These Americans are crazy. Part III

In 1998, New York and New Jersey fought a lawsuit over a point so bizarre that I doubt you’ll find anything like it even in a story from Hindu mythology.

New York city is located at a somewhat strange place, practically surrounded by other states. I dug into history and learnt that this came about because James, the then Duke of York (after whom the city and state were named) gave the west bank of the Hudson to a couple of his friends to colonise, while keeping the east bank for himself to set up a city. Naturally, this meant that when the city became too big, the most logical place to spill over was New Jersey. In a more intelligently designed world, Jersey city would be part of New York city. But they are in different states in this crazy world.

The state border between New York and New Jersey runs through the mouth of the Hudson, where two of this country’s most famous monuments are located – the Statue of Liberty and Ellis islands. And it so happens that both are to the west of the state line. This means that if it weren’t for the tactics of New York state in the last century, the two monuments NYC is most famous for would have been located in New Jersey. But the more influential state did some armtwisting to ensure that the islands, though they were on NJ’s side of the border, actually belonged to NY.

In 1998, the federal government reclaimed some land around Ellis island. If the water belonged to NJ while the land belonged to NY. So to whom would the land just reclaimed from the sea belong? That was the subject of the lawsuit filed by the state government of New Jersey in the US Supreme court, which ruled in NJ’s favour.

Of course, all this is a moot point because both islands are administered by the federal government. Neither state gets any taxes from it. The lawsuit was for no practical object. It was just a matter of self-respect for New Jersey, which was tired of being known as a suburb of two cities – NY and Philadelphia.

On a somewhat unrelated note, any idea why the capitals of most states in the US are not located in the largest city of that state? The capital of New York state is not NY city. It is a place you probably haven’t heard of – Albany. The capital of NJ is not Jersey city or Newark. It is Trenton. No one knows where it is . The capital of California is not San Francisco or Los Angeles. It is Sacramento. The capital of Washington state is not Seattle. It is Olympia. Check out this list for more. Any guesses why?

9 thoughts on “These Americans are crazy. Part III

  1. Interesting story of the lawsuit between NJ and NY. Now, of course most of the applicable regulations are governed by somewhat similar laws of the Bi-State area. But coming to your question, I too wondered about why the smaller cities are made capitals a few years back. I couldn’t think of any reason other than that maybe, from a purely administrative point of view, it may have been a decision to isolate it from the so-called commercial capitals of the states, so that a certain degree of flexibilty is allowed, and there of course the commercial capitals naturally had to be bigger, and richer.

  2. Are you Jersey City? NJ is NJ.

    Capitals different probably because of pork-barrel politics. Trenton is here. Take a train.

  3. Most of the State Capitals happen to be planned cities. In contrast, the largest cities in the state are typically the ones that have grown in a haphazard manner.

  4. Hi Ravikiran
    The issue of the state capitals is interesting and I have wondered about that as well. First, long ago, travel was fairly difficult and representation was from each county in the state so it made some sense to locate the capital more towards the geographical center of each state. Second, there is always the political fear that the major city will gain all the political advantages in the state so locating the state capital away from the major city tends to assure the rural residents that their interests will be given a fair hearing. Third, many of the capital cities have been the capital cities from eons ago when these cities used to be more major than they are today.

  5. Wouldnt it be awesome if we could do that in Maharashtra. Kick the capital out to Aurangabad or something. Get Matralaya, Vidhan Sabha and its power mad babus out of Nariman Point. Would also be huge revenue for a cash starved state, by a) selling property in the most expensinve area in the country, and b) develop a whole other city, cause invariably developments giong to occur where the government centre is.

    This is obviously not an original thought, but it would be incredible. But the Babus and the “Sons of the Soil” from various other parts of the state would not be willing to leave, so its pretty much a dead issue.

  6. My theory about the state capitals is similar to Michael’s. DC was chosen explicitly because it was near the then Geographical centre, as well as its strategic location straddling the mercantile north and the agricultural south. So perhaps these capitals were basically democractic pressures at work so that the Urban interests alone don’t become the state’s interests.

    An alternative theory could be that most new states adopted many symbolisms of the federal government, including lifting the design of the Capitol, so perhaps this is just an artefact of that.

    Technically Maharashtra has a winter capital in Nagpur. And the state administration offices are straddled across harbour at CBD Belapur. Maharashtra should just be divided into 5 or 6 smaller states, then Latur, Aurangabad, Jalgaon, Nashik, Pune and Ratnagiri can all be state capitals.

  7. About capitals – what I heard was that they wanted more cities and also development because of having a captial, so in gerenal they chose the 3rd largest city to be the capital. Also it avoided the power fight from having 2 cities competing to be the capital and center of influence.

    This applies to most capitals, except Boston and such.


  8. I guess, shifting capitals as a matter of policy, can work out as a definitive strategy for developing and urbanizing the phenomenon called india. If McKinsey were to consult on something like this for Govt. of India, they could charge 20bn$ for such a proposal. I think we shd advocate this to our Prime Minister. I am sure if east India company did not chose calcutta as capital, it would have been another Trivandrum even now. or Shimla would have been another poor tehsil of himachal pradesh.

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