Is my weird new shirt a historical anomaly or a history lesson?

The baffling slogan, the tropical bubble lettering, the flower from some island paradise: I needed this shirt

Is my weird new shirt a historical anomaly or a history lesson?
Maybe the shirt is a prank by the prince of art pranks, Banksy. (Photo by Tim Donnelly)

Why does my new shirt invite onlookers to “Catch the vibe 1895”, a year that New York City as we know it didn’t exist?

To be clear, it’s my fault I bought the shirt. I’m not complaining that I bought this, unaware it was a misprint. I was alerted to its existence last year by THE CITY City Hall reporter/honorary mayor of Rockaway Katie Honan, who tweeted a photo of it last summer and asked the obvious question of “What vibes were there in 1895”? 

When I saw that tweet, I knew I needed the shirt. The baffling slogan, the tropical bubble lettering, the flower from some island paradise that is in no way indicative of any of the three largest islands that made up New York City, it screamed “Cut off the sleeves and wear it to the beach or an important work event.”

I actually had to put in a lot of effort to find the shirt. Despite the fact that every morning when I get off the subway at Canal Street I immediately encounter a store bursting with shirts that say things like “Daddy’s little meatball” and “Fuck milk, got pot?” (sorry to brag), I couldn’t actually find the shirt anywhere in the souvenir t-shirt shops of Chinatown and Little Italy. I’d mostly given up on finding it, until recently walking down Broadway, I saw it hanging in the corner of a store. 

Beyond the mismatch between shirt art and New York City in the general imagination, the most egregiously weird thing about it is the date, 1895. New York City, the five-borough fist as we know it, didn’t come to be until 1898. That was the year that New York, Richmond, Kings and Queens counties consolidated to form New York City. And if you’re asking where the Bronx was there, the Boogie Down was considered a separate borough but it wasn’t actually made a full-fledged county of its own until 1915.

So why 1895? Buying the shirt revealed that it’s made by a company known as Popularity Products, a company headquartered just across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island, in an office park in Carteret, New Jersey. Popularity Products’ website shows that the company is an officially licensed vendor of New York City merchandise, or so they say. 

But the company also mostly seems to make beach-themed apparel. Which makes sense given the design of this shirt, but also makes no sense because no city agency is out there asking people to catch the vibe, not even the NYC Conflicts Of Interest Board during the agency’s most unleashed era. Further investigation of my shirt revealed it was made under the company’s Brooklyn Vertical label. This is even more confusing. Shirts under the Brooklyn Vertical label include gamer pride and anime T-shirts, but no actual New York City shirts, and no sign of the shirt inviting you to catch the vibe of 1895.

A message left with Popularity Products wasn’t returned, so I may never know exactly what is going on with this weird shirt. But I can, and did, show it to a bunch of people I know, and forced them to tell me what they thought it meant. 

I started showing the shirt to friends who grew up in or around the city and demanded they tell me what they thought of the vibe of 1895. My friend Paul sent me back a list of important moments in New York City by year, and something big did happen in 1895: New York City annexed the Port of Pelham and Wakefield, which at that time were part of Westchester County. 

These days of course, Westchester is best known as a suburb outside the city whose residents lie about being from the city. But in the 1800s, the Bronx as we know it was mostly known as Westchester. Over time at the end of the century, New York City, at that point just the island of Manhattan, first gobbled up the west half of the Bronx, and then the east, much to the chagrin of Westchesterians. Residents of the county feared the evils of William “Boss” Tweed and his dreaded Tammany Hall machine, whose members to be fair, did treat New York’s treasury like their own personal bank account. You can read about that in a little book known as The Power Broker, maybe you’ve heard of it?

Annexation opponents in Pelham went as far as writing stuff like: “When William the Conqueror of New York city, and his friends seek to take the lower part of Westchester County for an extension of their domain of spoliation and taxation, without the consent of the people of Westchester County, they may think, as the ancient Britons, that this, too, is robbery,” in opposition to the annexation.

New York City got the east Bronx though, regardless of opponents of the idea comparing it to the machinations of the hideous King William of Prussia. So, a moment in time for the city for sure. And the annexation of Pelham did bring City Island into New York City. But I can tell you from a lot of personal experience that City Island doesn’t exactly reflect the “Sipping on a tropical drink” design of the shirt.

Not to mention, if New York City as the five boroughs didn’t exist in 1895, its vibe couldn’t have been about the famous slice and I’m walkin’ here and go Knicks baby the way we know the vibe today. So what was the vibe 129 years ago? Our pal Bradford suggested “Diphtheria (I assume) and this TikTok.” My friend Evan texted back “Irish Need Not Apply” when presented with a picture of the shirt. Another friend, Rebecca, responded “Uhhhh. Immigration?”

All of course are good answers, but Rebecca may have been on to something, since New York as we know it almost didn’t happen, specifically because of virulent anti-immigrant sentiment. As the historian Michael Miscione points out in his history of city consolidation, it took a referendum and then legislation from Albany to make New York City, but the referendum barely passed in Brooklyn. Opponents of consolidation in the city of Brooklyn whipped up hysteria based on the idea that joining with New York “would overrun Brooklyn with slums filled with alien, impoverished, and criminal newcomers.” 

The anti-consolidation folks were helped along with their cause by a little newspaper you all might know, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It is my solemn promise to you, The New York Groove, that we will not leave a legacy of virulent anti-immigrant sentiment 130 years from now.

But, getting back to my ridiculous shirt, the referendum that gave a boost to consolidation’s chances in Albany happened in 1894, not 1895. So it’s unlikely that the shirt is celebrating an arcane moment in New York City electoral history.

I am going to have to live with not knowing what my shirt means, unfortunately, and having reached the end of this blog post, so will you. Maybe in the end, the shirt is just literal, and the designer was celebrating New York City on the cusp of its consolidation. Post-referendum but still pre-consolidation, not yet born, but moments from greatness, a liminal space that’s been forgotten.

That’s someone’s New York, just like the New York you live in now will look foreign to the dipshit bloggers 100 years from now who wonder why anyone would own a T-shirt celebrating New York in 2024. After all, in 2073, New York went back to annexing stuff and grabbed Jersey City, Hoboken and Bayonne. But not Westchester. Those people can have Westchester.