Just before noon on a cool, blustery Saturday in March, 1939, a limousine pulled up to the corner of 225th Street and Jacobus Place in the Marble Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. James J. Lyons, the Bronx borough president, had come with the express purpose of claiming the neighborhood for the Bronx (he compared it to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland). Climbing up on top of a jagged rock outcropping, Lyons planted the borough’s flag, emblazoned with “Ne cede malis” (Yield not to Evil). Smiling widely to the cameras, he proclaimed that the territory of Marble Hill would hereby be a part of the Bronx.
Marble Hill was the northernmost part of Manhattan Island, separated from the mainland by the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. In 1895, the area became its own island, as the Army Corps of Engineers had built the Harlem River Ship Canal, cutting the land off from the rest of Manhattan. In 1913, the creek was filled in, and Marble Hill physically became a part of the Bronx. However, residents insisted on remaining a part of the county of Manhattan and voting in Manhattan elections (even though the area has a Bronx zip code and area code).
While there were had been proposals to make Marble Hill a part of the Bronx, and Mayor LaGuardia liked the idea, area residents largely ignored them; 95% of residents steadfastly opposed any plan to leave Manhattan. As Lyons unfurled the Bronx borough flag, several dozen residents gathered to loudly express their opinion, booing and thumbing their noses as he took pictures. Upon the discovery of four army tanks near 230th Street (somewhat ironically, the border between Marble Hill and the Bronx), Lyons took the opportunity to pose with them before retiring to his office and leaving residents unsure of where they would end up.
In the aftermath, residents petitioned Governor Herbert Lehman to remain in Manhattan, and appeared in front of the Board of Estimate to denounce Lyons and his annexation. Finally accepting that his great bloodless coup was a spectacular failure, Lyons begrudgingly removed the flag. Before he left Marble Hill, however, he snapped that he didn’t want such “snobs” in the Bronx anyway.
A free lecture tonight at 6:30pm with Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione will offer a lighthearted multimedia presentation about the curious history of Marble Hill at 14-A Washington Mews, 1st Floor Lecture Hall, Manhattan. The lecture will occur again in April in the Bronx. Details for both events here.