Gallons of ink have been spilled in recent years about what has been variously termed Staten Island’s “boom,” its “renaissance,” or its “massive transformation.” “Look,” a chorus of Manhattanites says, “the uncultured, backcountry borough has become so civilized — it has craft beer and fancy apartments and Zagat-worthy restaurants.” Much of the yuppification has been concentrated in St. George, situated within walking distance of the ferry to Manhattan: Even now, a ritzy, futuristic mall-hotel is under construction right next to the slips, and the Voice’s Neighborhoods section last year highlighted a number of chic eateries and bars on the nearby blocks.
But the diverse neighborhoods of Tompkinsville and Stapleton, the first and second Staten Island Railroad stops down the island’s eastern shore, offer just as much diversity and just as many surprises, but at lower prices and with less pretension. Tompkinsville is home to one of the nation’s largest Sri Lankan populations, and a walk down Victory Boulevard presents one with myriad food options from that country as well as from Mexico and Jamaica. At the bottom of the hill is Tompkinsville Park, the site of Eric Garner’s murder and of a wound to the city that after almost four years has yet to heal.
Ten more minutes’ walk brings one to Stapleton, a community anchored by the historic Tappen Park and the former town hall for the since-dissolved village of Edgewater. The restaurants, delis, and bars that encircle this park offer everything that makes a city like New York great, but the surrounding residential blocks have the feel of a New England suburb: The hilly streets to the west of the park — Jackson, William, Van Duzer — are home to an incredible variety of nineteenth-century Victorian homes and churches. Walking these winding streets — some cobbled, some single-laned — on one’s way up from the waterfront, through Tompkinsville and into Silver Lake Park, gives one a distinct sense of just how vast New York is, and how many nooks and crannies it encompasses.
Billing itself as “the only African restaurant on Staten Island” (if this is off, it’s not by much), this casual restaurant bordering Stapleton’s central Tappen Park serves Nigerian classics including jollof rice, cooked goat’s head, and whole grilled tilapia with the bones still in, plus igbin, which is a kind of giant land snail that should be ordered only by the adventurous. This is probably the spiciest food in the borough, but those in your party with more sensitive tongues can find solace in the fact that the restaurant serves pretty good American food, too, including chicken fingers and fries. Lunchtime combos come with preposterous portions plus a can of soda and run about $7, which is a steal. 611 Bay Street, wazobiany.com
When you enter this restaurant, the extravagant decor may give you the sense of walking into a small museum. The walls and nooks of the medium-sized establishment are bursting with what are presumably Sri Lankan artifacts; diners sit in tall thin woven chairs, the food is served on wooden platters and in clay pots, and there’s even a little gift shop at the checkout counter. The venue’s heavy golden doors, which can be spotted from a block away, move so much air when they open that an adjacent set of wind chimes loudly announces each person’s entrance, leaving little space for subtle peeks: Once you walk in, you’d better plan on staying for a while. It’s easy to spend over an hour here when you opt for the affordable lunch or dinner buffet, which provides unlimited servings of dishes that sample the full landscape of Sri Lankan cuisine. The recommended dining method is to fill each plate with a bit of every offering to figure out what you like — with coconut-infused curries, shredded eggplant, cumin-spiced lentils, and sweet-sour chicken, there’s something for everyone. 668 Bay Street, lakruwana.com
New York Public Library Stapleton branch
In New York, public library commissions frequently provide an opportunity for architects to show off in ways they usually can’t, especially when it comes to mingling the old and the new. In this instance, architect Andrew Berman left intact the original one-room brick library, erected in 1907 with money from Andrew Carnegie, and in 2013 expanded uphill with a large glass enclosure beneath a roof that slopes with the incline of the street. Inside, books line gray walls beneath a wood-paneled ceiling, while a central inner classroom is devoted to educational purposes. One can take in all the functions of the library — learning, leisure reading, resting — from a single glance on the street, and at dusk the building positively glows. 132 Canal Street, nypl.org/about/locations/stapleton
Staten Island Urby
Looming at the water’s edge off the Stapleton railway station are two black buildings, five stories each, that together resemble a set of suburban office park towers or perhaps a regional NSA headquarters. In fact, they are the 900 rental units that make up Staten Island Urby, a $150 million development marketed at trendy city slickers hoping to unlock the “potential” of the neighborhood. A stroll around this city-within-a-city is worthwhile for purely anthropological reasons, especially when it’s warm out, since the development has an outdoor lounge area, a very large garden, and a crystal-blue pool. There’s also a coffee shop and a number of fast-casual-but-make-it-expensive restaurants, including the aptly named Gringo’s Tacos. 7 and 8 Navy Pier Court, urbystatenisland.com
The Hop Shoppe
Half the point of venturing beyond St. George is to see what Staten Island has to offer other than craft beer, but an exception can be made for this spacey Stapleton bar. There’s TV and Skee-Ball, if those are your thing, but the real attraction is the large rotating selection of serious, delicious craft beers at generous happy hour prices. On tap during a recent visit were a revelatory mango IPA from DESTIHL and a fearsomely potent oatmeal stout from Port Jeff. Right next door is a delicious bakery, Pastry Lover’s Choice, and two doors down from that is a beautiful Victorian home with fixtures painted a brilliant shade of teal. 372 Van Duzer Street, thehopshoppe.com
Skeptical readers may not expect Staten Island to feature the only anything in New York, other than perhaps the only precincts where a majority of the voting population supported Donald Trump. But Stapleton, it turns out, is home to the city’s only indoor skatepark. To be perfectly honest, I have never spent more than five consecutive seconds on a skateboard in my life, but everyone in attendance on a recent weekday seemed to be having a great time on the park’s bevy of ramps and rails, including those who were riding not skateboards but BMX bikes. You can pay by the hour or a flat fee for the day, and the park is just steps from the Staten Island Railroad, so car-less skaters can get a warmup doing laps on the ferry and hit, um, kickflips in the park less than fifteen minutes after stepping off the boat. 354 Front Street, 5050skatepark.com
Silver Lake Park
Staten Island’s answer to Central and Prospect parks — this isn’t a metaphor, it’s historical fact — is smaller than both but offers a far better picnicking landscape than either. Wide expanses of uninterrupted green provide ample space to unfold a blanket without stepping on someone else’s toes, and no matter where you sit, you’re afforded a stunning view of the lake itself, which was once a reservoir for water from the Catskills. There are a number of sports courts and a dog run, plus a walkway that runs all the way across the lake. Trails on the east side of the lake provide more than enough material for a post-meal stroll, but one does wish most of the green space on the west side weren’t currently occupied by a (quite good, I’m told) golf course. Enter from Victory Boulevard at Forest Avenue, nycgovparks.org/parks/silver-lake-park
Every Thing Goes Book Café
Every Thing Goes is owned and operated by the nearly 100 members of Ganas, a cooperative living nonprofit that’s existed in Tompkinsville since 1979, and the storefront manages to look and feel exactly like what one would expect from a combination café-bookstore run by a commune. Walking in, one instantly feels at home — that is, if home means navigating a warm, charming maze of clutter in the form of tables, bookshelves, and people, both very old and very young. Not only does the self-described “internet café” lay claim to the largest used-book collection on Staten Island, according to its own website, but patrons (of all ages) can even rent computers for $1 per ten minutes, or print documents for 25 cents per page. It’s really more library-with-coffee than artisanal java joint, which is precisely what makes it so comforting. (It also doubles as an art gallery and a venue for events like songwriter meetups and open mics.) Be sure to bring cash if you’re planning on buying anything — there’s a $10 minimum on cards, which equals about six coffees. 208 Bay Street, etgstores.com/bookcafe
The dosa is a crepe-like South Indian and Sri Lankan pancake made from rice and bean flour, and usually filled with potatoes or lentils. These pancakes are, as you might expect, the starring item at the most vegetable-centric of the island’s Sri Lankan restaurants. In addition to the standard flavors, there’s a mind-blowing chutney and cheese variety, and also a suite of flavors of utthappam, which is like a dosa but thicker. Dozens of masalas and curries round out the menu at what is probably the healthiest, cheapest, most essential stop on one’s journey through Little Sri Lanka. 323 Victory Boulevard, dosagardenny.com
The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.