On Thursday, Mayor Eric Adams announced that he’d be petitioning the state legislature to make Diwali a school holiday, replacing Brooklyn-Queens Day on the calendar. It will almost certainly sail to passage.
The origins of Brooklyn-Queens day lie in celebrating the Sunday School movement—it began as a Protestant holiday in Brooklyn in 1829, and commemorated the founding of the First Sunday School on Long Island. The first parade was held in Brooklyn June 1829, and since even before Brooklyn joined New York City in 1898, kids in the borough were given off from school. A 1962 Times article shows the day gaining steam—with Queens joining Brooklyn in observance just four years earlier in 1958, and Mayor Wagner trying to get the day observed citywide, saying, “It isn’t just a holiday, it is a great giving of thanks for religious training.”
But that fervor died out. In a 1991 Times article, a senior at Cardozo told reporters that all the day meant to her was “a day off from school.”
And that’s how it was explained when I began to observe it. To us kids, it was simply a beautiful day in June when public school students in Brooklyn and Queens had the day off, and students elsewhere in the city, and in the boroughs’ private schools, still had to go to school. For the children of Kings and Queens, for a day, you felt like royalty—it was a weird privilege bestowed for no reason except the vagaries of your borough.
There was a glory and fraternity to Brooklyn-Queens Day. We set aside whatever wayward hostilities might exist between us—especially growing up in Queens during a time of great Brooklyn hype—and revel in the idea that students elsewhere in the city were still in class. (For those born in either borough but attending school in Manhattan or the Bronx—sucked to be you!)
No one ever tried explaining what the significance of the day was or why it was important to celebrate, or what exactly we were celebrating besides not being in school during a completely meaningless June day, a time of the year when it had already become very clear that school should have ended weeks ago. But it did give one time to reflect on what it meant to be from an outer borough—all the long subway rides and bus transfers, and referring to Manhattan as “the city” when you yourself were very much living in the heart of a massive metropolis.
No one in the broader world knew why you weren’t in school, and kids didn’t quite know what to do with it either. So you lived in a state of delicious exception. Maybe an early-summer trip to the Rockaways or Long Beach was on the agenda—or if you had a baseball game against a Manhattan school (it was playoff time), you just got to the field six hours early. It was meaningless, aimless, and that’s what made it great.
But it wasn’t meant to last. As Brooklyn and Queens passed the centennial of their unification with the city, their landscapes were being transformed by the forces of globalized capital that had prior been mostly constrained to Manhattan. Luxury towers sprouted up along their waterfronts, as their interior neighborhoods began to see newer residents replace longstanding neighborhoods wholesale. By the time the powers that be made Brooklyn-Queens Day citywide in 2005, re-dubbing it as “Anniversary Day,” the peripheral space the outer boroughs occupied was no longer all that…outer.
And now even Anniversary Day is being put out to pasture. Rightfully so, the outer boroughs’ own success as an incubator for strong immigrant communities will do it in.
Shed no tears for the end of Brooklyn-Queens Day, for its day has long since passed. But we should remember when the sons and daughters of the great outer boroughs were given something back in exchange for all their time spent interminably waiting for the bus—the bounty of an entire day. A day as inexplicable as so much of growing up in a rapidly changing, and forever convulsing city.