On a notoriously crime-ridden strip in Staten Island, memories of the way things were, and visions of how they might again be.
Beside a chatty pet parrot, a boa constrictor and a turtle, a large pit bull named Malo dozes in the corner of James Lee’s snug Staten Island apartment on Jersey Street. Malo shatters most strangers’ preconceived notions with his warm and welcoming nature, not unlike Lee, a burly, black twenty-eight-year-old security guard to the stars.
“People are like, ‘Oh, the big black guy’,” says Lee. “They don’t think I listen to Led Zepplin, and Linkin Park, and Green Day and Blink 182. You know what I mean?”
Lee’s three-year-old son, Andrew, zips across the carpeted living room as Lee speaks.
“I can’t blame them, though. I do look big, black and scary,” he says, throwing in a laugh. “With a pit bull!”
Like Lee and his pit bull, the scene outside on Jersey Street, in the northeastern neighborhood of New Brighton, speaks very little of its multilayered history. Dilapidated apartments adjoin stale, shuttered storefronts and dwarfish, brown townhouses distinguishable from each other on a recent visit only by tuckered out Christmas decorations.
Jersey Street is “kind of a poster child for all the local areas that start prosperous and then decline and become rundown slums,” says librarian Carlotta DeFillo of Historic Richmond Town, a living history village and museum in Staten Island.
The mile-long stretch of pavement begins along the water at Kill Van Kull, the narrow strait located a stone’s throw from Bayonne, New Jersey, and continues up through the New Brighton neighborhood. Jersey Street’s name, explains DeFillo, first appeared around 1836, when it was a simple colonial-era dirt road.
Imagining the fashionable hotels that DeFillo says were located in the neighboring Richmond Terrace area during the 1800s takes more than a bit of creative power. Today, they have been replaced by Richmond Terrace Houses, a dreary public housing development. But Jersey Street was, in the early 1900s, a thriving commercial hub, and its past is not forgotten—at least not by everyone.
“Many families who owned businesses had their shops on the ground floor and either lived above the shops themselves or rented the upstairs living space out to others,” DeFillo says.
According to “The Jewish Community in Staten Island,” a book published in 2004 by Jenny Tango, there were some 125 businesses, including six Chinese laundries, as well as twenty private homes and several apartment houses on Jersey Street in the early twentieth century. Mostly Irish names peppered maps of Jersey Street back then, but by the 1930s and ’40s, Historic Richmond Town records show that there was a “friendly mix” of Polish, Italian, Jewish and black neighbors.
The Depression hit this street hard, says DeFillo, as people couldn’t afford to shop much anywhere. As many second-generation immigrants moved to Manhattan, the street declined further. The recession of the 1970s and the closing of nearby sheetrock, dye and Proctor & Gamble factories led to an increasing poverty rate in the area. As for the root of the neighborhood’s crucial change—a gradual increase in gang activity and gun violence—some community members point to one moment: the 1967 opening of the Verrazano Bridge.
“All my friends’ parents tell me—they try not to say it because I’m black—‘Ever since they built that bridge Staten Island’s just gone to shit,’ says Lee. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean. Ever since everybody came from Brooklyn.’”
Total crime rates for New Brighton and surrounding Staten Island neighborhoods have mirrored the entire city’s drastic decrease in crime since the mid-to-late-1990s, yet there was a modest rise in serious crime between 2009 and 2010, including thirteen murders, most linked to drugs or gang activity. About fifty-six percent of total violent crimes and seventy percent of murders occurring in Staten Island last year took place in the northeastern neighborhoods, according to an NYPD report.
Today, enclaves of Italian, Irish, Polish, African-American, African, Puerto Rican and Mexican communities reside on and around Jersey Street, but the bustling entrepreneurial small businesses are gone. In their place remain a handful of shops, including one forty-two-year-old Italian meat market that has beaten the odds, an eclectic thrift shop whose owner remains skeptical about change, and a performing arts center striving to purchase its space and revive the community. The owners of these three establishments, along with lifetime resident Lee, shared their varying perspectives on Jersey Street’s past, present, and future.
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James Lee, 28
Who: Contract security guard
Where & When: Born and raised a block off Jersey Street
Growing up here:
“My mom was born in Jamaica. My father was born in Brooklyn. My father is Jewish. My mother converted. I was born in Brooklyn, and a month after we came here. I went to private school. I was the only black kid in the school. It was awesome; I got a lot of attention. I really didn’t start interacting with people in the neighborhood until of recent. I was always in the other side of Staten Island. Even my wife—I met her at school. I didn’t really interact with people from this neighborhood so much.”
Present-day Jersey Street:
“I wouldn’t let my kids play outside without me. It’s getting better, but it’s getting worse at the same time. There’s not [as] many shootings as there was, but there’s still shootings. Like just the other day I got shot at standing outside. Right in front of my door. They were chasing someone, shooting them—these are kids, fourteen, fifteen years old—and me and my friend were outside looking…they started running up the hill, turned around and said ‘Bow!’ at me. It hit the wall right behind me.…That was the first shootout I’ve seen in a long time, so in that way it’s getting better. For some reason everything feels real calm right now. Black people don’t like cold weather, and it’s kind of cold. Summertime, they’ll be back. ”
The state of the community:
“I go to some communities and I see people, they care about their community. If you throw something on the floor, they’ll be like ‘Excuse me? Can you pick it up?’ Here, nobody cares what goes on. It’s just carefree. Everybody’s worried about themselves. But it’s starting to change. Some people from the projects, they’ll throw rallies, peace rallies, and they’ll walk around and march. There are turkey drives. There are food drives. There are clothes drives. You know, there’s a few good things going on in the area.”
Jersey Street’s future:
“They’re definitely changing these neighborhoods. I don’t want to say the government and sound all crazy, but it is the government. Donald Trump is buying things. The banks are buying [the townhouses]. That place was drug-infested and now they’re building lofts and they got penthouses back there. So they’re going to change all of this up. They’re going to move us.”
Trying to get out:
“I would leave, but honestly, it’s like the rent control thing. You pay $60 a month for a three-bedroom apartment; it kinda pulls you back and makes you stay in the house. I know it’s terrible to say, but I’ve been here for so long. It’s like all I know. I know everyone. I know how to get everywhere. But I think I’m going to leave soon. It’s about the kids. My dog needs a backyard to run around in.”
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Vincent Chirico, 54
Who: Owner of Columbia Meat Market, 437 Jersey Street
Where: Born and raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and Willowbrook, Staten Island
When: Took over the forty-two-year old family-owned butchery in 2006; moved to Grymes Hill, Staten Island, in 2011
Opening Columbia Meat Market:
“My father came to America [from Italy] in 1955. He was the first person in my family that came here. My family purchased the business in 1970—my uncle and my father. When we took over in 1970, basically this would have been considered the mall of 1970. There was banks, a post office, supermarket, drug store, bakery. Everything that you’d want in a basic Main Street-type neighborhood.”
The changing faces of Jersey Street:
It was working-class Italians, Irish, Germans, a lot of Polish back in the days. Actually, three meat markets on the street to service the different ethnic variety of people. About 1975 is when the area started to change. More Latin and African-American people started moving in, as they started migrating to Staten Island. So the neighborhood started changing like that.”
Crime all around:
“There has been a lot of crime, a lot of drugs over the past ten years. It was actually worse in the ‘80s. Got cleaned up a little bit and now it’s so-so. The police have really stepped up quite a bit. Gotten a lot of the troublemakers off the street.”
Diversity, and loyalty, of customers:
“To match the demographics we carry a lot more of the southern type of meats and stuff like that. We have a lot of Albanians, Mexicans and other Spanish people, so we try to keep up with the times…We love our customers and our customers love us, because they’ve known us for such a long time. We’ve seen families grow up, three or four generations, so we know a lot of people and we consider them our family. And vice versa. We go to baby showers, we go to weddings, we go to funerals, whatever. Because we do know the people and have quite a bit of respect for everyone in the area.”
Moving from Brooklyn to Staten Island:
“When my family moved [to this country] Italian roots were all in Brooklyn. That’s why they stayed there. They moved to Staten Island when everyone from Brooklyn moved here…I’m a Staten Islander now but it’s only for the last year-and-a half. Demographics in Brooklyn changed. Cost of living was a little more expensive in Brooklyn, plus the traveling across the bridge everyday, so I kind of cut that out and got a nice place here. Not too far from work. Staten Island is nice.”
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Robert Briggs, 60
Who: Owner of thrift shop The Studio, 109 Brighton Avenue (adjacent to Jersey Street)
Where: Born and raised in New Brighton, Staten Island, and Elizabeth, New Jersey
When: Opened The Studio about a year ago
Memories of Jersey Street:
“People migrated here because of safety and it was much better living. You know, you come to Staten Island where your kids were able to play in the street, but now kids don’t play in the street…At one point, it was safer because Brooklyn [and The Bronx] used to be the rough areas. But now it’s basically the same thing here, too. You die here on the streets just like you die over there. I don’t see any difference.”
Modern-day Jersey Street:
“I just pass through. I own a business here, that’s just all I do. I really don’t—how do you say—try to start waves. People don’t last too long. Change Jersey Street and make it better, right? [Laughs.] And get shot in the process. Jersey Street basically belongs to drug dealers. And I’ve know many people who’ve been hospitalized because they voiced their opinion about the way Jersey Street was ran. People in the street, they’ll jump on you and beat you half to death. So my role is to have a business in the neighborhood. That’s it.”
“Get rid of the drugs, it’ll probably turn out to be a neighborhood again. In the ’90s is when it really got to the street; kids selling drugs on the corners. Before that, you know, we always had drugs in the highways. You go down there and get the drugs, knock on that back door. But now it’s in the street. They hang on the corners and sell drugs.”
Minimal local police efforts:
“They put a tower just for show because they’re not doing anything. When I was growing up, there was always four, five cops on the beat that you knew. And they stayed on this street and they walked up and down the street. You didn’t do things like [sell drugs] because the cops was always there. Nowadays there’s no cops on the beat. There’s none of that out here. You got more cops on the force. What are they doing? They’re sure not trying to stop crime in these neighborhoods. If you take away the people in Jersey Street selling drugs and stuff, this would probably actually be a great neighborhood.”
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Sajda Musawwir Ladner
Who: Artistic and Executive Director at Universal Temple of the Arts (UTA), 425 Jersey Street
Where: Born in Harlem, raised in West New Brighton, Staten Island
When: At UTA since 1986
Growing up in West New Brighton:
“When I was growing up, the [Verrazano] bridge came in the ’60’s and it changed the island a lot because now we have people coming from other boroughs…West [New] Brighton was like most other places in the North Shore. We grew up and our neighbors were Italian and Irish and at that time you didn’t really talk about racism.
Community on Jersey Street:
“We had families that literally grew up coming to our center. We saw them going from grammar school through high school. That doesn’t really happen now. People move here from other places and they are out in six months or four months, so there isn’t that investment like before. It is a different atmosphere even though it’s still community. You don’t have the long kind of historical connection. The area changed. When people don’t have stability there’s not a lot of investment in the community. There were a lot more homeowners [when I was growing up]. As the neighborhood changed, people want to move out and then they rent. It’s like anything else—you don’t value someone else’s anything as you value your own.
What the Universal Temple of the Arts offers the community:
“We have a vocal class which is really jumping…We just took the class to a recording studio last year, and we cut a CD which was very exciting for us. We also have a sewing class, which is one of our signature activities: introduce art that has either died down or gone away completely, such as sewing. We have dance companies who use the space to rehearse. We mix it up with different kinds of art, from fine art to folk art and it’s really vibrant. We also have some great Apple Macs through a grant that helps us have a digital program that teaches adults about web design…We’ve had a couple of success stories. Selita Ebanks did her first fashion show with us and we have another gentleman who just came off tour with Madonna; he started his dance career with us.”
What the future holds:
“Right now we are in the process of purchasing the building that we have been in for twenty-two years. Now we have more of an incentive to expand and give to the community more. It’s been difficult raising the money. It’s not easy to get grants to purchase buildings, especially in this climate…We are helping to raise consciousness by saying that even if you give a dollar, you need to feel responsible to this institution that’s been around for twenty-five years in this community. Everybody has something they can share even if it’s just the change in your pocket. It’s not about the money. It’s about the consciousness of support and it’s helping to build for the community.”
Why she chose to stay:
“We have a dedication to where we are. We could have gone somewhere else but the great need is really here. There’s so much brilliant talent and there’s perfect opportunity. It’s like when you are digging for gold or diamonds. When they form, they are dirty. Then it takes time, and then they become brilliant. There’s a lot of diamonds in the rough here.”
These responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
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Patrice Peck is a journalist reporting on dynamic stories about and for underrepresented communities. Through her writing, video and multimedia, she offers a spoonful of sugar to help complex discussions of race and culture go down. Follow her at @SpeakPatrice.
Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. She recently completed a two-month artist residency at Snug Harbor on Staten Island.