A Diamond in the Rough A Trip Through Tottenville

Often given short-shrift in media coverage of the New York City real estate game, Staten Island is a historically rich borough which—contrary to what your Manhattan-centric friends may try to tell you—is not a four hour trek away. The fifth borough’s character-filled neighborhoods can be a welcome contrast to the constant activity—and expense—of Manhattan.

One such neighborhood is Tottenville. Surrounded by water on three sides and the town of Richmond Valley to the north, Tottenville is the southernmost point—not only of New York City, but of New York State as well.

Ye Olde Tottenville

Historically speaking, Tottenville is a treasure. Like most New York City neighborhoods, it has undergone several different manifestations of itself over the centuries. The first settlers of Staten Island were the native Algonquin Indians, who were forced to give up their land to the Dutch upon that group’s arrival around 1630.

One of Staten Island’s first prominent residents, Captain Christopher Billop, re-christened the land Bently Manor, named after the ship he sailed to America in 1667. It was not until 1869 that the area was renamed Tottenville after the revolutionary war hero Gilbert Totten. Tottenville’s colonial past is evident today in some of the town’s significant landmarks, like the Bethel United Methodist Church, which was built twice in the same spot due to structural damage caused by a fire—once in 1840 and again in 1886.

Tottenville has also seen its share of seafaring industry come and go over the years. Shipbuilding waxed and waned in the community and finally was put to rest when the demand for ships made out of materials other than wood made the community’s woodcraft obsolete.

Oyster harvesting was another of the neighborhood’s prime moneymaking industries until 1916, when the New York City Health Department ordered the oyster producers shut down due to pollution in surrounding waters. Since 2005, however, oyster farming has reestablished itself in Tottenville, and is gaining ground as a viable source of revenue for the community.

In addition to all this, Tottenville was also the headquarters of the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company from 1907 until the late 1930s. The company produced decorative architectural elements out of terra cotta—some of which were used on such New York City icons as the Woolsworth and the Flatiron buildings.

Growing Pains

In more recent times, the quiet community of Tottenville has been forced to deal with some of the growing pains—like traffic and overdevelopment—experienced by countless other small towns after they’re “discovered” by the masses.

Linda Hauk, director of the Tottenville Historical Society says that she looks at such issues from an historian’s point of view. “But I am also a lifelong member of this community. We are losing a few of our historic houses to new development,” she says, “and while many are trying to incorporate the old architectural touches found here—such as wrap-around porches and witches caps—many are not.”

There is also the matter of congestion—both in terms of traffic, and of people. Hauk says she feels that “traffic in the area has become terrible, and the Tottenville schools—which have historically been known for academic excellence—are fast becoming overcrowded.” The family-owned storefronts, shops and restaurants are also having difficulty competing with the larger chains that invariably follow gentrification. “The lifespans of these smaller businesses seem to be shorter and shorter,” she says.

But what are the older homes being replaced with? According to Jennifer Weinman, an associate broker with Staten Island’s DeFalco Realty, Tottenville is experiencing a reshaping as former 14-foot-wide bungalow homes are replaced with what she calls “Florida Style” center-hall colonials. “Stucco and brick exteriors seem to be the most popular style of homes going up in Tottenville,” she says.

Preservationists like Hauk may feel that some of the new additions to the community don’t necessarily seem to be constructed with the existing historic architecture in mind. Tottenville is known for its Victorian era construction, complete with wrap-around porches and sunrooms. These houses—once known for being very spacious and still managing to have a yard—seem to be giving way to the practice of squeezing two houses onto one plot of land.

“People seem to live their whole lives inside the house these days and don’t have use for the yards we once had,” says Hauk.

Buying Into Tottenville

As far the market and these houses—both the new and the historic—are concerned, Weinman says something that would be incomprehensible to the average Manhattan or Brooklyn house-hunter.

“It’s a buyer’s market right now—both condos and single-family homes seem to be selling at list price or even slightly below.” And if you’re hunting for a Manhattan-style co-op in Tottenville, you can forget it—at least for now.

“All of the co-ops on Staten Island are in the island’s central and northern areas,” says Weinman, adding that this is primarily because of proximity to the city and the commute involved.

What Tottenville does have are a few condo communities—most notably the communities of Surfside Village and The Captain’s Quarters. Both of these communities offer residences ranging from studio living to three-bedroom condos. Price ranges generally depend on the proximity to and the views of the ocean. According to Weinman, recently sold units ranged from $140,000 to $155,900 for a studio, from $240,000 to $260,000 for one-bedrooms, and from $280,000 to $649,000 for two- and three-bedrooms, with the most extensive ocean access and views commanding the highest prices

According to Weinman, individuals purchasing these condo units “are almost exclusively first-time buyers, while the center-hall colonial-style homes are generally second or third-time homebuyers.”

Those purchasing the new “Florida-style” homes also seem to have a common thread of interest the schools in Tottenville. Tottenville boasts an excellent public school system—and that is a huge draw for people who might otherwise have headed straight for New Jersey when looking for a place to settle and raise their kids.

“Parents can save money buy sending their children to public schools in Tottenville and know they are receiving a great education,” says Weinman. In New Jersey, parents often opt to send their children to private schools, which can quickly become very expensive.

There are other things drawing young families to this area, Hauk points out. “Besides the school system, Tottenville has lower taxes and an extremely low crime rate.” But as for the long-term intentions of the community’s newest homeowners, Hauk admits, “I’ve never been able to answer the question as to whether people are moving here to set down roots, or using the community as a sort of stepping-stone.”

Regardless, Hauk is under the impression that the families who do move to Tottenville have at least one thing in common. “Very caring people seem to migrate to this community,” she says. “Whether they move into a condo or single-family home, people who not only take pride in, but contribute to this neighborhood seem to find themselves here.”

Travel and Tourism

So if one were to move to Tottenville but work in Manhattan, what would the commute be like? New York City transit via the MTA and the Staten Island Railway do run 24 hours a day, and the train trip from Tottenville to St. George takes about 41 minutes. From there, according to the MTA, to get on the Staten Island Ferry you’ll wait anywhere from seven to 12 minutes, depending upon the time of day. The ferry ride will take approximately 25 minutes to get you to the Whitehall Street docks—and from there, Manhattan is all but yours. There are also express busses to Manhattan from Staten Island, but generally they require residents to drive to the bus stop.

The commute seems to be the price you pay for a little more bang for your buck and quiet weekends to spend at home. Residents of Tottenville no longer have to make the trek into Manhattan to do much of their odds-and-ends shopping as they once did, thanks to stores like Home Depot moving into the area.

As Tottenville expands its residential horizons, it is also making strides in another very important area: tourism. It is a little-known town with vast, but equally little known history. According to Hauk however, this seems to be changing.

“Tourism has been great, and we would love to promote it even more,” she says. “I can’t count how many people step off the train with a map in hand and seem to head straight for the Conference House.”

Tottenville has recently expanded its historic Conference House Park, as well as many of the buildings on its grounds, and has added trails and scenic overlooks. These renovations not only help to promote tourism in the town, but assist in ensuring the history of Tottenville stays alive and well. Perhaps Hauk sums it up best. “A lot of people say that New York ends in Tottenville—but we say it begins here!”

David Garry is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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