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Can you ever leave New York City?

The borough of Staten Island has tried – it might try again

Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Waiting for the Staten Island ferry from Manhattan currently involves standing below a large poster of Pete Davidson. The actor, comedian and paramour to the stars is, after all, one of the borough’s most famous recent exports.

Previous generations may think of the Wu-Tang Clan or the Vanderbilt family before them but, in the 2020s, Davidson reigns supreme on Staten Island. He also hates it with a passion. 

“It’s a terrible borough, filled with terrible people,” he told a journalist in 2016. “A fucking tidal wave could take out Staten Island and I wouldn’t even move in my sleep. In fact I would sleep better. Fuck Staten Island. A bunch of Trump-supporting fucking jerk offs.”

The response from his fellow islanders was just as diplomatic. “You say if a tidal wave hit the ­Island you’d sleep better?” wrote New York Post reporter Dean Balsamini. “Keep talking like that and you may end up sleeping with the fishes.” Digging further into the clichés, the hack added that Davidson’s “stoner, “everything sucks” act is “staler than last Sunday’s ­lasagna”. 

It reads like a winning streak at Staten Island bingo: the ferocious, defensive pride, the mobster-like threats, the reminder that the borough has the highest proportion of Italian Americans of any county in the United States. 

Still, there was at least one legitimate point in Davidson’s rant. New York City as a whole is a Democratic stronghold, and has been for some time. Staten Islanders, on the other hand, have voted for a Democratic presidential nominee only four times since 1940. In 2016, Donald Trump carried the borough by over 15%. In 2020, he won there again. Back in 2008, the island ignored the Obama tidal wave and picked John McCain, like a stubborn red patch in a blue ocean.

To understand why that is, you have to understand that a New Yorker isn’t always a New Yorker. The first hint is that Staten Island isn’t on the subway, and can only be reached by car or by ferry. A second lies in the hall of the ferry terminal, where a cheery informational panel informs you that “Staten Island is very much a part of New York City – but at its own pace”. If you’ve got to state it right out of the gate, can it really be true?

Well, it’s complicated. “I feel like a New Yorker, although our part of New York City is vastly different from the other parts of New York City,” said Michael Tanoussis, who leads the Staten Island Republicans. On this and other things, he appears to be in tune with his constituents.

“People outside of here don’t consider us New Yorkers, really, but we do,” said 29-year old Michael, standing outside a restaurant with a friend. “It’s weird because we don’t have the city aspect of being in New York City, this is more of a close-knit suburb.” 

“Everyone knows each other on Staten Island. That’s a big thing here. Either of us could probably go to any random bar on Staten Island and there would be someone in there that we know, whether that’s a friend’s parent or a neighbour.”

“If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t think this is part of New York City,” he concluded. He was right: leaving Brooklyn or Manhattan for the island is like going on holiday. There are few tall buildings and tower blocks, and most houses have gardens and enough space to park a car at the front. In the borough’s more affluent suburbs, American flags are more or less everywhere.

There are also frequent reminders that you are in an especially Italian-American part of the world. By the side of the highway, a large poster advertised jars of scungilli, the sliced conch famously cooked by Carmela in the Sopranos. 

Fictional mobsters aside, the demographics of the place can help explain its unique voting patterns. According to the 2020 census, Staten Island is the least populated NYC borough but has the third largest land area, making it the least densely populated and most suburban borough in the city.

58% of residents are catholics, and over 60% of them are non-Hispanic white. The figure for the city as a whole is under a third. There is a similar split on personal matters, with over half of Staten Islanders being married, compared to under 40% of New Yorkers as a whole. As former Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani once put it, “it’s the closest thing New York has to Iowa”.

What Iowa doesn’t have, however, is an unusually high number of government employees – in Staten Island, it’s 22% as opposed to 15% city wide – and police officers. Only 58% of the NYPD workforce lives in the city, yet a tenth of New York cops are Staten Islanders. This should go some way towards explaining why the borough votes the way it does.

“The politics of this borough are very weird”, said 58-year-old Michael, a retired police officer. “Working in the NYC police department, I worked in every borough. […] They used to do things very differently here.”

Visibly and proudly Latino, Michael was occasionally called to work on Staten Island. “When I first came here in the mid ’90s, they didn’t have a lot of minorities in the borough,” he said. 

“I remember coming into the police station to gas up my police car and I was in uniform, and the officer looked at me strange, and asked me what I was doing here. I was a sergeant! I felt that because I was latino and he was a white officer, he was questioning me. I don’t think they’d seen a latino sergeant there before.”

It probably shouldn’t have been surprising. Staten Island has, over the decades, done its best to resist becoming a borough as diverse as its neighbours. Back in the 1980s, a race riot erupted in a high school, with white teens screaming and hurling stones at their Black classmates. Said students could only return to their studies several days later.

In 2008, four white teenagers beat up a random Liberian immigrant with a steel pipe, on the day Barack Obama was elected. Things have improved somewhat since then, but the island’s relationship with the city and all it represents remain complicated.

A particular sticking point, and one that will get mentioned by most people willing to chat on the street, is 9/11. Many of the firefighters and police officers who died on that day and afterwards were from Staten Island – in fact, the borough was proportionally the one most hit by the attack. Memories from the day still live on, and so does the bitterness at the role the place had to play in the aftermath.

On the night of September 11, 2001, trucks carried load after load of rubble, including human remains, from Manhattan to Fresh Kills, a landfill site in the borough. By the end, they’d brought 600,000 tons of debris across the water. The move frustrated and enraged islanders both for obvious reasons – they’d lost the most people and now had to deal with most of the rubbish – but also because Fresh Kills had only recently been closed down.

By the time Mayor Giuliani had ordered it to shut down earlier that year, it’d become the largest open-air dump in the world. Mostly cut off from the rest of the city yet expected to deal with the parts of city life other residents wouldn’t want in their own backyard – that was the Staten Island story. 

It was also why, in 1993, the borough held a non-binding referendum to secede from New York City. 65% of residents voted in favour. The next step should have been to hold a city-wide referendum on the proposal, but it never happened. Cut off from the rest of the city; expected to deal with everyone’s rubbish; not even allowed to leave. Oh, and the ferry was, at the time, quite expensive. 

It’s easy to make fun of Staten Island’s aggressive parochialism, but hard not to have at least some sympathy for the plight of, as the New York Times called it back in 1994, “the sorry Cinderella sister in New York’s dysfunctional family”. 

“It’s different in a weird way,” said 18-year-old Evan. “It’s quite isolated. We don’t get hit with all the tragedies from the city, but we feel like we’re a lot less well taken care of than [the other boroughs]”.

It is a problem, and not one that would be easy to solve. Staten Islanders tend to vote for the Republicans, both because they are more conservative and because, on some level, they want to stick it to the city. As a result, only 1 or 2% of New York state’s Democratic votes come from the borough, meaning that time-strapped Democrat candidates and elected representatives end up spending little time there. This makes islanders feel more isolated and resentful, and even less likely to vote for the Democrats, meaning that… well, you get the idea.

“If you look at the election results for the past few years, [Staten Islanders] have gone against the tide of the remainder of New York City politically, which means that a lot of the policies set forth by the Democratic majorities in New York State and New York City are not the type of platforms that our constituents believe in,” said Tanoussis. 

Does this mean that they could be heading for a rerun of the 1993 referendum? Possibly. “Staten islanders have historically been shafted by the rest of the city and the rest of the state,” he added. “Secession is definitely something that needs to be looked into.”

Is the sorry Cinderella sister really about to go at it alone, then? Perhaps, perhaps not. Walking around the streets of Staten Island means talking to dozens of people, men and women, young and old, many of whom have a complicated relationship with New York City, but most of whom consider themselves to be New Yorkers regardless. That’s the thing about family, right? It’s one thing to whinge, but another to turn your back and leave for good.

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