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B1: Seth Low, Brooklyn Mayor and One of the Greats



When Massimo Vignelli drew the first MTA subway map over 50 years ago, the blue and red tubes that branched from Times Square formed a system of circulation not unlike our own. A hub, a muscle, sending the city’s people – its lifeblood – to the places they’re needed most. In many ways, buses and trains are the arteries that keep the heart of our city pulsing.

 

 

In Brooklyn, that heart beats because of the B1. Connecting Bay Ridge to Manhattan Beach, the B1 Bus Line runs from the historically middle class neighborhoods near Dyker Heights to the surf and sand of Coney Island. The B1 bus links work and play, weekday and weekend, shuttling the city’s people – its lifeblood – between the head and the heart. Small wonder it’s the first line on the list.

 

Although Greats exists to bring the style and spirit of Brooklyn to the world, we truly could not exist without the people who brought that style and spirit to life. Recognizing the people, then, is both duty and privilege – without their heads and their hearts, their work and their play, Brooklyn would die. Great people this city bring it to life; its veins and arteries bring them where they’re needed most. When it comes to Brooklyn’s Greats, “B1” isn’t just movement – it’s a motto.

 

For the first installment of B1 – our biweekly homage to the people who have influenced and inspired the Brooklyn we call home – we recognize a forgotten hero whose legacy of fairness and inclusion shapes Brooklyn’s destiny to this day: Seth Low.

 

 

 

Seth Low was born January 18, 1850 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an importer and the grandson of Seth Low the Elder, one of the City of Brooklyn’s original incorporators. Low the Younger attended Poly Prep Country Day in Brooklyn before graduating from then-Columbia College in 1870.

 

After graduation, he returned from Manhattan with an entrepreneurial spirit, building his father’s business into a healthy enterprise right from the docks of Brooklyn. The city itself, however, was far from thriving: political insiders had turned the Mayor’s Office into a fountain of corruption, and by 1881, calls for reform came from all over the city. To unite those many voices into a single powerful shout, Brooklyn progressives needed a respected, non-partisan candidate with roots as deep as East River.

 

Although Low had “never sought political office,” his deep sense of civic responsibility compelled him to run once asked. By the end of the year, Seth Low – Brooklyn born and raised -  became Brooklyn’s 23rd mayor.

 

Seth Low may have been the original "Brooklynite." From 1881-1885, Seth Low revolutionized Brooklyn, both reforming the past and forging the future. Across his two terms as Mayor, Low racially integrated Brooklyn’s public schools, a radical move in a post-war New York that only two decades earlier had wide anti-black riots. Low also made school textbooks free for all children, mandated merit-based hiring for city employees, and oversaw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

Illustration of the grand opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, c. 1883 

 

While the construction of the bridge sealed Brooklyn’s fate as an independent city, Mayor Low made sure Brooklyn always stuck up for itself. In the New York state assembly, Low fought for and won an unofficial “Brooklyn veto.” This “home rule” precedent guaranteed that Brooklyn – not state politicians - would decide its own fate, setting the city in on the self-reliant trajectory it follows to this day. Seth Low’s revolutionary policies continue to define Brooklyn centuries later.

 

Low later served as President of Columbia College, fundamentally reshaping his alma mater through the same reform mentality he brought to Brooklyn just five years earlier. Serving until 1901, Low earned the title “The Great Harmonizer” for his administrative skill – during his term, Columbia moved from Midtown Manhattan into its current campus in Morningside Heights.

 

While Low had left an enduring mark on Columbia, public service had left a mark on Low. In 1901, “The Great Harmonizer” became the first fusion candidate to win the Mayor’s office, once again unifying divergent voices into a single anti-corruption platform.

 

 

 

As Mayor of the newly-unified City of New York, Low reformed the NYPD, lowered taxes, and mandated merit-based hiring for all public employees. Despite the public support of Mark Twain, Low would serve a single term, leaving office in 1903. 

 

He was the first Brooklynite to serve as Mayor of all five boroughs.

 

Low’s legacy extends far beyond New York. In 1899, while President of Columbia, he was chosen as one of six American delegates to the Hague Peace Conference. After leaving politics, Low served as chairman of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute from 1907-1916, once again leading the charge for equal education. A fitting tribute to his life of harmonizing: when Low died in 1916, honorary pallbearers at his funeral included both finance tycoon J.P. Morgan, Jr. and union leader Samuel Gompers.

 

Seth Low at the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, seated second from left. 

 

Honest, progressive, driven by duty but guided by heart: in many ways, Seth Low is Brooklyn. With his courage, Brooklyn shed decades of corruption and took important steps toward true equality (it would take the City as a whole until 1920 to ban segregated schools.) With his skill, Brooklyn became a part of New York, but by no means its dependent. With his guidance, the Brooklyn we know today truly began to take shape.

 

As citizen and servant alike, Low represented the best our city could offer - a person living for others, in search of the betterment of all. Seth Low: urban reformer, lifelong Brooklynite, and one of the Greats.

 

There’ll only ever B1 like him, but his shoes can be filled by us all.