Puerto Rico. Hey, P.R. has a pretty good claim to the title! You can get there by airplane in almost the time it takes to get to Manhattan via the A-train from Rockaway. And just to digress for a moment, did you know that in an early version of West Side Story from 1949, Maria was Jewish, not Puerto Rican? So Puerto Rican immigration was clearly a powerful cultural and political force in NYC in the 1950’s.
Other places have been called the “Sixth Borough,” though it appears that such coinings have never been used by the actual native indigenous peoples of these areas, but merely as a marketing ploy by NYC expats seeking to distinguish their new “residential colonies” in these “outposts.” If proximity to egg creams, bagels, and other accoutrements of authentic Jewish culture are a requirement, present-day Rockaway loses and better claims can probably be made by Miami, Scarsdale and Israel. If the requirement is close proximity via transit, as the folks from Jersey always argue, they certainly win out, although Riker’s would win if you count school buses with bars on the windows as transit. Rockaway is far behind almost every other contestant (except Israel, for sure, and Miami-maybe). Suffice it to say that I was surprised Popik’s research never turned up a reference to “Sixth Borough” vis a vis Cary County, N.C., in the Research Triangle! I’m sure it’s out there–you just have to dig harder… Here is a summary of Popik’s gathered list of references:
1975-Jersey City (I lived there briefly in 1979, but bolted after 28 days–believe me, it wasn’t the “sixth borough” back then, for sure, if we use the “desirable expat residential colony” formula!)
2002-Far Rockaway [not on Popik’s list; I’ve added it here to document the earliest usage I could find in The Wave]
2005-Philadelphia (another good claim to the title–you can get there by Acela faster than you can get to Rockaway on the A-train, as well!)
One thing that distinguishes the claim of Rockaway, among this list of places, is that it’s the only discrete neighborhood already located within the five boroughs. The “waterfront” is spread across many boroughs, and Riker’s Island technically is not open to the general public, so it doesn’t count.
Here’s my suggestion for how the title of “sixth borough” should be awarded to any one of these places: Never has NYC taken so much, and given so little, to a place it calls its own.
Rockaway wins the title of Sixth Borough, hands down, with “The Waterfront” a close second.