History of Staten Island

Navigating Through Time: The History of Staten Island

Staten Island is the third-largest borough of New York City by land area, covering about 59 square miles. Despite its size, it is the least densely populated borough and offers a more suburban atmosphere compared to other areas of the city. People often call it a “bedroom community” because many of its residents work in other parts of New York City.

Staten Island’s history isn’t as well-known as some other boroughs of New York City. It has a rich past, starting with the Lenape people who originally lived there, and later on with Dutch settlers.  It’s fascinating to think that this area was once called the Borough of Richmond until 1970 when it was renamed the Borough of Staten Island.

Staten Island is about 13.9 miles long and 7.3 miles wide. It is located closer to New Jersey than to the rest of New York City. The Arthur Kill, which is a narrow channel, separates it from New Jersey. Three bridges connect Staten Island to New Jersey: the Bayonne Bridge, the Outerbridge Crossing, and the Goethals Bridge.

To travel to other boroughs of New York City, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is typically used as a means of connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn. The bridge was named after an Italian explorer and leads to the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn.

Discovery History of Staten Island

In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano became the first European to discover Staten Island. The Raritan and Unami Native American tribes were the primary inhabitants of the region. Later, the Dutch attempted to settle there, naming it ‘Staaten Eylandt.’ However, they encountered resistance from the local tribes, leading to conflicts such as the Pig War in 1640 and the Peach War in 1655.

In 1661, after these conflicts settled down, the Dutch built a settlement called Oude Dorp, or Old Town, near the South Beach area of Staten Island. When the English took over in 1664, they renamed it after the Duke of Richmond. By the late 1600s, around a thousand people, mainly English, French, and Dutch settlers, called Staten Island home.

Legal Battle Over Staten Island: New York vs New Jersey

There was a legal dispute between New York and New Jersey over the ownership of Staten Island. Initially, New Jersey argued that they owned Staten Island based on an old land grant, which gave them rights to the middle of the Narrows. However, New York claimed authority over the waters up to the low water mark on the Jersey shore.

The disagreement dragged on for almost two centuries until 1833 when both states settled their borders. New York secured Staten Island and the Lower New York Bay down to the northern tip of Sandy Hook, while New Jersey gained control over the water on the island’s west side up to Woodbridge Creek near the Rossville neighborhood.

Staten Island’s Role in the Revolutionary War

During the Revolutionary War, Staten Island played a crucial role due to its strategic location. George Washington, concerned about defending New York City, including Staten Island, witnessed its significance.

In the summer of 1776, General Howe arrived in New York City after leaving Boston. His landing spot was the Watering Place, now called Tompkinsville, on Staten Island. This location became a key strategic point for British forces to establish their presence and prepare for the impending conflict with the American rebels. Reports indicate that a considerable number of troops occupied Staten Island while awaiting the Battle of Long Island.

Following the Revolutionary War, many of Staten Island’s wealthiest and most influential citizens, who remained loyal to the British Crown, fled to Canada. As a result, the state of New York confiscated and divided their abandoned estates, which were then sold.

Integration into New York City

Staten Island joined New York City in 1898 following a strong local vote in favor of consolidation (5,531 to 1,505). Although Brooklyn’s residents were divided on the issue, the New York State Legislature ultimately approved the merger despite objections from the mayor at the time.

Since then, Staten Island has seen improvements to its infrastructure, including roads and sewers. However, the extent of these improvements and the reliance on septic systems in certain areas can be debated. While there is currently no public rail connection between Brooklyn and Manhattan, there have been proposals for such a system in the past. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry remain the primary transportation links between Staten Island and the other boroughs.

Staten Island’s Rumblings of Secession

The Fresh Kills Landfill significantly fueled the desire for more autonomy among some Staten Islanders, who felt it represented a lack of control over their environment. Assemblyman Edmund Radigan’s 1947 secession bill in response to the landfill’s development highlights this frustration. However, the roots of the Staten Island secession movement go deeper, with a history of discontent over issues like representation and infrastructure predating the landfill.

A History of Feeling Neglected

A source of long-standing tension between Staten Island and New York City was the seizure of land in 1799 to build a quarantine station. This action, coupled with the burning of the station by Staten Islanders in 1858 (known as the Quarantine War), highlights the historical friction surrounding the island’s role within the city.

Importance of Representation: Changes to the Board of Estimate

The Board of Estimate’s structure, where each borough president had an equal vote regardless of population, gave Staten Island less influence on city decisions compared to more populous boroughs. This was challenged in court, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that it violated the Equal Protection Clause. Consequently, the Board was dissolved, and the city charter was amended.

Staten Island’s current representation in the City Council is 3 out of 51 members. The perception of decreased influence due to the Board of Estimate likely contributed to some Staten Islanders’ desire for secession.

Considering Secession: A Sign of Hope

Faced with these challenges, Staten Islanders viewed secession as a means to take control of their future. In 1989, the state legislature authorized a study on secession, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters the following year (83%). Governor Mario Cuomo subsequently established a commission to examine the legal aspects of separation.

A Referendum and a Political Change

In 1993, a referendum on Staten Island’s secession succeeded, with the majority supporting a new city charter that would establish Staten Island as an independent city. However, the movement’s progress shifted with the election of Rudy Giuliani as Mayor.

Giuliani, who campaigned on addressing Staten Island’s concerns, garnered significant backing from the borough. He fulfilled two crucial promises: closing the Fresh Kills Landfill and making the Staten Island Ferry free. These actions, combined with obstacles in gaining approval from the state legislature, ultimately halted the secession drive.

Secession Ambitions Paused (for Now)

Although the secession movement hasn’t regained the same momentum since the 1990s, some Staten Islanders still harbor a longing for a stronger voice and greater control over local matters.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Staten Island, despite being the third-largest borough in New York City, boasts a unique suburban atmosphere and spaciousness compared to its counterparts. Its history is rich, from its initial discovery by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 to its settlement by Dutch and English colonizers. The island’s ownership was subject to a lengthy legal dispute between New York and New Jersey until 1833 when it officially became part of New York City.

Throughout the Revolutionary War and beyond, Staten Island played pivotal roles, shaping its identity and relationship with the rest of the city. Despite past efforts for independence, such as the secession movements of the 1990s, Staten Island remains an integral part of New York City. At the same time, some residents still advocate for greater autonomy and representation in local affairs.

Greetings! I'm Dr. Andrew Stepanov, a passionate explorer of Staten Island's vibrant neighborhoods. Rooted in the heart of the borough as a devoted resident, I've dedicated myself to unveiling the unique history and experiences that define Staten Island. Through my blog, Staten Island Explorer, I aim to share insights into the rich diversity shaping our community. Come join me on a journey to uncover hidden gems, embrace diverse cultures, and revel in the beauty that makes Staten Island a place I am truly honored to call home.

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