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OpinionColumnistsMike Vogel

A neighborhood's rise and a man's tragic end

Eric Garner was confronted by police trying to

Eric Garner was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk July 17, 2015. Photo Credit: National Action Network

Gentrification can be lethal.

The Tomkinsville section of Staten Island, walking distance from the S.I. Ferry and bordering on the up-and-coming neighborhood of St. George, is where Eric Garner died. His crime was selling untaxed single cigarettes. But why were cops really there that day?

The area was given an extensive write-up in The New York Times real estate section in June that began, "In praise of St. George, a historic neighborhood on Staten Island that gazes on New York Harbor . . ." The neighborhood will soon undergo an extensive "reinvention," including a huge Ferris wheel, mall, restaurants, theater, housing and a hotel.

This gentrification push came to mind when I read about the order to crack down on untaxed cigarette sales on the Bay Street block where the Garner confrontation occurred on July 17 in front of a beauty supply store. I am familiar with that block, sometimes being invited to play guitar at the cafe right beside the beauty shop.

Although the neighborhood isn't yet what you'd call gentrified, it's getting there. And when the Daily News reported last week that the order to crack down on "loosie" sales on Bay Street came from high up in police headquarters, I wasn't surprised -- there are often fights on that block.

An early step in gentrification is addressing quality-of-life issues. The broken-windows theory of policing -- going after small offenses to ensure a sense of order and prevent more serious crime -- has drawn both support and condemnation. While still being debated, there is evidence the practice has done its part to make New York City a safer place. The issue is not whether the strategy is effective, but how it's implemented. A petty crime such as selling loose cigarettes obviously could have been dealt with in scores of nonlethal ways.

Gentrification is another issue that is neither black nor white, but gray. It all depends on how it is handled. And in the neighborhoods around the Staten Island Ferry terminal, the jury is still out, to say the least.

"Along the water sits the gated Bay Street Landing complex, a former shipping area that began conversion in the 1980s," continues the Times spiel, as the area's gentrification efforts gather speed.

But at what price?

Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at


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