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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
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

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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