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The Fifth Borough A Trip to Staten Island

"The whole island is like a garden, and affords very fine scenery." - Henry David Thoreau,
Staten Island, 1843

Since Thoreau wrote about its charms nearly 200 years ago, Staten Island has occasionally been referred to as the "suburban stepchild" of New York City, and often finds itself the one borough that people have a hard time remembering after they rattle off Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. In fact, when a 1998 survey asked New Yorkers why they go to Staten Island, the top two responses were "visiting friends and relatives," and "passing through." Closer to New Jersey than the rest of New York City proper - the 59 square-mile island in New York Bay is separated from Jersey by Kill Van Kull and Arthur Kill - the island is nevertheless home to nearly half a million bona fide New Yorkers who commute into the city by way of bridges and ferry lines every day.

An Island in the Stream

Staten Island has been on the map since the early 1500s, when Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano - sailing under the banner of King Francois I of France - sailed into New York Bay while searching for a water route to Asia. Giovanni didn't find a shortcut to the East, but he did become the namesake of the Verrazano Narrows, and - much, much later - the Verrazano Bridge, which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.

It wasn't until 1609 that British explorer Henry Hudson - sailing for Holland - entered New York Bay, landed on Staten Island, and christened it "Staaten Eyelandt" in honor of the "Staaten," or the Dutch Parliament, and Hudson's benefactors.

The first European settlement on Staten Island didn't spring up until nearly 30 years after Hudson's visit, when one Captain David Pietersen De Vries led a small, ill-fated group of settlers in establishing a permanent community. De Vries' group abandoned the settlement after just two years, after sustaining heavy losses in conflicts with the island's native inhabitants.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Staten Island had been home for hundreds of years to several distinct subsets of the Native American Delaware Nation; the Lenapes, the Tappens, and the Hackensack peoples all lived on the north shore, while a larger group, the Raritans, lived in the central and southern parts of the island.

The native people of Staten Island did not take kindly to the insurgence of Europeans onto their homeland, and it took three more attempts to establish colonies on the island. Finally, in 1661, a group of 19 determined Dutch and French colonists managed to hold down a permanent settlement near what is now known as South Beach. The colony was called "Oude Dorp," and remained under Dutch control until the English overtook all of New Amsterdam in the summer of 1664. Two decades later, after wresting control of the rest of the island from the natives and parceling the land out to various wealthy farmers, King Charles II renamed Staten Island Richmond County.

A City Unto Itself?

Throughout the dramatic history of the city, Staten Island has remained a largely quiet spectator. A Revolutionary War peace conference was held in 1776 at the home of James Billopp, one of the wealthy British landowners to make his home on the island, and some light industry clustered around the island's northeastern end to serve the nearby city, but for the most part, Staten Island remained semi-rural even after it officially became part of New York City in 1898.

The turning point didn't really come around until 1964, when the Verrazano Narrows bridge was completed, linking Staten Island to Brooklyn, and ushering in a new wave of residents and businesspeople. The population of the island quickly tripled after the bridge opened for business, with most of the newcomers putting down roots on the island's North Shore, which today is home to the island's densest, most ethnically diverse population. Successive waves of immigrants from India, the Middle East, China, Eastern Europe, and African countries have made their home in Staten Island, to such a degree that the neighborhood of Stapleton-Clifton, for example, now houses the largest Liberian population outside of Africa.

Others have moved to the island to take advantage of rents and property costs that are substantially lower than in other parts of the city. Compared to Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn, living on Staten Island is downright cheap. The trade-off, of course is slightly less-convenient accessibility to Manhattan, but still, the northeast end of the island is rapidly developing.

Staten Island is the third-largest borough of New York City, but - immigration and development notwithstanding - is also the least populated: the island is home to only about five percent of the city's total population, and still isn't directly connected to Manhattan at all; the Verrazano Narrows bridge links Staten Island to Long Island, but to get to Manhattan, you have to take the Staten Island Ferry.

This fact, compounded with the island's dubious distinction of being home to the country's largest garbage landfill - the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill, which has been receiving the City's trash since 1947 - has lead to many a dispute between Staten Islanders and the rest of New York City's governing bodies over election-zoning, budgetary allocations, and an equal voice for islanders in city politics. After long debate over pollution, odors, and long-term effects on residents and the environment, Fresh Kills was officially closed in the summer of 2001 - but it was reopened shortly thereafter to help with the clean-up efforts after the World Trade Center attacks that fall.

Underscoring the island's separate identity was a vote taken in 1993, in which Staten Island residents voted to secede from New York City entirely by a margin of two to one - a move that has yet to win the necessary approval from Albany, but has inspired cutting comments from both sides of New York Bay. In many ways, Staten Island is it's own city, related to the rest of Gotham in name only.

Island Life

But despite it's geography and prickly political relationship with City Hall, Staten Island has begun to come into its own in recent decades. The island is home to the Richmond County Orchestra and the Riverside Opera Company, which perform concerts and operas throughout the island, the Staten Island Zoo, Wagner College, Richmond College of the City University of New York, and a branch of St. John's University. The islands numerous beaches and parks attract both locals and city-dwellers eager to soak up the sun and marine air away from the noise and crowds of Midtown. Hardwood forests still stand in the central part of the island, and freshwater marshes around the island's rim are home to many species of birds and animals.

Though the island is predominantly the land of single-family homes, there are a number of co-ops and condos concentrated near the Narrows of New York Bay on the northeast portion of Staten Island. Most were built since World War II, and they range in size from just a few units to major, multi-building developments.

Countrified and Quiet

Co-ops, condos and townhouses represent about 10 percent to 15 percent of the borough's residential sales; the remainder is mostly detached, single-family homes, according to Rich Schulhoff, communications director for the Staten Island Board of Realtors.

"I think it's simply because of the nature of Staten Island," that people are drawn to buying single-family homes, says Schulhoff.

"It's seen more as a rural area within the city. It is the most rural of the five boroughs, certainly. We don't have the block after block of neighborhood apartment buildings that the other boroughs do have." Secondly, the lack of a subway system to connect the island to the other boroughs adds to the isolation, he says. "The only way getting out of the island is either by car, by ferry or by bus."

By contrast co-ops and condos are the more affordable option for new homebuyers. The average closing price for a single-family home runs $405,000 compared to $197,000 for a condo and $121,000 for a co-op apartment, Schulhoff says.

While its numbers might be limited, the co-op/condo market in the last three or four years has been a strong segment of Staten Island real estate sales, according to Frank Reali Jr., a broker with Century 21 Safari Realty. "Most of the co-op prices basically doubled in the past four years," he explains. One of the factors leading to the surge has been Staten Islanders, in particular, downsizing and moving into a smaller home, especially when the grown children move out, he says. This has fueled the luxury co-op market leading to a fair number of sales, says Reali.

As for the prospect of future development of apartment-style housing or townhouses, the lack of buildable land is a problem, along with zoning restrictions, but the pressure is there from developers for new housing construction. Residents, though, are fighting to make the zoning rules even more stringent to prohibit two-family and multi-family structures from being built, he says. "People came to Staten Island to live in houses. It wasn't an apartment style mentality, so there wasn't a strong need to have them."

However, the affordability of what co-ops, condos and townhouses do exist is starting to drive the market, says Reali, and younger people and couples are starting to think about this section of the market as starter homes. Presently on the market are a number of co-op units ranging in price from about $50,000 to upwards of $300,000 in areas located in Dongan Hills, Clove Lake, Great Kills, St. George near the ferry landing, Rosebank, and Shore Acres. Several units in Bay Street Landing, a converted warehouse in St. George, run from about $149,000 to about $169,000, he says. Prices vary widely among condos, which can be found in St. George, Great Kills, Dongan Hills, and Rossville, for example. The most expensive condo on the market is a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom unit, complete with its own boat dock, in Great Kills that is selling for $949,000, he says.

For the young professional to the empty-nester, Staten Island offers a wide range of housing options to suit any lifestyle. "In Staten Island, condos and co-ops are still an affordable option compared to detached houses, if it fits your lifestyle, and that's the key," says Reali.

"We're an excellent alternative to the high prices of Manhattan," adds Neil Litvin, a managing director with Thomas Defalco Realty. Besides the small percentage of co-ops available, Staten Island has many townhouse options that range in size from 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet. A 1,500-square-foot townhome, for example, would cost about $325,000-compared to about $450,000 to $500,000 for a single-family detached dwelling, Litvin says.

David Garry is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.

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