By Tom Robotham
There are places I remember / All my life, though some have changed. – John Lennon
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about places that hold deep meaning for me: Manhattan; Paris; Leicester, England, birthplace of my paternal grandfather; parts of Florida; Ocracoke, and Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, among others.
Reflecting on this, I began to write an essay on the resonance of place: the idea that the mere mention of a particular city, state or region can strike within us mystic chords of memory, to borrow Lincoln’s lovely phrase. Certainly, the places where we lived in our youth continue to resonate for many of us. And they vibrate all the more intensely as we age. I remember talking with my mother, as she was descending into dementia, and being taken aback when she announced plans to move back to Tallahassee to live with her parents. They had been dead for 50 years. But when the mind starts to go, I learned in that moment, past and present run together like water colors on a thin sheet of paper.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that one essay would be insufficient. Each place deserves its own in-depth consideration. And so, I begin this series with the place where I grew up—Staten Island, which is part of New York City but often called “the forgotten borough.” To many New Yorkers, in fact, it has long been the butt of jokes. This is especially evident on many television police dramas, where wayward cops are warned that if they don’t shape up, they’ll “be walking a beat on Staten Island”—the idea being that it’s so remote and boring that it might as well mean exile to Siberia.
This troubled me as a child. From an early age, I absorbed the notion that New York was the greatest city in the world, and I wanted to be fully a part of that. But in most local-TV newscasts, not to mention The New York Times, it was rarely acknowledged. When it was, on occasion, I got excited. It was as if, by talking about my home borough, the reporter had affirmed my own existence.
Years later, with that inferiority complex in mind, I laughed out loud when I learned that Richmond County—i.e., Staten Island—had been named for the Duke of Richmond, King Charles II’s bastard son. How appropriate: an “illegitimate” borough named for an “illegitimate” child.
In spite of these feelings, the Staten Island of my childhood was a fine place to grow up, in many respects: just a half-hour boat ride from “the city,” as we called Manhattan, and yet as different from it as North Dakota. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration—but not much of one.
I have only a few vague memories of the first two years of my life, but mental images from age 3 on remain bright and clear. A month before my third birthday, my family moved to a newly built house in an emerging development just north of historic Richmondtown, where a collection of restored Dutch and English Colonial buildings still stand. Our new street had not yet been paved, and I distinctly remember playing with a Tonka truck in the dirt out front, near an idle bulldozer, on my birthday itself.
Our new street, moreover, was surrounded on three sides by woods, which became the playground for me and my friends. As a result, during my early childhood, I spent more time on fertile soil—rich with clay, as opposed to the sandy soil of Norfolk—than I did on asphalt or concrete.
A good portion of that part of the Island is still woods, thanks to the establishment of the so-called “Green Belt,” a system of contiguous natural areas that were preserved despite the best efforts of Robert Moses—the infamous master planner—to build a highway through it. Amidst the Green Belt is an impressive golf course, and the dramatic slope at the first tee made for excellent sledding during the winter, which routinely brought heavy snowstorms when I was young.
By the time I entered my teens, though, other sections had been developed with abandon. The houses on my street had been solidly constructed but, increasingly, the newer houses were made with cheap materials and were hideously ugly. One reason for this is that the Island back then was dominated by the Mafia, which controlled a lot of construction. It’s well documented that they routinely cut corners, thus putting average residents at risk. Perhaps most egregious was the development around the Staten Island Landfill, the largest garbage dump in the world at the time. New home buyers had been promised that the landfill would soon be covered over and turned into park land, but that pledge remained unfulfilled for decades, and many residents got sick from living so close to the toxins.
I was blissfully unaware of all this, however, until I started working as a reporter for The Staten Island Advance in 1979. Not that I’d been unaware of the Mafia’s presence. But all that meant to me, through my teens, is that the Island had some of the greatest Italian restaurants in the city. The owner of the deli down the street from my house—the place where my friends and I bought all of our baseball cards, candy, sodas, and later beer, not to mention the best hero sandwiches you can imagine—was also alleged to have mob ties. So was the owner of a store and sweet shop, where my friends and I went regularly to drink Egg Creams, buy “Spaldeens” (pink rubber balls made by Spalding) and sneak peeks at Playboy.
The influx of “Italians”—who were often stereotyped because of the Mafia’s presence—increased after the Verrazano Bridge was built in 1964. (I say “Italian” because at the time few people said, “Italian-American.” Among my friends, you were simply “Italian” or “Irish” or “German” or whatever.) Indeed, so many people of Italian descent moved to the Island after the bridge opened that the span came to be called the “Guinea Gangplank” by non-Italian, pre-bridge Islanders.
Staten Island had a Black population too, when I was growing up, but there was stark segregation. In fact, I knew only one Black kid as a child. Somehow, his family managed to get an old house a couple miles from my neighborhood. Most lived well to the north, and I didn’t encounter them—except, on occasion, at a public swimming pool six miles away—until I went to an integrated high school during the “busing” era.
This, unfortunately, remains a defining element of Staten Island as I remember it: the degree of racism that I observed there from my teenage years onward. A case in point: In 1972, a group of white vigilantes, in a neighborhood adjoining mine, burned a house to the ground after learning that a Black family had bought it.
The rampant development remains another defining feature. And it always makes me think of the Island as a kind of paradise lost. To get a full sense of this, read Thoreau’s journal entries about the place. For six months, in 1843, he lived on the Island with Emerson’s brother William for the purpose of tutoring William’s kids. In his spare time, he took long walks and wrote ecstatically about the remarkable diversity of the native flora and fauna. Had he lived to see what transpired, he would have been heartbroken.
For decades, moreover, parts of the northern section were severely run down. I remember going into one of the housing projects as a reporter and feeling the strong sense of despair. I also recall touring the area with Pete Seeger in the early ‘80s, after we’d gone sailing in the harbor, and seeing the look of sadness on his face as he gazed at the signs of urban decay.
I haven’t been back to the Island in eight years, so I can’t speak to how much it’s changed. But that’s really beside the point. The resonance of place, after all, is often rooted in memory. It occurs to me as well that the word resonance doesn’t always have positive connotations. To me, it simply means that certain place names vibrate with meaning. I’m thankful that when I think of Staten Island, the early memories of playing those woods—a child’s paradise—resonate more strongly than the later ones. At the same time, I can’t forget the dark side. I guess that’s as it should be, though. Perhaps places only truly resonate with us when we see them whole, rather than through a romantic haze.
Note: This is the first in an occasional series about the Resonance of Place.