Forgotten Staten Island: A Photo Essay

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How do you convince someone that a neighborhood is not “Forgotten?” That it’s a perfectly fine place to live – desirable even? These questions cross my mind as an urban planner, and I’m here to try to answer them by “writing what I know,” one of the hallmarks of good writing.

I grew up on Staten Island, one of the boroughs of New York City, in Port Richmond. Then and now it has been an enclave for those who want a slice of NYC but can’t afford the other, more connected boroughs or neighborhoods. A rough and tumble place with a mix of residents not seen in other places on Staten Island, with a backdrop of beautiful Victorian homes.

If you’re in real estate or urban design, you’ll understand this: “the neighborhood has good bones.”

There was a 2006 “forgotten New York” piece that gives much of the history from an outsiders’ perspective. It’s fantastic – as someone who grew up in Port Richmond, I even learned a great deal from it! But the author got the wrong impression: “The north shore of Staten Island is a fairly Godforsaken place. There, I have said it.” Another post on Forgotten NY refers to Port Richmond as a “Fading Glory.”

I’m here to tell you that Port Richmond may be faded, but we’re still a glory. No, we are not New Jersey. No, we are not poor, (except perhaps in money). Most important, we are not “the ghetto” as some might try to label the residents. Historically, it’s a term often applied to groups of misunderstood or disliked people that occupy a neighborhood.

We are Port Richmondites. We have Victorian homes and a Carnegie Library and a stop on the defunct Staten Island Railroad that, as an urban planner I hope is restored to service. We claim the death place of Aaron Burr, the guy who gained most of his fame from that groundbreaking 1993 “Got Milk?” commercial.

But we’re also the setting of some interesting and disturbing movies you can watch on Netflix: Combat Shock, about a Vietnam vet trying to reintegrate into society, and Cropsey, about a child kidnapper and murderer. Speaking of Cropsey, my mother clearly remembers Andre Rand riding his bike, as we played in front of our house as young children, on his trips back and forth to the Pathmark supermarket.

Who lives there now? The census will tell us more, but I tell you Port Richmondites are hard working laborers, hoping for a better life for their kids. The American Dream.

Here’s an update to the Forgotten New York piece. Just remember: Port Richmondites are not forgotten! First some pictures, then the stats. Then you can decide for yourself what kind of neighborhood Port Richmond is.

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We start with home sweet home. This is where I lived until I was 18, the family home. It was brown clapboard until around 2002, when my parents had it updated to this lovely, low maintenance siding. They preserved much of the character that makes houses in this neighborhood so special. It is one of the nicest on the block (Heberton Avenue). It was originally built as a doctor’s office. The bump out in the front left at one time was a waiting room. The door was removed and a window put in when I was a small child.

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Here’s another view of my house (Green roof) from my cousin’s steps. Yes, families still stay close – the networks are vibrant in Port Richmond.

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About a mile from my home is veterans park. While this was once a “drug park,” in recent memory, I haven’t seen any explicit or illicit deals going on. P.S. 20R is in the back left – that’s where I went to Kindergarden. Mrs. Gormley was my teacher.

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If you turned to your right from where I took the picture of Veteran’s park, you’d find a New York City Public Library built and funded by Andrew Carnegie. It’s at 75 Bennett Street and you can find it on the list of Carnegie Libraries on Wikipedia. This is where I cut my teeth reading books and researching and developing critical analysis skills. I love this library.

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If you turn to your right one more time, you’ll find this Victorian gem. This is arguably the best house on the block. In the late 90’s the owner had to put signs outside that said “No Drugs.” I’m glad to see those signs are down.

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A busy Saturday morning on the vibrant Port Richmond Avenue. It was once the premier shopping and entertainment district on Staten Island.

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There are many vibrant businesses, though the signs have changed from English to Spanish.

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An update to the mural from the Forgotten New York blog post. The mural is still unfinished as of February, but there’s now a fence around it so it’s harder for people to ruin it with graffiti tags.

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The train station. Wikipedia says: “The abandoned North Shore Branch of the Staten Island Railway runs through Port Richmond and its station still stands.” As an urban planner, I hope the city leaders view this as an economic development tool and consider reopining the line for commuters. There is hope!

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This is near Forest Avenue, where Port Richmond Avenue meets it. Day laborers wait around on a cold Saturday morning, looking for honest work to feed their families. It’s tough work, though Hurricane Sandy brought lots of work for those willing to get their hands dirty.

And two final images for you foodies before we get to the hard data: The Original Ralphs Ices and Deninos Pizza. These are arguably the best pizza and Italian ices in all of NYC, but I will let you be the judge after you take a trip to Port Richmond and taste them for yourself. Although in my opinion, after Ralph’s began franchising in 2002, it all went downhill.

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So now that you’ve seen it, I’ll show you the stats. Here’s how the 10302 zip code compares to the New York State data and the National Average:

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This is Port Richmond, for better or worse, and it’s up to you to make a decision based on both hard data and emotion about what kind of place this is. It’s my home, and I’ll always love it.

John Reinhardt is Program Manager of City Forward at IBM. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and studied urban planning and urban design at the University of Pennsylvania.

Images and infographic via John Reinhardt

  • Paul C

    Nice little article! From one urban planner to another….good story!

  • http://twitter.com/staten_roots Island Ancestors

    Love this! My whole family for generations lived in Port Richmond — my great-great grandparents lived on Heberton Avenue. I agree with you whole-heartedly – it is a wonderful place.

    No one should underestimate Staten Island.