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Why Does New York City Have Five Boroughs?

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New York City is almost like several cities in one, with many divisions among the millions of people who call it home. Perhaps the most noticeable of these divisions: New York City's five boroughs. The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island are each a smaller government entity within the city's broader system of government. Each has its own borough president and limited governing powers, plus its own culture and reputation, and each overlaps with a county of New York State and has its own district attorney.

Why is this? How did these five boroughs come to be?

Four of the five boroughs correspond to counties that the English etched out when they seized control of the area and created the colony of New York. Their 1683 map includes the counties of New York (Manhattan), Richmond (Staten Island), Kings (Brooklyn), and Queens (Queens, of course). The actual City of New York was limited to the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. The rest of what is now the city was a hodgepodge of rural villages and farming communities, which came and went and sometimes merged over the centuries. Before long, the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn had emerged. These shifts are detailed in "Before the Five-Borough City: The Old Cities, Towns and Villages That Came Together to Form ‘Greater New York,’" an article by Harry Macy Jr., published in the September 1998 issue of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s newsletter.

By the late 19th century, 40 separate municipalities controlled what is now New York, creating a headache for the industrial elites trying to install utilities and move goods by railroad and harbor through the area. According to various articles in Columbia University professor Kenneth T. Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City, lawyer and city planner Andrew Haswell Green argued for consolidation of the four counties into one massive city. He also proposed annexing a valuable chunk of the main land from Westchester County. This became The Bronx.

All towns and cities affected held referendums on the plan. According to the Pulitzer-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, most New Yorkers were keen on the idea, partially due to fear that Chicago would surpass the city as the nation’s most populous. Brooklynites and other residents of outlying areas were hesitant. Newspapers and civic organizations decried the loss of local control and a threat to Protestant homogeneity. But ultimately, the promise of lower taxes via the consolidation of city services—and the bragging rights that came with living in the nation's largest metropolis—won out.

Out of the consolidation of 1898, a city of 3 million was born. The state legislature set up a special committee to draw up a new city charter. Finalized in 1901, according to Jackson’s encyclopedia, it outlined the roles of the mayor, comptroller, and Board of Aldermen. It also created the five boroughs and the office of borough president. The main role of the five borough presidents was to vote on the Board of Estimate, which oversaw budget and land use issues.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional. The justices reasoned it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because one borough president got one vote, although the boroughs themselves had widely disparate populations.

Since then, the boroughs have had little governing power, and the borough presidents have become primarily boosters, working to organize nongovernmental civic groups and nonprofits. The boroughs are now mostly names on a map—and sources of overwhelming sectarian pride for New Yorkers.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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