For little more than a century, ne cede malis — a brief Latin phrase, “yield not to evil,” from Virgil’s epic “The Aeneid” — has, unbeknownst to many Bronx residents, served as the borough’s official motto.
And this past weekend, for members of the so-called Great and Glorious Grand Army of the Bronx, that motto doubled as a war cry in their ongoing “struggle” for dominion over Marble Hill.
While lacking the scale of the Greek army that forced Aeneas from his besieged Troy, the Bronx army makes up for its small numbers with determined persistence.
For the last five years, these self-described “revolutionaries” have traveled up the quiet Manhattan enclave near West 225th Street and planted a Bronx flag, jokingly reclaiming Marble Hill in the name of the borough. It’s part of Bronx Week, a 10-day series of festivals and events that kicked off May 10.
The march is meant to carry on the tradition established by then-Bronx borough president James Lyons, who in the late 1930s pulled an identical stunt, that wasn’t well received by the neighborhood.
Originally conceived by Angel Hernandez and Isaac Ambrose Moore, the modern “annexation” was born out of a desire to make the borough’s history more intriguing.
“We’re a bunch of Bronx historians,” said Hernandez, who serves as the Bronx County Historical Society’s programs director when he’s not donning a colonial-era military uniform draped in the American flag for this annual march.
“So we started talking about how we can make Bronx history more engaging, and (Isaac) came up with the glorious idea of saying, ‘You know what, Angel? Tell me more about that story of James Lyons going out and annexing Marble Hill. Let’s do that again.’
“And here we are.”
Each year, the marchers aim to be as disruptive as possible, hoping to incur the ire of Marble Hill residents, just as Lyons did decades ago.
“When it’s a good year, we get heckled and booed,” Moore, a Co-op City native and Morris Park resident, said. “This is what we’re going for because Manhattan is terrible. Manhattan is a boil on the backside of New York City. The rich and effete bourgeoisie need to be taken down by the Bronx proletariat.”
The Bronx army’s annexation antics have also, unsurprisingly, found a natural ally in a familiar place: Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.
“He supports the whole idea,” Hernandez said. “Also, he heckles the Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer, and tags her on all the tweets and all the Facebook posts.”
Indeed, just hours before the event, Diaz expressed his support for the Bronx army, tweeting, “Good luck to the brave patriots who will once again, for the fifth straight year, storm the shores of Manhattan this afternoon to rightfully claim Marble Hill as Bronx territory!”
Aside from harking back to Lyons’ ill-fated ploy, the event also throws Marble Hill’s unique situation — it’s geographically part of the Bronx yet politically and legally considered Manhattan — into the spotlight. Much of that, Hernandez explains, was the result of a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to detach Marble Hill from the rest of Manhattan island in 1895 to help increasing shipping traffic between the Harlem and Hudson rivers via a newly constructed ship canal.
For the next two decades following its detachment, Marble Hill was an island, until the city decided to reconnect it — except this time with the Bronx — in 1913.
“Now, there was good reason for this,” Hernandez clarifies, since “the Bronx was still part of New York County until 1914. However, after we achieved our official county status, people started questioning about Marble Hill and this ambiguity, ‘Why are we living in the Bronx, but down the block it’s Manhattan?’”
That answer remained elusive for seven decades.
In 1984, a woman residing at Marble Hill Houses was summoned for jury duty in a Manhattan murder case. Claiming to be a Bronx resident, the woman was surprised to learn she instead had been living in Manhattan the entire time. In response, the judge involved — New York Supreme Court justice Peter McQuillan — conducted a legal historical analysis into the matter.
Conferring with the original 1898 city charter, among other documents, McQuillan determined Marble Hill was indeed part of the Bronx — the result of an oversight made by the state when redrawing county lines in 1912.
That decision, however, irked lawmakers in Albany, and the state legislature quickly moved to correct the error.
As a result, Marble Hill remains Manhattan, much to the chagrin of some current residents.
“We have Bronx schools, Bronx cops, Bronx sanitation — everything is Bronx except cable TV and jury duty,” said Tom Waters, a 19-year resident of the neighborhood, who participated in the annexation event. “When we want to complain, we should be able to complain to a Bronx elected official, not a Manhattan elected official.”
During the hike up to Marble Hill from Mr. McGoo’s Pub on Broadway, Hernandez made it clear to announce his presence to his soon-to-be fellow Bronxites.
“People of Marble Hill, good afternoon!” Hernandez bellowed into a megaphone as he led his invasion force through the disputed Manhattan neighborhood, causing some locals to peer out through their apartment windows. “We’re annexing your great neighborhood to the Bronx!”
“This is one of the most pivotal moments in Bronx history,” Hernandez continued, ratcheting up the absurdity of his statements with each sentence. “We are continuing this historic tradition, and we’re gifting you, Marble Hill, to the Bronx. You’re welcome.”
“I like the momentum it’s gaining,” said Eric Bell, a Riverdale resident and fellow Bronx Historical Society member. “Perhaps one day we’ll right a wrong from more than 100 years ago.”
But what if the revolutionaries actually succeed, and Marble Hill joins the Bronx? Hernandez will keep going.
“Next stop? Randall’s Island.”