As Staten Island Goes, So Go Most Suburbs? Middle-Class Borough May Opt out of New York City in Coming Vote, Presaging More Hollow Urban Areas

By Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 1993 | Go to article overview

As Staten Island Goes, So Go Most Suburbs? Middle-Class Borough May Opt out of New York City in Coming Vote, Presaging More Hollow Urban Areas


Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


TEN years ago, Priscilla Giannaris left Brooklyn, N.Y. She left the crime, the crowding, the schools, and the high price of real estate and moved to Staten Island.

"We did it for my son," she says as she gets her hair cut at a Supercuts salon, not quite out of range of the penetrating stench of the world's largest landfill.

Her next stop: Nevada. Staten Island is "just like any other borough now," so she and her husband bought land near Las Vegas this summer.

The flight from a city that seems increasingly alien to their values, at odds with their interests, and out of control is driving many New Yorkers to contemplate a more radical departure: a Nov. 2 referendum to withdraw Staten Island from New York City, creating a new city of 379,000 people that would surpass Buffalo as the state's second largest.

None of the mayoral or gubernatorial races next month offer outcomes as potentially dramatic as the Staten Island vote, a nearly unprecedented leap in a decades-old trend: hollowing the middle class out of urban centers.

As new immigrants and racial minorities grow in numbers in cities - poverty, drugs, crime, and dysfunctional schools seem to be concentrated there - the middle class is abandoning the city to the poor and to affluent professionals who have no children or can afford to send them to private schools.

Usually, middle-class families move into suburbs one by one, just as the Giannaris family left Brooklyn. Atlanta, for example, lost 7 percent of its population during the 1980s, leaving blacks inside city limits with a median income of $23,000, and a much smaller group of whites with a $63,000 median income.

With Staten Island, a whole community - the whitest, best-paid borough with the largest mix of homeowners and households with children - may bail out.

The extreme diversity of New York, where 1 new United States immigrant in 7 settles, has maneuvered most Staten Islanders to one remote end of a nearly unspannable political spectrum.

The secessionist impulse is also appearing elsewhere. In Los Angeles, mostly white and middle-class San Fernando Valley is pushing to break up the Los Angeles public-school district into smaller units. In Dallas, the middle-class community of Oak Cliffs tried and failed to secede from the city. So did parts of Miami. Long Island, Maine, did secede from Portland. And a new effort is beginning in a New Haven, Conn., neighborhood.

Staten Island is proletarian and middle class, dense with mid-size US-made cars, Italian restaurants with banquet facilities, grandiose cemeteries, and small single-family homes. It has more high school graduates per capita than any other borough, but fewer college graduates than the city average. While other boroughs are mostly minority, Staten Island is 80 percent white.

Staten Islanders feel dumped on, figuratively and literally, by New York City. It begins with the Fresh Kills landfill, ominously smooth mountains of earth rising mid-island, where the city dumps its garbage. …

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