In order to reach Staten Island, one of New York’s five boroughs, all you need to do is take the Staten Island Ferry, a boat that takes off every half an hour from the tip of Manhattan, right next to the southernmost stop of the subway, Broad Street. Here, in the heart of the Financial District, at the southern-most tip of the city, tourists mix with Staten Island commuters to craft the strange water-based link that connects Manhattan to the strange, often forgotten borough.
From atop the ferry’s bright orange digs, it becomes strangely evident that the ferry attracts a peculiar mixture of peoples. Half are intelligent tourists, who somebody must have told that, for an up close, free look at the statue of liberty, the Staten Island Ferry is the absolute best bet. The other half, however, are individuals who go back and forward between the reality of Manhattan, and that of Staten Island, lives divided by that large, beautiful, body of water. Taking off from here, Staten Island, among all of New York’s boroughs, is perhaps that which is least urbanized, that which reminds one the most of a classic American suburb.
These suspicions receive confirmation when, after a 26 minute ferry ride, the boats dock at the island’s station. The sensation is that of a reality far removed from Brooklyn’s, Queens’, Manhattan’s or the Bronx’s. It feels like a large, peaceful suburb, free from sky scrapers, with nothing but the ghost of manhattan lingering in the distance. People seem kind and open hearted. The influence of the Italian-American community, among its streets, becomes immediately palpable. Many of the streets, in fact, like those pictured here, take the names of illustrious characters in its developmental history, many of which boast an Italian last name, and American name, like those pictured on the left. In concrete terms, with a staggering 35.7%, Staten Island is the single county in the United States with the highest percentage of Italian Americans in the entirety of the United States. Some neighborhoods, like South Shore, are even more markedly Italian, and, other than 90% Italian-American population, still boast many family-run pizzerias and shops, creating authentic micro-environments of Italian culture in the middle of a borough often forgotten when talking about New York.
These, however, are not the only distinctions that separate Staten Island from the rest of New York City. In the 2016 elections, Staten Island was the only borough to vote Republican, giving Trump as much as 57% of their votes, a proportion much higher than that of any other borough. Walking through its streets, exchanging words and ideas with its inhabitants, it becomes easy to see how the strange island edges closer to a conception of Middle America than any other part of the city. With the upcoming midterm elections in sight, we tried to capture a number of statements in an attempt to understand how Staten Island is preparing itself to vote.
“I don’t know if I’m going to vote in the midterms”, says a middle aged man running out of the ferry and towards the Broad street subway, “but, If I do it won’t be republican though”. He does not seem to be the only one nurturing such confusion. Frank, a man met inside one of Staten Island’s many delis, tells us that, despite being a Republican, he does not know what to vote in the upcoming midterms, feeling stuck between his own political ideology and an innate adversity towards the current players of politics’ biggest game. Karius, a twenty five year old man met at A&S Pizzeria, has, on the other hand, little to no doubt, “I didn’t vote in the elections, so I’m going to now. Before you ask, going blue”, he says.
On first touch, Staten Island’s political ideology seems anything but well-defined, nor does it seem particularly leaning towards the Republican side. Stopping for a second inside another pizzeria, we meet Michele, an Italian-American man who speaks a very americanized form of Italian in warmly welcoming us to his establishment. Having asked for an opinion on the current climate, he said “the Italian-American community is really well woven, If it’s mostly conservative? I guess so, but it’s not really all that vocal. I suppose the older crowd are, but then again, a lot of the younger kids are definitely leaning towards blue, you know”. He continues, “honestly there’s some shame to being a republican right now, like you can’t say it. Definitely, you can’t really say it in Manhattan. The community is pretty diverse, to be honest, but I think the older of the crowd are pretty outspokenly conservative, as are, on the other hand some of the liberals. I can’t really give an answer. I personally don’t know which direction I’m going to go towards”.
We receive remarkably similar declarations from an anonymous woman, who immediately declared herself a faithful democrat. When asked if she is part of the Italian American community, she swiftly responds “no, but my husband is! The community is beautiful here, every one helps each other, eats together, stuff like that”. When asked an opinion on the upcoming midterms, she swiftly intercepts us, saying “I’m voting dem, as I think my husband will do, even though a lot of the wealthier around us are loyal reds and will remain that way. In any case, no, there aren’t really any tensions, it’s a lot easier to isolate yourself in Staten Island, keeping your opinions to yourself is easier than it is in Manhattan”.
These statements add themselves to a wider body of declarations that, though quicker and less colorful, serve to paint the same exact political portrait. Nobody seems to want to say the word “Trump”, but yet there seems to exist an almost even split between those intending to vote democrat and those intending to vote republican. There seems to exist, then, a peculiar confusion, a division born of isolation that seems strange to a Manhattanite. More than anything, these political endeavors seem to assume a heavier conceptual load within the realm of Staten Island, as the county seems greatly involved in local and global politics, boasting picket signs in many of its lush yards. The political image that reigns in Staten Island seems to edge ever closer to that of typical American suburbia, which gives great importance to all levels of government.
From here, from pairing ease of isolation with the importance of politics, the distance between Staten Island and Manhattan seems greater than ever. In 2016, Trump won the election by seducing the suburbs, outclassing Hillary Clinton outside all major urban areas. It seems almost natural, then, that the most suburban borough of New York City was the only one to go “red”, and that, in 2018, it shines a light as bright as ever on the contrast between red and blue.