The last time I lived on Staten Island, I was 20. I was home from college for the summer, struggling to find work, any kind of work—the job’s only requirement was that it be seasonal, because by summer’s end I planned to quit and return to school in Manhattan, the borough of big dreams. My friends at Hunter College remained in the city working unpaid internships at Sony, ABC, MetLife. Me, I needed cash in hand to take girls out on the weekends. Plus, my constitution wouldn’t allow me to work for free. “Worker exploitation!” I said to my father. He was an administrator in collective bargaining, so I thought I’d have his sympathies.
Staten Island is the most southern borough of New York City with nearly 70,000 daily commuters passing through the Staten Island ferry terminal and on into Manhattan. The island is more than twice the size of Manhattan and shaped like a mini South America. Those who commute begin an ordinary weekday sometimes hours before the rest of New York City has hit snooze on their alarms. And I say this not to glorify the Staten Islander over other New Yorkers, but just to state a fact. A large portion of Staten Islanders, professionals and non-, commute. It’s been our way of life since the beginning.
My father had been commuting into Manhattan from Staten Island since 1967, making four transfers for about forty years. My mother also commuted. She went from our home in Eltingville, on the island’s South Shore, to City College on 137th Street, Manhattan, where she worked in accounts payable. They moved to Staten Island from Manhattan in the late sixties because it was cheap, safe, and neighbors were separated by ten yards of lawn. One could afford a house and raise a family in a version of suburbia that didn’t necessarily exist in the other boroughs. But this is primarily the South Shore, where I grew up, and which has seen rapid development since the 1960s. There is a large disparity between the South Shore and the other half of the island that makes up the North Shore.
That summer, I didn’t want to commute into the city like my parents. I wanted something like my sister. She was a high school senior and a hostess at a local diner in New Dorp. I wanted to roll out of bed thirty minutes before work and clock in no more than ten minutes late. So I looked primarily on the island, in the local want ads of the Staten Island Advance and on Craigslist. When my search proved unfruitful, I took the train from Eltingville to the North Shore because I knew of a handful of bars, clubs and restaurants in Staten Island’s “downtown,” composed of St. George, Tompkinsville, Stapleton and Clifton, all in close proximity to the ferry terminal.
There were five places I remember: the Cargo bar, Side Street Saloon, a rock club, a bar with a nautical theme (ropes and maritime instruments and such) and the Everything Goes Thrift Store (which mainly employed those who lived in their strange commune). This was the closest thing we had to the Village. Outside of these five businesses, there were only pawn shops, fast food joints and check-cashing places.
I walked the hills of Staten Island’s downtown where the Manhattan skyline is never out of view. I was dressed in an ironed white shirt and black pants, my interview pants, determined to go door to door and start work at a moment’s notice.
If one were to arrive from Manhattan by ferry, walk out of the terminal and turn right into St. George, one would fall upon some prized Victorian homes in the area’s historical district. Upon one hill is the decadent St. Peter’s Church on St. Mark’s Place, my favorite cathedral over St. Patrick’s in Manhattan. This joint sits on a secluded cliff, complete with a mythical tower, its giant beacon announcing the island’s largely Roman Catholic population to the newly arrived. Unfortunately, the hilly oasis of St. George, which can at times resemble the teeming hills of San Francisco, is largely residential and had no work to offer me.
So I walked away from St. George along Bay Street (a left out of the ferry terminal), straight into a recession-era middle America reminiscent of parts of Detroit, nothing like the thriving, vibrant metropolis across the bay. I walked out of the last few depressed blocks of St. George and headed for Victory Boulevard where the neighborhood of Tompkinsville begins, followed by Stapleton. Unlike the boulevard’s name that marks this section of neglected shoreline, there’s nothing victorious about it. The five businesses were laid out sporadically among trash-filled streets in between boarded up storefronts, where poor men and women loitered and sometimes slept. Intimations of New York City’s dark, crime-filled past—that New York of the 1980s—were everywhere I looked.
I went door to door in my pressed white shirt through deserted streets, the summer’s heat on my back, the promise-filled New York skyline on my left, and I endured both the humidity and humility of finding work. If I wasn’t turned away immediately, I was asked to come back the following day to speak to a manager, who surely sent me packing on my way. They just weren’t hiring.
Tough luck, bad timing, I assumed all of it, and found a job in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge parking cars for an Italian restaurant. This was the fate of all Staten Islanders, I believed. To commute.
On a recent walk through the area I found that nothing much has changed. Bay Street is still a ghostly road of empty storefronts and for rent signs. There’s the old Paramount Theatre with its tall, crumbling, art deco marquee, still closed (since the late 1980s). Many of the five businesses that didn’t hire me are now closed with the exception of the thrift store. There is a growing Sri Lankan community sprouting up now in downtown, opening local restaurants and giving the area a bit of authenticity. While these restaurants have seen some traffic from hungry foodies across the water, to call them thriving would be a drastic overstatement.
The revitalization of “downtown” Staten Island has been underway for more than a decade, beginning with the building of the Richmond County Bank ballpark, home to the Staten Island Yankees, in St. George. Then over the course of the Bloomberg administration the ferry terminal has been reconstructed into a pleasant welcoming zone, and there are now plans for the world’s largest Ferris wheel to join it by 2015, as well as a shopping mall and luxury hotel. Revitalizing (or rather: vitalizing) the North Shore waterfront will begin to revamp the island’s image into a thriving theme park, but whether these developments will revive the more depressed surrounding of Tompkinsville and Stapleton, is still in question.
In October of last year, the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy brought the borough to national attention as the island, along with Queens, sustained the majority of the hurricane’s damage. Staten Island residents reacted quickly by helping those who lost everything or who were displaced. Volunteers came from other boroughs. The ferry was suspended for days. No one commuted. The hurricane flooded both the North and South shores, including the docks along Bay Street which many of those five businesses overlooked. Twenty-three people perished, twenty of them from drowning—the highest number of deaths in any borough. This was the island’s worst moment, but what was once so often referred to as the city’s “forgotten borough” may never be forgotten again.