A Staten Island native interviews residents of NYC’s “last Gold Coast.”
It wasn’t until I was living in Puerto Rico in the Fall of 2012 that something which should have been quite obvious finally occurred to me. No mind that I had grown up in Staten Island (SINY) for most of my life or that mi mamá was from Cuba. It took staring at the ocean for hours, missing home to realize the obvious: I am an Islander.
After growing up in Shaolin (as Wu Tang Clan calls our beloved Isle) in the late 80s—attending elementary, junior, and high school here—I took off to escape the suffocation of post-9/11 New York City. University in upstate New York, a jaunt to Los Angeles for three years, a nomadic twenty-something roaming the planet, and after the whirlwind, 2013 brought me back home.
Exhausted emotionally from living in Bed-Stuy and feeling like an outsider in my own city at the crosswinds of all this crazy gla$$ condo Brooklyn development madness—and that’s not even beginning to scratch the surface to describe what’s going on—I took my mother’s advice and apartment-shopped back on the Island.
Now I’m fully settled into the neighborhood by the ferry called St. George (or as I call it, the “East Coast Bootleg San Francisco”). Like everything, there’s layers to the shit.
The people who I don’t have trouble explaining that feeling to, my community—fellow Islanders, as we’re called—have reaffirmed my kid-of-an-immigrant pride, giving me faith in the potential of this city. So what does “live local, act global” look like on New York City’s “forgotten borough” of Staten Island?
Photographer Wills Glasspiegel and I went for a trip around the Island one Friday in February to pay a visit to some “Local Globals,” as I like to call them, in my community; folks and friends reaching out to the world through their local hustle. I wanted to know what drives them to cultivate, to create from here, to grow here in the face of “undesirableness” and the dark spots on our history.
Mr. Tariq, of the Richmond Hood Company, has collaborated with fellow Islanders to create a local business that incorporates NYC street art culture and provides a platform for emerging and aspiring artists. They’re on Twitter at @RichmondHood. He also writes and performs poetry.
How has being from the Island (or on the Island now) shaped your art and business? Is there such thing as island identity?
One thing I first noticed when I moved out here almost 20 years ago is that the younger generation of Staten Islanders didn’t really have a sense of neighborhood or borough pride. This was mostly due to the fact that the borough seriously lacked in arts and culture! There were no outlets for creative exploration. So most of the artists and cultured people would just head out to the other boroughs to get their fair share of gallery shows, exhibits, concerts, museums, and more of what NYC has to offer.
We wanted to be able to affect people and help change their negative perception of the borough. You can just about go anywhere on the planet and BROOKLYN is always in the house. We knew we had to do something when we went to parties and our Staten Island homies were representing other boroughs. This is not what makes a Staten Islander. You know you’re a Staten Islander when you plan everything around the ferry schedule, Ralph’s Ice, and pizza!
Bloomberg called the North Shore of Staten Island New York City’s last gold coast. Once we are rolling with development, I’m sure we’ll have more and more Staten Islanders change their tone about borough pride. The same way the Wu Tang Clan did in 1993!
Jeff Cinco is an artist and organizer. He’s put together events ranging from concerts to fashion shows. He’s a steady member of the “always evolving” musical projects Dinosaur Warlordz and Rolling Bonez.
How has being from the Island (or on the island now) shaped your art and business? Is there such thing as island identity? What makes you an Islander?
Being from Staten Island automatically makes you an outcast in the eyes of the other boroughs. We’re the “forgotten borough,” “land of the lost.” It’s those kind of nicknames that shaped my pride and [made me] need to bring my “A-game” to whatever I do. I shouldn’t have to explain my being here.
It’s where I was born and where I want to be right now. I like the escape from the from loud, busy city. Taking the ferry is my moment of zen before whatever awaits.
We’re true New York commuters. Boats, buses, trains, whatever. Staten Islanders have a different kind of hustle. We don’t have to prove something but many of us stand up for our hometown—proving we’re more than forgotten, or what the media makes us out to be.
What’s been your most memorable or meaningful cultural or arts event on the Island?
I always love Van Duzer Days. It’s a family- friendly block party full of art, music, and positive energy all day and night. The new monthly party, ISLA, at the Full Cup showed me that we can pull an audience from other boroughs to enjoy global sounds to show others that Shaolin isn’t so boring. We’re open-minded and want to flaunt it. Richmond Hood’s Sticky Situation event livened up my fellow sticker heads and graffiti artists from all over. It even inspired new ones.
There’s a lot of untapped talent out here. As a community we have the potential to branch out and bring people into our world.
Anything else you’d like to add about Staten Island?
Yeah! Come through. It’s not as boring or as far as you image. We’re not a world away; so get off your fucking ass and enjoy all of New York City. Shaolin, son.
Gena Mimozo is a producer and filmmaker. She recently shot and edited the sci-fi flick The Puppet Apocalypse in collaboration with the Staten Island-based Scott & Chris comics. She is a member of performing arts group Island Underground Productions and a member of the production team for ThursGAYS, which brings quality queer programming to Staten Island every Thursday night. She is also a grants administrator at the borough’s arts council.
What makes you an Islander?
Being from Staten Island has definitely shaped me and what I do. Staten Island is like a big small town. Anyone who lives here can talk on some level about how Staten Island is like the unloved child of NYC. Staten Island is the runt of the litter, always getting picked on by way of mainstream media, city agencies, and the other boroughs.
The ones who hate it usually leave or will never admit to being from here. The ones that love it fight daily to get Staten Island the recognition it deserves. We’ll sing Staten Island’s praises till the end, because if we don’t love it here why should anyone else?!
Staten Island feels abandoned sometimes, on its own from the rest of the city. This really causes its residents to band together. Us against the world. This speaks to a lot of people’s work; collaboration is key. Most of the artists I know really enjoy working together to effect change, whether it’s change in their own neighborhood or changing the way Staten Island is perceived as a whole.
Island identity forms for anyone who lives on an Island, not just Staten. I remember coming across an article of sorts about something called Islandism. The article spoke specifically about the Vanuatu islands, which is a tiny archipelago off the coast of Australia. It spoke to this idea that Islanders never really wanted people to come to their Island, they also never wanted to leave, and they always took care of their own. I remember feeling very connected to those little Islands.
I think Staten Island and the people who live here face the same problems. Some people still curse the year the Verrazano Bridge was built while some of people spend their time trying to get Staten Island better connected to NYC.
I don’t know what exactly “makes” me an Islander but I feel like one. I moved here from Brooklyn when I was four, went to school here my whole life, even college (I have a BA in technical theatre from Wagner College), and I still live here. I’m a townie. And I’m perfectly ok with that.
I know the world is bigger than this Island. I travel often but Staten Island is home.
Gary Nieves, Jr.
Gary Nieves Jr. is a musician who works with The Rising Sun Allstars, Lady the Band, and Redman. He is also an engineer at Cobra Sun Studio.
What are some of the challenges to creating and making space here?
We face two main challenges: one, there is a conservative, backward-thinking mindset here that I believe is rooted in geographical factors—the isolation of living on an island.
Some people are very reluctant to change, to see a formerly dangerous neighborhood change into a blossoming creative hub. Two, there are also people in a position to foster a creative community, who would rather put themselves and their friends onstage than see something new, bigger, or better. It’s something I’ve called a “Self-serving culture of mediocrity.”
New North Shore development will bring us more places to spend money… I don’t know how that will affect how we as individuals or a community think or feel about where we live.
Anything else you’d like to add about Staten Island?
It has to be one of the only truly “local” places still left in NYC, one of the only places you can experience living in NYC with a small town, everyone-knows-each-other vibe to it.
By – Natalia Linares for Cluster Magazine
This feature appears in issue 5, the Islands Issue. Download here.