I’ve mentioned the static feeling surrounding life in Staten island, but I didn’t say much about it or describe its manifestations. There are likely a number of factors relating to this, but for me, the most prominent was the lack of walking traffic on the streets of the various neighborhoods. I covered a good deal of the island in my month there, both on foot and by bus, and I was always amazed by how few people there were on the streets, especially when compared to the nearly constant streams of people going about their everydayness one finds in Manhattan and Brooklyn. There were specific times and places where this feeling was less represented, but generally speaking, the exuberant sense of life that emerges from the walking culture in the other boroughs was not found in Staten Island, where the culture of the car segregated everyone into traveling in small pods of people. Folks definitely used the bus, but the car was still the primary means by which the majority of Staten Islanders traveled around the borough and I locate the sense of stasis I found there directly to the use of cars as basic means of travel. Because of this situation I started to feel like walking was a political decision, an act of rebellion against the island’s everydayness, one of the ways in which I identified myself as different.
I was walking along Forest Avenue one night, which is the main strip of bars and late night haunts in Staten Island, and the only people I passed on the streets were random groups of kids, likely just out to have a good time and to mind their own business, but their sudden appearance on a street always brought with it a sense of unease because of the general sparseness of other street traffic.
Who were they? Why were they out walking? What were they doing?
I rarely—if ever—had these thoughts in Brooklyn or Manhattan, but they were common ones on my wanderings through Staten Island. To be fair, I rarely felt unsafe in SI (except maybe a few nights walking through Stapleton and New Brighton when I probably shouldn’t have been walking alone), but I was constantly unsure how to feel because the safety/culture indicators one takes for granted in the other boroughs were rarely available on the sparsely-populated streets of SI. This was one of the most difficult adjustments I had to make during my time there and one of my least-favorite things about it.
A recent article in New York Magazine about life in the five boroughs is pertinent to this discussion. The magazine polled inhabitants from each borough on a variety of topics, one if which was perceived safety, and this poll revealed that a higher percentage of Staten Islanders felt unsafe than did people in the other boroughs. I attribute this feeling to the lack of life on the streets, as SI is relatively safe compared with, say, the Bronx. I would think this sense of unease was especially felt by those Staten Islanders who worked and played in the other boroughs.
As is clearly seen from the preceding thoughts, an active street culture is very important to me and is one of the things I love most about my New York, which is the New York of Bleecker Street and Bedford Avenue, of Bushwick and the Lower East Side, and the other streets and neighborhoods that aspire to the condition of Night. One simply can’t compare the feeling of life on Bleecker Street or Bedford Avenue to the feeling of Forest Avenue: they are categorically different experiences and they function as great metaphors regarding the cultures of their repsective boroughs. For me anyway, Brooklyn and Manhattan are quintessential examples of New York culture, whereas Staten island just didn’t even feel like New York. I’m anxious to explore Queens and the Bronx and to see how I feel when I experience their cultures and I walk their streets. I can honestly say that I enjoyed my time in Staten Island, but I don’t feel a burning desire to return anytime soon, and that’s not at all the case with Brooklyn and Manhattan whose streets and avenues are as necessary to me as images and oxygen.