New York City is a miracle. Somehow, 8.5 million people of every possible race, religion, political affiliation, economic class, and temperament live practically stacked on top of each other in relative peace. The murder rate is at its lowest ebb in decades. The ugly riots in Crown Heights in 1991 seem like a thing of a distant past; apocalyptic visions of the city a la The Warriors or Escape from New York are wildly outdated.
So it seems safe to let your mind wander and imagine a scenario where the city turns on itself in an all-out civil war—not divided along class or racial lines, but something simpler: If the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island squared off in an epic fight to the death, which borough would come out alive?
I put this entirely 100 percent hypothetical question to dozens of grizzled New Yorkers, reporters, conflict strategists, and historians, and they all had extremely strident opinions on it. But before we begin, let’s go over the ground rules.
In this militaristic Thunderdome world that we just created, there is an impenetrable wall around the five boroughs, so nothing can come in, or out—the residents of the Bronx cannot escape into Westchester, and folks in Queens or Brooklyn cannot maintain eastern food supply lines from Long Island (water is an exception). Furthermore, the air is out of bounds; Queens could easily dominate since both airports—LaGuardia and JFK—are within its domain. (Full disclosure: I live there, and I know.) No alliances are permitted, and the only weapons allowed are those that you can find in your borough. Government collapses, meaning that the subway system is finally put out of its misery.
Everyone I brought this question to was very interested in talking about it. The more you consider the scenario, the more possibilities emerge, and the more complicated your theories become. It’s hard not to start looking up relative populations of each borough, game out strategies for each side, imagine bridges being blockaded, tunnels flooded, snipers holed up in penthouses, guerrillas roaming Prospect and Central parks. In search of a conclusive answer to the question, I had conversations with friends, posted on Facebook and Twitter, corresponded with the editorial staff at the popular NYC oddities website Untapped Cities, and consulted several experts at the City University of New York’s Gotham Center for New York City History. The multitude of calculated responses came from a mix of lifelong New Yorkers, longtime transplants, and even some out-of-towners, all of whom seemed eager to weigh in on the fate of the five boroughs.
The responses were narrowed down to five broad categories: population, terrain and waterfront, arsenal, resources, and transit. Here’s how it played out:
Let’s start with the most basic factor: people. According to the Census, there are approximately 8,622,698 people living within the confines of New York City as of July 1, 2017. That breaks down into 2,648,771 in Brooklyn, 2,358,582 in Queens, 1,664,727 in Manhattan, 1,471,160 in the Bronx;,and 479,458 on Staten Island.
One of the most common points I ran across was that, like most modern wars, this conflict would boil down to a war of attrition. Whoever had the most population would, eventually, win. And now that New York had dissolved, Brooklyn was technically the third-largest city in America. So they’re the victors by default. Right?
“Brooklyn. For sheer population.”
–Mara Gay, editorial writer at the New York Times
“Brooklyn also has the population size for conscripting an army.”
–Michelle Young, founder of Untapped Cities
Well, not necessarily. If military history teaches us anything, a large population doesn’t always equate to winning; a small force can effectively stave off a much larger one if it has the right resources, skills, and local knowledge on its side. (Exhibit A: nearly every American military campaign since the Korean War.) There stands to reason that Staten Island, with its relatively minuscule numbers, could survive sustained attacks due to its isolated position, weaponry, and bad transit. (We’ll discuss these factors in depth later.)
But let’s think realistically here. Staten Island could also easily be squashed by Brooklyn, which isn’t that far away, and whose population is nearly quintuple that of Staten Island. On the other hand, Brooklyn and Queens, which have the largest populations, will be locked into combat with each other from the get-go. The true war of attrition is between Kings and Queens County, as countless Queens residents retreat east, drawing in Brooklyn army’s just as Russian and Soviet forces drew in first Napoleon, then Hitler. Meanwhile, Manhattan has a four-front war to contend with. The Bronx’s somewhat large population—nearly 1.5 million is nothing to overlook—is best suited for battle.
“I've given this a lot of thought in the last 30 seconds, so here you go: Manhattan would be the first to go. It's indefensible, would suffer attacks from all sides.”
–Janos Marton, former lead organizer of the Close Rikers campaign
Winner: The Bronx
2. TERRAIN AND WATERFRONT
In the Battle of Brooklyn—the first (and largest) battle of the American Revolution—the British took advantage of the city’s geography to rout George Washington’s army. First, they collected their much bigger forces off of Staten Island, landing on Brooklyn’s southern tip, then flanked Washington from behind as the two armies collided in Gowanus. Facing defeat, Washington was forced to escape inland, and New York would stay under British control until the end of the war. (Although one of the best stories I heard during this story’s research was that American forces once set up fake French bakeries along the shores of Staten Island to make it appear as if a counterattack was imminent.)
But back to our point here: Terrain, and access to water, matter.
“I want to say Brooklyn, but we already lost a war.”
–Daniel Radosh, senior writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
Of course, the terrain in 1776 was much different than what exists today, largely due to land use. If you look at a topographical map of modern New York, there’s little advantageous elevation in Manhattan, which is almost entirely flat, save for uptown. Most of the hills in Brooklyn and Queens lie along the borderlands, and their enormity—Queens is 108 square miles and Brooklyn is 69 square miles—only encourages further in-fighting along their long shared border. Up north, the Bronx is the only borough on the North American mainland; elevations heighten west of the Bronx River and in the north, making it ideal terrain for frontal defense, and retreat.
Staten Island is home to the highest altitude in New York, at Todt Hill. Hypothetically, that is where their forces could gather, or put up a last stand. As mentioned, Staten Island’s distant location offers up its own barrier—even today, in peacetime, there are a lot of New Yorkers who have never stepped foot onto the island.
“[Attacking Staten Island would] be like the US invading Vietnam or Afghanistan. No one else knows the terrain.”
–Dan Rivoli, transit reporter at the New York Daily News
Another important factor to consider is the sixth borough: water. New York’s coastline stretches over 520 miles, and leaves every borough open to some degree of maritime attack. (Of course, New Yorkers would likely be operating personal boats, or kayaks.) That’s where coastal defenses could come in handy. Although Queens has an elongated strip of defense with the Rockaways and Broad Channel, and a handful of small islands in Jamaica Bay, they’re located way in the south, which isn’t strategically helpful. The Bronx has the largest number of small islands in its territory, including its very own potential Gitmo near Queens in the form of Rikers Island.
“Manhattan... long the envy and enemy of the other boroughs, finds itself for the first time on the losing end of New York City history, surrounded in a war of the boroughs, and with too much stuff on the island not to expect an invasion by its three neighbors.”
–Peter Aigner, deputy director of the Gotham Center for New York City History
Winners: Staten Island and the Bronx
Many of the responses I had received explicitly mentioned the firepower factor. Some speculated that Staten Island—which is home to a tenth of the New York Police Department’s rank and file, and a bounty of presumably pro-gun Trump voters—would come up on top. In March, it was reported that there are 41,000 pistol permits in New York City, 6,400 of which are in Staten Island, based on 2010 data. According to Google Maps, there are also three gun shops in “the forgotten borough”—as opposed to two in each of the other boroughs—where residents could load up on ammo. Staten Islanders are also four times more likely to own guns than other New Yorkers.
“Which borough has the most guns?”
–Richard Betts, director of Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, who has advised the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Defense
“Manhattan. Wealth. Weaponry. Cold-hearted ruthlessness.”
–Alyssa Katz, editorial writer at the Daily News
“We know which one has the money.”
–Beth Fertig, legal affairs reporter at WNYC
But of course, New York is no stranger to illegal gun violence, most of which is committed using guns brought here illegally from southern states. In the past, police-sponsored gun buybacks in neighborhoods like Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and Brownsville have secured 100 guns at a time. (It’s also safe to assume that most illegal guns are not being returned to the cops.) And then you have stories like this one from March, when a Queens resident was found with 70 guns and 50,000 bullets, one of the largest arsenals ever found by the NYPD.
That evens the playing field, but is still nowhere near the 6,400 legal guns on Staten Island, plus the 3,000 or so armed cops who live there. And don’t forget: there are gun-ridden streets in SI, too.
But here’s a game-changer: The only active-duty military post in New York is located at Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn. There are plenty of former military installations and armories scattered across New York—think Fort Totten in Queens, or Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island—but only one of them houses National Guard units, Army Reserve units, and, presumably, a shit-ton of munitions. And, contrary to popular belief, more cops live in Brooklyn than in any other borough.
“The Warriors were Brooklyn-based and beat everyone on the way back home, so.”
–Benjamin Kabak of Second Ave. Sagas
No matter how many bullets or people a borough throws at another, an army cannot survive without food and water. This imaginary wall around the city exposes just how fragile New York’s ecosystem really is: How could we survive without outside contact?
“Duh, Manhattan. We'd pay some rough dudes to fight for us.”
–Joel Siegel, managing editor of NY1
Let’s start with food. Most of the city’s produce comes from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, which is the largest distribution center of its kind in the world. However, Hunts Point would serve little use without inbound trucks and trains able to deliver from the outside world. Manhattan and Brooklyn would be able to survive for some time on the food leftover at their stores, but for only so long. And this is where Staten Island’s isolation really becomes a detriment.
“Staten Island, if disconnected from the world, is toast.”
–Justin Rivers, tour guide and history columnist at Untapped Cities
In order to survive, New York would have to return to its agrarian roots. That would happen most notably in Queens and the Bronx. Queens, which was once wealthy Manhattanites’ “rural escape” from the city, still has a number of farms active in the east that would have to be readjusted to wartime production. However, according to experts at CUNY’s Gotham Center the Bronx has the most farmable parkland in the five boroughs, providing it with the best opportunity to produce for the population. The question is how long this would all take to develop.
“Bronx wins. The rest of us starve in just weeks as they cut off the food chain, and also blow up the system bringing water down.”
–Harry Siegel, senior editor at the Daily Beast and Daily News columnist
But the most immediate threat is water. This entire scenario could shake out to a battle for New York’s H2O, all of which comes through aqueducts located in the Bronx, which can basically hold the city’s water supply hostage, forcing the other boroughs to either invade, or die of dehydration.
Winner: The Bronx
Let’s consider the inventory of New York City’s transit infrastructure. Within our set boundaries, there are 6,074 miles of road, 31 bridges that cross a body of water, and 23 inter-borough tunnels underground used by both cars and subways. With government agencies dismantled, that also makes the 722 miles of subway track free game.
Now, with transit, there’s a lot to consider: the city’s roads, bridges, and tunnels would ether act as needed supply routes, or points of invasion. But in this scenario, the latter seems more likely.
With that said, Manhattan is the most vulnerable: It has the highest number of access points, which makes sense considering that New York’s transit system was built just so people could get there. In the Bronx, most subway tracks are aboveground, providing significant vantage points, but the borough’s bridge and tunnel connections to Manhattan and Queens could be troublesome should Manhattan retreat north. Then again, Robert Moses basically doomed Brooklyn and Queens into perpetual warfare with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Belt Parkway, and inter-borough crossings over the Newtown Creek only hasten the duo's mutual destruction.
“Obviously Staten Island… All the other boroughs are so close to one another that they would have to protect many borders at once. Let the other boroughs destroy themselves first, then attack!”
–Augustin Pasquet, co-founder of Untapped Cities
A borough’s lack of mobility is the biggest strength here.
Winner: Staten Island
THE OVERALL WINNER: THE BRONX
With its hilly terrain, island defenses, significant population, and control of the vital water supply, the BX could solidify its forces up north, and hold down the fort. But, I think, the real moral of this story is that for all of Manhattan’s wealth, power, and global influence, it doesn’t mean a thing once shit hits the fan. Honorable mention to Staten Island, who, in this war, would not be forgotten.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow John Surico on Twitter.