From the Issue: Take the Staten Island Railroad to Tottenville

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We may be on vacation, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to post from the summer issue of the The Blue & White. You might also be interested in our conversation with physicist Brian Greene and a graduation-themed Postcard from Morningside—keep an eye out for the rest of the magazine in the coming days. In End of the Line we send writers to the farthest reaches of New York’s rail systems. This month staff writer Allie Curry takes us down south.

Yes, it is only the one house.

Illustration by Collin Sullivan

It’s about 20 minutes from the Ferry and an hour and 20 minutes from Morningside Heights before the leather-jacketed, half-shaven guy sitting diagonally from you and sipping from an Au Bon Pain cup, takes a sudden interest in French existentialist feminist philosophy. A bored, compulsive consumer of MTA advertising yourself, you empathize with his desperation for distraction. The blue bucket seats are mostly empty and the landscape is indistinguishable from the view from New Jersey Transit. Industrial parks, McDonalds, and trees flow by. After suggesting you read Camus’s Exile and The Kingdom (you’ve lied, saying you hadn’t), what may be Staten Island’s only hipster exits at Great Kills.

Tottenville, on Staten Island’s South Shore, is the southernmost neighborhood in New York City and State. Just over 25 miles from the Columbia Sundial, its Google News headlines are high school girls’ softball wins and wedding announcements . When you step out and “WATCH THE GAP” between the car and the platform (the remains of a dock in the Arthur Kill waterway), a muscular fishy smell—memories of a once-thriving oyster industry—confront you. Victorian townhouses line Bentley Street to the south and Main Street to the east; it’s a Sunday afternoon and more residents lounge on porches or park benches than stroll along sidewalks.

The neighborhood is strikingly homogeneous: 2010 US Census confirms that while ZIP code 10307 is attracting scores of Hispanic immigrants (and holding one well-stocked Mexican grocery on Main afloat), Tottenville has remained largely middle-class white for most of its history. Its high concentration of churches and temples tell a different story though. The Korean Church of Staten Island, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael & St. Mena, Congregation Ahavath Israel, and St. Paul’s Methodist all disgorge young families within blocks.

Main Street undergoes a crisis of character at its intersection with Amboy Road. From a series of delis, dance studios, party planning offices, and conspicuous vacancies, Main resists a straight line. As it veers into residential property of the “housing boom” aesthetic and the late 19th century Victorians, sagging porches, and peeling paint jobs disappear. Along Bentley in the neighborhood’s west end, the development has effected a remarkable bipolarity; underneath the ultra-new siding, some properties struggle to remember that they’re turn of the century demi-landmarks. Eastward, along the Rariton Bay waterfront, recent Bloomberg initiatives have focused developers’ attention along the unusually wide Hylan Boulevard, wrested properties from aging residents, and inserted condos in their place. White signs visible in several lawns speak to the controversy when pedestrians won’t: “HOMETOWN PRIDE” they declare in a Gothic font; “Tottenville, Est. 1861 PRESERVE AND PROTECT.”

As you walk about, you realize what makes a neighborhood feel homey: trunks are propped open in empty driveways, one lawn could be a fiberglass still from Bambi, Tottenville’s newsmakers run laps around the high school. The S78 growls by. When you step off the path in the park surrounding the neighborhood landmark, Conference House, earth grips the soles of your shoes. You have stepped in mud for the first time in two years.

Heading back to Manhattan, you drag your shoes first along the sidewalk, then the floor of the train car, scraping off the place’s peculiar clingy-ness. Pondering your intellectualizing of the experience, you appropriately open to the chapter titled “Situation and Character,” and you settle in.

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  1. i've lived  

    in staten island all my life and i been to t-ville

  2. Anonymous

    went to the beach there for CCO
    i think they replaced all the sand with syringes

  3. Anonymous

    Well-written but take it from an unfortunate Staten Island native, Tottenville and the area surrounding St. George is not compleletely representative of Staten Island. Take a trip down the mid and south shore (and particularly the nightly hang-out, the mall), and you'll see the classic guidos wandering the streets of stereotypical suburbia, filled with way too many parochial schools and orange skin coloring.

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