I spent, in essence, the first 32 years of my life living on Staten Island, where I was born and schooled. When I worked there for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter and college professor, I never thought of us as "the forgotten borough" or even the "outer borough." We were Staten Islanders, and we were different from the rest of New York City. In fact, we were a city unto ourselves, dwarfed by the size of the other four boroughs but big enough to stand alone.
Brooklyn was where many of my relatives came from or landed, and Queens and the Bronx were simply places to go see baseball games. Manhattan, well, that was "the city." A strange enclave of exotic and enticing neighborhoods -- from The Village to Midtown to Chinatown. But it was foreign, dangerous, and a whole other world. We ventured there infrequently.
Staten Island was safe -- a guarded and self-contained village with neighborhoods that sometimes warred with each other over sporting events: the South Shore versus Mid-Island. The North Shore high school, Curtis, versus the country bumpkins from Tottenville, the southernmost part of New York State. And then there were real Islanders, who came before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1965, versus the interlopers who arrived later.
Beyond neighborhoods, we were a self contained ecosystem. The central highlands of the island, with a peak at Todt Hill, offered the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard. You could see for miles. And the hills and ponds of the area, protected by happenstance over the decades, contained nearly 5,000 acres of woodlands, many protected, some not that today comprises the Staten Island Greenbelt, the largest urban woodland in the nation. We had our own Central Park. We didn't need Manhattan.
We were different. That was not always clear to the rest of the world, however. I taught a class many years go at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A student who knew I was from New York City asked me if everyone really carried switchblades. I was startled. I am from Staten Island. No one carries a switchblade. We still have farms. We're country bumpkins.
In the summer, we could head east to the coast, with miles of beaches which, when I grew up in the 1950s, were still relatively unspoiled. My mother would take my brother and I for all-day beach visits, packing cooked hot dogs and small Coke bottles. And we would jump off an abandoned pier at Huguenot Beach and learn to swim back to a rickety railing.
We had woods and we had beaches -- and we didn't really need the rest of the city. We preferred trees over concrete.
And then Sandy came along, wailing its winds and tides, and roiling over the beaches in a way that no one had ever seen, ripping up rooftops and throwing boats around like little pebbles. I have been off "the Island," as we called it, for many years, although I am still on a board of directors for its largest land preservation organization. My relatives and friends from growing up and high school remain there. I visit and still tell people, "I am a Staten Islander."
Listening to their cries for help from the rest of the city, and from the federal government, is almost as shocking as the surreal nature of this storm. This is the borough that wanted to secede from the rest of the city in 1993. It's a conservative borough that is not inclined to want a strong central governmental presence. Republicans carry the vote there (which always unsettled me). When I grew up in an Italian-American culture, independence and a streak of anarchism flowed through family gatherings.
We had family, our own parks and beaches, and we had our neighborhoods. We also had our own daily newspaper, the "Staten Island Advance," where I worked. We just did not need the rest of the city's news. We relied on each other and we were a bit insular and considerably parochial.
Once, when a bomb went off in Manhattan's Fraunces Tavern, a caller alerted us in the newsroom. I took the call, yelled to the city editor and told him people were killed in downtown Manhattan. "Anyone from Staten Island dead?" he asked. The caller said no. "Then we don't care," he replied. Newsroom humor, but a statement of independence also.
I am not sure if any of this explains why Staten Island has been so ignored in the early stages of this hurricane recovery. It took nearly 20 deaths to wake people up. Flooded subways and wrecked New Jersey boardwalks got the priority -- at least from news cameras. Certainly, geography played a part. We were never that easy to get to -- a ferry, a bridge or two, and then -- pre-Mapquest and GPS -- you had to wade through a confusing grid of neighborhoods and windy old cow path streets.
And now the question of what lessons come from this event arises. Certainly the issue of climate change is at the top of the list. I covered many a public hearing where environmentalists screamed about the loss of Staten Island's wetlands, although no amount of wetlands would have absorbed the brunt of Sandy. The other question, of course, is about relationships.
A high school friend's house in New Dorp Beach was submerged in 10 feet of water. Friends turned out to help gut and clean the interior. Her daughter, who now lives in Manhattan, posted on her Facebook page:
For 22 years, Staten Island was my home. Where I was born and raised. Where I have complained about the island and the stereotypes that live here. But in the past few days, I have to say I have never been prouder to call it my home. I am taken aback by all the love, help, generosity and support. We may be the forgotten borough, but we don't forget about each other.
And that insularity will come back to help the Island recover. But they and the rest of us need to understand that there is another hard lesson to learn: We are not independent of each other. We need to be more communal, more cooperative. Self-reliance and family are nice concepts, but the reality is that our backyards connect. State and city boundaries are artificial. California mud slides and Staten Island floods are part of what make us a nation. The local and the federal do work together. The larger we make our family, the more we can protect each other.
Robert Miraldi, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz. He is completing a biography on investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.