Setting for chokehold case: NYC's outsider borough

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Posted: Dec 05, 2014 9:26 AM
Setting for chokehold case: NYC's outsider borough

NEW YORK (AP) — Whether it's geography, demography, politics or a certain chip-on-the shoulder attitude, there are multiple degrees of separation between Staten Island and the rest of New York City.

The differences fuel both resentment and pride on the island, and they're now in the spotlight as the whole city wrestles with the fractious aftermath of a Staten Island grand jury's decision to clear a white police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man. There were several disruptive protests in Manhattan, but little unrest on Staten Island.

By far the least populated of the city's five boroughs, with about 472,000 residents, Staten Island is the most conservative and least racially diverse, dominated by homeowners rather than renters, and home to many current and retired police officers. It's the only borough not connected to the subway system; the one-way toll for a car over the lone bridge to the city may soon reach $16.

"There's definitely an outsider culture to the place," said professor Richard Flanagan, who has taught American politics at the College of Staten Island since 1999.

"It's an inferiority complex plus a social solidarity defined by the differences from the rest of the city," he said. "The city's scorn is met with a certain pride."

Given its name, in Dutch, by explorer Henry Hudson in 1609, Staten Island grew into a collection of separate villages before being merged into New York City in 1898.

That didn't produce lasting amicability. A campaign for Staten Island to secede from the city gained momentum in the 1980s and was backed by 65 percent of voters in a 1993 referendum before it stalled.

Just last month, several Staten Island politicians boycotted ceremonies celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which links the island to Brooklyn, due to bitterness over ever-rising tolls.

Aside from the bridge, the only direct public transit route to the rest of the city is via the Staten Island Ferry. More than 20 million people ride the ferries each year — there's no fee — but most of the tourists who arrive from Lower Manhattan get right back on for the return ride, spending neither time nor money on Staten Island.

"We're an island. ... There's that set-apart mentality," said Tom Wrobleski, senior opinion writer for the Staten Island Advance newspaper.

"We have smaller legislative delegations, so we have to scream louder to get our voices heard," he said. "If you move here from elsewhere in the city, there's a refugee mentality. You're leaving other parts of the city behind because Staten Island offers a more suburban environment."

The island has had its share of recent traumas. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, one of six Staten Island residents lived in areas that flooded, and about two-dozen were killed — half of the toll for all of New York City.

The island also bore a disproportionate toll in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. A marble sculpture near the ferry terminal honors Staten Island's 274 victims, including scores of firefighters and other first-responders.

The island's vast Fresh Kills Landfill, targeted for conversion into a public park, was kept in operation after 9/11 to accommodate tons of rubble from the destroyed World Trade Center.

Demographically, Staten Island stands apart from the rest of the city. According to the 2010 census, it's the only borough where non-Hispanic whites make up a majority — 64 percent, including many with Italian and Irish ancestry. It had the lowest percentage of blacks at 9.5 percent.

The racial composition of the grand jury that cleared police Officer Daniel Pantaleo has not been disclosed, and residents differed on whether its decision might have reflected the borough's racial fault lines.

"It was predictable," said Bill Johnsen, a white activist who was upset that there was no indictment. He depicted Staten Island as "a bastion of police and firefighters and a conservative ideology."

Jeannette Johnson, a black school employee, said she'd never seen a black police officer in the area where the fatal encounter occurred until after Eric Garner's death. But while she observes racial divides on Staten Island, she suggested the Garner case might have played out the same in other parts of the city or the nation.

"It's not a Staten Island thing — it's a power thing," she said. "We are an oppressed and depressed people. It's about power. And no respect."

Wrobleski, the journalist, said he was struck by how peacefully Staten Island reacted to the grand jury decision, compared to stormy protests in Manhattan and some other U.S. cities.

"I think that's going to continue," he said. "You're not going to see a lot of crossed swords on Staten Island between the black community and white community."

While New York City as a whole tilts heavily Democratic in most elections, Staten Island tends to tilt toward Republicans. In the 14 presidential elections since 1960, the borough voted for the GOP candidate 10 times, though it gave President Barack Obama a narrow win over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

The local congressman, Republican Michael Grimm, easily won re-election in November despite facing a criminal investigation into possible campaign finance violations, as well as a 20-count indictment on tax fraud and other charges. Last January, Grimm threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony in the U.S. Capitol after the reporter asked him about the FBI probe into his campaign finances.

Image-wise, the island has been vulnerable to jokes and teasing over the decades.

"Staten Island has stayed stubbornly uncool," wrote The New York Times in 2008. "It remains the forgotten borough; even the success of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan did not remove the island's seemingly impenetrable veneer of hiplessness."

Ambitious plans are afoot to update that image, or at least draw more tourists. A giant Ferris wheel, potentially the highest in the world at 625 feet (190 meters), is scheduled to open on the waterfront in 2017, accompanied by a thrill ride based on the New York City subway.

Flanagan, the political science professor, said Staten Island may suffer unfairly from comparisons to the other boroughs.

"Staten Island is very different from New York City, but it's much like the rest of the country on average, in terms of its politics and lifestyle," Flanagan said. "In a lot of ways, it's the rest of the city that's the outlier."

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Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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