Tottenville: In the city, but a world away
This is NYC?
Disembarking at the last stop of the Staten Island Railway, you have to wonder.
A blizzard of sea and shore birds variously chirp, caw and carol. A shaggy brown animal the size of an ottoman waddles indifferently down the side of the train tracks, pausing periodically as if to gauge the direction of the fresh, salt-kissed air.
"That's a muskrat," said MTA conductor and area resident Martin Gutowski, 56, who explained that while the pheasants have vanished from Tottenville, raccoons, ground hogs, wolverines, skunks, the occasional wild turkey and, much to the dismay of gardeners, deer - still roam the rustic Norman Rockwell like village struggling to retain its small town charm in the midst of crazy quilt development and a burgeoning population.
Historic Tottenville - "the town the oyster built" - is the southernmost part of New York State and officially every bit a part of New York City as Harlem or Hell's Kitchen. In other ways, it couldn't be farther away from "the city." A solid two-hour schlep from midtown, its population of about 14,000 is 93.4% white. Nearly three-quarters of its inhabitants (73.4%) live in a family household (most commonly, "husband-wife") with almost 40% of households including children under the age of 18. American flags flutter from front porches where children have left scooters and bikes, confident that they will be there when motivated to retrieve them.
As rustic as the Mayberry-like place appears to an outsider, virtually every old timer you meet erupts into reminiscence about "how it used to be." Which is to say, even less crowded.
Long a sinecure for Italian-Americans and civil service workers, Tottenville has diversified to include anyone in search of decent, affordable housing, excellent schools and a safe place raise a family, said Michael Blasi, owner of Sherlock Homes Realty, which is located inside a Masonic Temple on Main St. Residents constantly debate the benefits of the express bus versus the languorous charm of the Staten Island Ferry and the railway. Either way, "you don't mind a two-hour commute if you know your kids are going to good schools," said Blasi. "Tottenville is all about providing for your family: When you don't have to worry about your kids, it makes life a lot easier,"
Some residents prefer to avoid "the city" altogether, shopping in close by, much cheaper, tax-friendlier New Jersey - often while returning from visits with New Jersey-residing relatives.
Little League, dance recitals and the roller rink are the suns around which social life revolves in Tottenville, which allows home owners to get "a lot more for their money," than, say, Westchester, said Blasi. Many Tottenvillians have lived there for generations; some are refugees from Brooklyn looking for less crowded city living and others like Tottenville for its proximity to relatives in nearby New Jersey. (Older residents still mourn the death of the little ferry that ran between Tottenville and nearby Perth Amboy, which discontinued service in 1963.)
The diversity Tottenville does not lack for is in housing stock: While gorgeous million dollar homes rim the water, a starter townhouse can be had for as little as $240,000 with monthly charges of about $200 a month, said Blasi. That price "gives you the pool, tennis courts and the clubhouse," he noted.
But the gorgeous old Victorians with carved trim often abut charmless concrete constructions erected to maximize developer profit. "New money" is also the source of friction between old timers and new comers in one of the nation's fastest growing zip codes. "It has to do with attitude," explained Primrose McVay, 70, who welcomed a stranger into her gracious 1870 Italianate Victorian which her family has occupied since 1916. "The attitude is 'I made mine and can afford to throw up a monster in Tottenville and park my Mercedes and Bentley outside and forget about you. And these not-so-nice newcomers are not necessarily 20-year-olds. Some are 40-year-olds," she tsk tsked.
"They all moved here for the country aspect: Then they paved everything," observed Maria Morio, who works in the Tottenville Thrift Shop on Main St.
Another tension is the belief that Tottenville is the forgotten village within the forgotten borough. McVay lamented her father died a decade before sewers - promised in 1928 - came to her street about ten years ago. "We've felt left out by the City," Gutowski acknowledges, when it comes to services.
McVay is heartened by what she sees as increasing diversity in the area (a taqueria and Mexican grocery now grace Main Street), but the village is indisputably more conservative than, say, The Village. When McVay posted her Obama reelection poster on her front door a relative exclaimed "they'll egg the house!" But her property remains unvandalized, and the sign has become a source of some humor.
"I have a neighbor who is slightly to the right of Genghis Khan," who has grudgingly accepted her politics. "He told me, 'I guess I have to love at least one liberal," she recounted.