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Staten Island Law Enforcement Won’t Stop Fighting the War on Drugs

After using heroin for a year and a half and trying unsuccessfully to quit on her own, Jenna was confident she was on the right path. She had checked herself into a methadone clinic on Staten Island’s Seguine Avenue, deciding it was time to try in earnest to get clean.

“I had a really normal and good life prior to trying heroin,” the 29-year-old Staten Island native, who asked to be identified only by a pseudonym as her case is still pending, tells the Voice. While she’d been able to maintain her job at a construction company as her addiction worsened, she eventually became unable to take care of her son, and sent him to live with her mother. The clinic offered a chance to turn things around.

But on her third morning at the clinic, less than five minutes after she drove out of the brick hospital complex’s parking lot, she was pulled over by an unmarked police minivan. As is often the case for people struggling with addiction, Jenna was still using heroin during the early days of methadone treatment to stave off sickness from withdrawal, and had several glassine bags of the drug on her.

Jenna was cuffed and taken to the precinct where her arresting officer, Mathew Reich, told her about a drug diversion program called HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention & Education) that could wipe the potential misdemeanor possession charge from her record. But, he later informed her, an old felony theft charge on her record that had been dismissed actually made her ineligible for the program.

HOPE was the brainchild of Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon, who launched the program in February 2017 to redirect people with “little to no criminal record” who were arrested on low-level drug charges away from jail and prosecution and into community-based health and treatment services, instead of jail and prosecution. McMahon said at the time that he hoped the program would “shift the Staten Island paradigm — no longer will we be Heroin Island, but rather HOPE Island.”

But while HOPE has since expanded to Brooklyn and is set to expand this year to Manhattan and the Bronx, public defenders say the overall number of people on Staten Island being admitted to treatment diversion programs — for both felony and misdemeanor drug offenses — has actually gone down on McMahon’s watch.

Christopher Pisciotta, attorney-in-charge of Staten Island Legal Aid’s criminal practice, calls HOPE “a great program,” but notes that for every person offered a place in the program since its inception, two more have been denied. Since HOPE’s inception, 468 people have been offered admission, according to Ryan Lavis, a spokesperson for McMahon’s office, and 361 of those people have completed the program and had their cases withdrawn. Lavis says 5 percent of people directed to HOPE by the arresting officers are then turned away.

But these numbers don’t account for first-time low-level drug offenders like Jenna, who are never directed to the program by the police in the first place. And other programs, such as Staten Island Treatment Court (SITC) and Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC), have seen their numbers decline; in 2014, 434 people were referred to SITC by the D.A.’s office, a number that fell to 201 in 2016, one year into McMahon’s term. (The director of TASC, which is partially funded through the D.A.’s office, declined to comment on admissions to the program.)

“We are in the midst of an opioid abuse health crisis,” says Pisciotta. “Yet we see fewer and fewer offers for people to receive drug treatment through our Staten Island Treatment Court.”  

***

In 2016, the number of overdose deaths on Staten Island rose by 66 percent, leaving the borough with the highest overdose rate in New York City. The crisis of opioid use — which includes synthetic painkillers such as oxycodone and fentanyl as well as heroin — cuts across demographics, affecting young and old, black and white, poor and middle-class Staten Islanders.

Fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid painkiller that is significantly stronger than morphine, has exacerbated Staten Island’s overdose death rate, especially as dealers mix it with heroin to increase its potency, making it easier to overdose. In 2017, 40 percent of overdose cases on the island involved fentanyl, according to a spokesperson for McMahon’s office.

A self-described “Democrat-Independent” and a former city councilperson and congressional representative for Staten Island’s north shore, McMahon was elected as the opioid crisis on the island kicked into full gear. During his successful 2015 campaign for D.A., McMahon trumpeted plans to tackle Staten Island’s opioid crisis, both by locking up drug dealers and by expanding treatment options for opioid users.

“We have the worst drug problem in the state of New York,” McMahon told NY 1 News just after his win. “We’ve got to work together with the law enforcement, to get to drug dealers, but also we’ve got to find the treatment and prevention that we need. That was the message of my campaign.”

Since McMahon won office that November, though, tough-on-crime tactics — such as leveling homicide charges against people who sell opioids to users who later overdose — remain center stage at the district attorney’s office.

In addition to launching a public awareness campaign last summer, which includes yard signs that read “Staten Islanders Against Drug Abuse,” a school education program reminiscent of DARE, and a website with resources for those or their loved ones struggling with addiction, McMahon has centered his approach on his Overdose Response Initiative. Launched in February 2016, the initiative entails police calling prosecutors to the scene of any death suspected to be an overdose, which is immediately treated as a crime scene. The goal? “Hunting down drug dealers, aggressively prosecuting them, and sending them to prison,” said McMahon when introducing the program.

Targeting those who supply drugs is an understandable goal for any D.A., but with opioid use, the line between addicted user and seller is often blurry. Those grappling with addiction who may benefit from treatment programs are often the same people being prosecuted for sharing or selling drugs with people who overdose — not just the “kingpins.” Yet someone who unintentionally shares a lethal dose with another user can be charged with homicide, even if they’re battling addiction themselves.

Further, there is little evidence that pursuing harsh sentences — particularly when it comes to drugs — actually deters their use. A recent investigation by the New York Times illustrated the often devastating and counterproductive consequences of approaching overdoses as homicides using drug-induced homicide laws.

“We have seen how families and partners trying to come to grips with the immediate death of a loved one then become the target of law enforcement,” says Pisciotta. “We can save more lives by addressing this crisis for what it is: a public health crisis and not a war on drugs.”

It’s concerns like these that led Mayor Bill de Blasio to endorse a plan to open four pilot safe injection sites around the city — places where opioid users will be able to inject and use drugs under the supervision of trained staff in clean, safe facilities, both to stem the rise in overdose death rates and to prevent the spread of communicable diseases through needle sharing. In late May at an American College of Emergency Physicians Forum in D.C., U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, a Trump nominee, voiced his support for harm reduction methods including safe injection sites.

But though Staten Island is neck and neck with the Bronx as the borough with the highest rate of overdose deaths, only the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan would receive safe injection sites. That’s largely because McMahon is opposed to their introduction, stating that instituting safer-injection sites “undermines prevention and treatment efforts, and only serves to normalize” opioid use.

When asked whether McMahon might change his stance if pilot sites in other boroughs proved to save lives, the spokesperson repeated that “the D.A. has said he opposes supervised injection sites,” and referred to a statement issued following de Blasio’s announcement, in which McMahon says the creation of the sites “poses a serious risk to public safety and creates difficult challenges for law enforcement to overcome.”

***

When Detective Mathew Reich pulled over Jenna and her boyfriend, he initially told them it was for stopping too abruptly at a traffic light. (This is not recorded on the formal charging documents Reich filed — he didn’t include any reason for the stop, which is not typical police protocol.) “As soon as he pulled us over, he was cursing, yelling, telling me I was a stupid driver,” says Jenna.

Reich then mentioned that he had seen the couple exiting the methadone clinic and followed them. Jenna says that after her arrest, she and her boyfriend, who is also receiving methadone treatment, were placed in the back of a van with tinted windows. Shortly after that, they were joined by two other handcuffed people who had been at the methadone clinic as well.

When Jenna returned to the clinic for her next dose following the arrest, she says, her counselor wasn’t surprised at her story, telling her that his clients were often arrested outside the clinic.

Staking out methadone clinics for arrests is common nationwide: In a methadone Reddit thread, clinic patients around the country report routinely seeing police sitting in the parking lots of treatment centers. In some instances, undercover officers pose as dope-sick addicts, wait outside clinics, and beg patients to sell portions of their methadone to ease their alleged illness. If patients sell the drug, they are arrested.

“This [tactic] is horrific,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, an addiction medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who is co-chair of the hospital’s Opioid Task Force. “We should be encouraging people to access treatment, not frightening them away with the threat of arrest.”

Neither McMahon’s spokesperson nor the NYPD responded to requests for comment on this stakeout method, and a FOIL request filed by the Voice for further information about arrests made by Reich outside the clinic was denied. But the pursuit and prosecution of such cases suggests at least a tacit endorsement by the Staten Island D.A.

***

After being told she was ineligible for the HOPE program, Jenna was offered a different deal by the D.A.’s office: Plead guilty to misdemeanor possession, and participate in TASC, a twelve- to eighteen-month program that pre-dates McMahon. If Jenna successfully completed the program, her misdemeanor would be vacated and replaced with a guilty plea to disorderly conduct, which is not technically classified as a crime and would be sealed after a year. But if she slipped up once during the TASC program with a dirty urine sample or other transgression, she could face up to a year in jail.

The district attorney’s office is eager to share success stories from HOPE, which is soon to be replicated in the Bronx and Brooklyn. “We have seen tremendous success with our HOPE program, which has served as a guide for other D.A.’s offices across the city,” says McMahon in a statement to the Voice. “To date, HOPE has connected more than 400 people on Staten Island with treatment services…. These are people who may otherwise be one more use of the toxic drugs out there away from deadly overdose.”

But the program remains out of reach for many prospective participants who, like Jenna, are instead pressured to immediately plead guilty with a distant possibility of having their record wiped clean.

At the same time, Staten Island Treatment Court, the county’s drug diversion court, has seen a marked decrease in admitted participants over the past two years, according to Pisciotta. And a special court for narcotics cases called Part N, which McMahon launched in October 2016 ostensibly in part to allow judges to better assess who needed to be diverted into drug treatment, was shuttered fifteen months after it opened, in which time not a single defendant was diverted. It has since reopened, and Pisciotta says he’s hopeful that it will have better treatment outcomes this time.

Jenna, too, is hopeful about her own future, thanks to the methadone clinic that ultimately led to her arrest. Her cravings for heroin were gone, she said three weeks into her treatment, and she was working to keep her methadone dose low, so it would be easier to ease off it when the time comes.

“The methadone really helps; I don’t feel sick anymore,” she says. The clinic “is a pretty good support system.”

Still, she says she watches her back during her daily visits to the clinic. She’s nervous now, and tries to avoid leaving through the main entrance or exit.

“I’m at fault; I did have drugs on me,” she says. “I get that there has to be accountability. But people are going there for help.”

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Tompkinsville and Stapleton: Diverse Staten Island Destinations

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.

One of Wazobia’s chefs and hosts stand for a portrait during some downtime at Wazobia,
New York City; A plate of ox tail, creamed spinach, and rice; a traditional platter and recommended by starting dish for first timers by the chef’s of Wazobia, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City.

Wazobia

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

Lakruwana

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

View from under a modern style sculpture of the five story buildings that make up the Staten Island Urby, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City. The areas open lawns, tidy sidewalks, and clear waterfront offer a contrast to the typical industrial view of Stapleton east of Bay Street.

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

Iconic sounds from the basketball game being played echo off the wooden walls of the establishment and chatter fills the air in The Hop Shoppe, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City.

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

Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City.
Used skateboard decks cover portions of the ceiling at 5050 Skate Park, and add to the parks gritty ambiance
View of the various types of quarter pipes, ramps, and spines that make up the course of 5050 Skate Park. Today’s milder weather has resulted in a lower than average attendance at the park, with many patrons taking advantage of the warm day and skating outdoors.
A child relaxes on the metal coping of a quarter pipe ramp after a long run through the 5050 Skate Park

5050 Skatepark

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

Patrons of Every Thing Goes Book Cafe wait for their orders, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, New York City. The unique cafe attracts a variety of people from the diverse neighborhood to its cozy establishment.

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

Dosa Garden

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.

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So Why Is Staten Island a Part of New York, Anyway?

There’s an exciting, quirky story from the earliest days of colonial New York that goes like this: In the 1670s, New York and New Jersey were arguing over control of Staten Island, which lay in the waters separating the two colonies. The Duke of York offered to settle the argument with an unusual proposition: Any “small island” in the Hudson River or New York Harbor would be considered part of New York — and “small” meant that a boat could circumnavigate it in less than a day. This would seem to grant the sizable land mass of Staten Island to New Jersey — except that the crafty duke hired British sea captain Christopher Billopp, who used his nautical skills to race around the island in 23 hours. And that’s why Staten Island — nestled on three sides along the New Jersey mainland, and seemingly a “natural” part of the Garden State — is today part of New York.

The only problem with this story is that the events it describes almost certainly never happened. There’s no record of anyone telling it until 1873, more than 200 years after the boat race supposedly took place. What’s more, the story describes the boat race as settling the dispute — and yet in reality, New Jersey was still fighting for the right to control Staten Island all the way into the 1830s.

The real story of how Staten Island came to be part of New York — a perennial question for a borough that often seems like it wants to go its own way, and another four boroughs that might be inclined to let it — is more complicated. It involves an exiled prince, 100,000 beads of wampum, and a nineteenth-century out-of–Supreme Court settlement that gave rise to a twist ending in 1998.

***

The story begins with the Dutch, during a halcyon period before trans-Hudson rivalries. Most of us know that the Dutch were the first Europeans to colonize Manhattan, but on paper (parchment?) the Dutch claimed a huge swath of territory, stretching from the Connecticut River to the Delaware, and thus including all of present-day New Jersey. Most of the Native Americans living there were likely unaware that the Dutch had claimed their land; what European settlement existed was for the most part clustered along the Hudson River and New York Bay. The whole region, including small settlements on Staten Island (named in honor of the Staten-Generaal, the Dutch parliament) and in present-day Jersey City, was run as a single unit from New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan.

But in 1664, an English fleet sailed into New York Harbor and seized the colony without a fight. King Charles II granted it to his brother James, the Duke of York, who renamed it after himself.  But the duke, who never visited his new realm, almost immediately turned around and granted much of it to two friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton. Only a few years previously, England had returned to a monarchial government after a decade under the control of Oliver Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth; during the interregnum, Carteret had sheltered the royal brothers on Jersey, off the coast of France, and they owed both him and Berkeley a debt of gratitude, as well as a debt of actual money. To repay him, James assigned them the land between the Hudson and Delaware as a separate colony, which was named after Carteret’s home. This is how the two sides of the Hudson came under separate jurisdictions.

The charter granted to Carteret and Berkeley described the new colony’s shape in a manner typical for the period: vaguely and full of errors arising from wild misunderstandings of actual geography. Disputes arose in every direction, but the section that’s relevant for our purposes describes the border in the area around New York City:

James Duke of York…doth grant…all that tract of land adjacent to New England, and lying and being to the westward of Long Island, and Manhitas Island and bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson’s river…

If you look at a map of New York Harbor, though, you can see why this description is inadequate. Upper and Lower New York Bay aren’t really part of the “main sea” (the Atlantic), but they aren’t part of the Hudson either. And while Staten Island would clearly be to the west of a line extended straight down from the mouth of the Hudson, you can also see why, if you’re looking at the map through the eyes of a seventeenth-century colonist, it makes sense to group it in with the rest of the New York archipelago. In the days before extensive road and bridge networks, when boats were the main form of transportation, bodies of water united the land masses around them rather than dividing them. That’s why Maryland and Virginia, settled around the same time, have land on both sides of Chesapeake Bay. Staten Island formed one half of the natural entryway into New York Harbor and the Hudson.

And so the leaders of New York did the natural thing: They bought it.

In 1670, five years before the boat race that never happened, Francis Lovelace, the governor of New York Colony, negotiated a treaty with the members of the native Munsee people who had been uneasily sharing Staten Island with a few Europeans since the days of the Dutch. Much has been written about the mutual misunderstanding and coercion that often marked these sorts of transactions, but it seems that the Munsees got a better deal than some, leaving with 400 fathoms of wampum along with guns, lead, powder, hoes, and knives.

In 1683, New York organized its first county governments, and Richmond, covering Staten Island, was one of them. New Jersey organized its first counties in the same year, and Staten Island was conspicuously not included. County governments were ways for colonies to stake out claims on disputed territory; one of the other original New York counties was Dukes, which included Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, now in Massachusetts. So this seemed to settle the Staten Island question, right?

Not so fast. It would take another 150 years, but New Jersey would finally have its day in court.

***

By the early nineteenth century, New York and New Jersey had settled the Line War — the dispute over their land border near the Poconos — but their maritime boundary in the New York City area was still hotly contested. The colonial charters were considered the ultimate authority, and New York took the maximalist interpretation of “bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson’s river”: It claimed that the eastern edge of New Jersey was, at the high-tide point, where the water met the shore. By this logic, even the docks or wharves New Jersey built on its own shore were New York’s — and New York routinely sent tax collectors and other government officials to enforce its supposed rights.

New Jersey, to fight back, now made a sweeping claim of its own: It said that the line ought to run down the middle of the Hudson and then follow the channel out to sea, which would give it control not only of its own shore but of Staten Island as well, which by 1830 had 7,000 inhabitants and had never been controlled by the New Jersey government.

In 1832, New Jersey finally took New York to court over the dispute — specifically, to the Supreme Court. But it wasn’t clear that the court had the jurisdiction to hear the case; New York definitely didn’t think so, and at first refused even to send lawyers to argue its side. The case also arose during a delicate moment in U.S. politics. South Carolina was threatening to refuse to enforce a newly passed federal tariff, and the Jackson administration didn’t want another headache involving states’ rights. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had just ruled against Georgia in its dispute with the Cherokee Nation, and Georgia was similarly refusing to go along with the decision. Chief Justice Marshall may have worried that if New York ignored a ruling against it as well, the court’s prestige would be irreparably harmed, so he postponed the case until the next year. 

That gave Martin Van Buren, newly elected U.S. vice president and one of New York’s biggest power brokers, time to swoop in and arrange a compromise. New Jersey would get the line it wanted down the middle of the Hudson, and the right to build and control piers and docks on its shore. But the line would jog around Staten Island, leaving Richmond County as part of New York State and, once consolidation went through in 1898, New York City.

One wonders how serious New Jersey was about its claim in the first place; perhaps it was just a chip it could bargain away to get the shore rights that were its overriding goal. But whatever the case, that’s how Staten Island definitively became part of New York: no boat race involved, just a treaty with Native Americans and a little vice-presidential arm-twisting.

There’s one odd footnote: Van Buren’s line down the Hudson left two uninhabited islets that had long been administered by New York — Ellis Island and Bedloe’s Island — on the New Jersey side of the maritime border. New Jersey was, again, mostly concerned about its commercial docks, so it agreed to let those islands remain New York land surrounded by New Jersey water. Bedloe’s Island became the base of a giant statue gifted to us by France and was renamed Liberty Island; Ellis Island, meanwhile, became the port of entry for millions of immigrants, and in order to accommodate them all, was expanded tenfold by landfill. New Jersey sued, claiming that the newly constructed parts of the island belonged to it, and in 1998 the Supreme Court agreed — which is what makes figuring out sales taxes on Ellis Island unduly complicated to this day.

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Damp but Not Defeated: A Marathon Scrapbook

The weather for yesterday’s New York City Marathon was soggier than it’s been in recent years, but that didn’t stop the city from turning out in force to cheer on more than 50,000 runners on their exhausting five-borough tour. Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the race since 1977, and Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya won the men’s division.

We checked in on the race in Bay Ridge, Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, Harlem, and the Upper East Side. At each location, all of the day’s usual block-party elements were in place — goofy signs and shouting day drinkers; little kids begging for high fives; neighbors handing out bananas, Halloween candy, salty pretzels, and sheets of paper towels — while dozens of bands and DJs all along the route kept things lively. The NYPD was out in force but kept things low-key, allowing people to have fun with the event.

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Your Guide to St. George: Staten Island’s Best, Just Off the Ferry

St. George, the most accessible entryway to Staten Island — and the most culturally diverse and progressive — has developed at a snail’s pace over the past decade, and Staten Islanders tend to like it that way. Though cranes now hover above a mass of construction as developers seek to transform the neighborhood, housing is still affordable (roughly half of what you would spend in Manhattan per square foot).

Much like the Southie neighborhood of Boston, Staten Island is resilient, tough, working-class, predominantly Roman Catholic, and not changing as fast as its city cousins for certain economic, political, and geographic reasons. St. George, meanwhile, is a diverse hodgepodge of people — immigrants from Latin America, Trinidad, and Sri Lanka, along with many Brooklyn and Manhattan émigrés who found themselves priced out of their “cooler” New York neighborhoods. But beyond the cranes and developers’ dreams are the places we like to think of as some of New York’s best establishments.

 

The National Lighthouse Museum

At first glance, this unassuming brick building just a stone’s throw from the St. George ferry building seems an unlikely home for a lighthouse museum: Where’s the lighthouse? Pay the very reasonable admission fee of $5 (only $3 for students!) and a well-informed curator will tell you the history of this cluster of buildings — constructed in 1862 to fabricate lighthouse lenses, anchors, buoys, and other maritime equipment — as well as answer any relevant questions you might have, such as “How can I become a lighthouse keeper?” (The short answer: Apply, and show that you can climb steep flights of stairs.) As you peruse shelves of antique foghorns and lamps, you just may find a deepened appreciation for these forgotten architectural treasures, or at least for the noble work of the museum guide. 200 The Promenade at Lighthouse Point

Enoteca Maria owner Joe Scaravella honors nonnas.
Enoteca Maria owner Joe Scaravella honors nonnas.

Enoteca Maria

When you miss your grandma’s cooking, no other food will do — but Enoteca Maria comes close, with its roster of genuine grandmother cooks. Owner Joe Scaravella started the restaurant in tribute to his own mother, Maria, inviting a rotating cast of nonnas into the kitchen night after night to prepare the lovingly crafted Italian dishes they served to their own families. Last year, international nonnas from Poland, Turkey, Ecuador, Syria, and more were added to the mix, bringing their own recipes for couscous, ceviche, jamba fish, and string hoppers to spice up a menu heavy with Italian standards. Scaravella enjoys the diverse community he’s created: When it was only Italian grandmas, he says, they’d compete with each other — but with so many new dishes and flavors, they just want to sample one another’s cuisine. 27 Hyatt Street

Rispoli Pastry Shop

When Staten Island locals conducting business at the courthouse or town hall find themselves in need of a break, Rispoli Pastry Shop provides a cheap cup of hot, fresh-brewed coffee with a perfectly chewy pinole cookie on the side (or a luscious, many-tiered slice of carrot cake if you need to make up for a particularly bad day). These pastries inspire customers to speak in the language of addiction: A man in a business suit approaches the counter declaring he needs a fix, then orders a dozen sfogliatelle and a cream-filled lobster tail. The line moves with wonderful efficiency, unless someone is trying to chat up Elvira, Rispoli’s charming shopkeeper. In the summer, try their homemade Italian ices. 29 Hyatt Street

Staten Island Makerspace

On the border between St. George and Stapleton lies the Staten Island Makerspace, a 6,000-square-foot warehouse where you can learn how to make stained-glass windows, work with wood, weld steel, develop interactive virtual-reality experiences, or construct your own composting toilet. This cavernous industrial space is dotted with evidence of diverse creatorly energies: Handmade chandeliers of gnarled metal abut piles of reclaimed wood and earnest floral quilts. Where else can you sign up for a class called “Women, Welding, and Wine,” where students practice MIG welding and winetasting over the course of four weeks, culminating in the construction of their very own steel wine rack? 450 Front Street

Island Roti

Beneath the sign that advertises “Trinidad-style Chinese Food” lies the best roti you’ll find on the island: a chewy, toothsome flour wrap bundling tender, spicy oxtail, goat, or potato, a flavor paradise that achieves perfection with a few drops of scotch bonnet hot sauce. For those not used to the tricky work of separating bone from meat within a roti roll, the man or woman behind the counter will direct you to a boneless chicken or shrimp roti whose flavor measures up well to the gristlier meats. In this spare, unfussy setting, friendly cooks fry delectable, delicately spiced dough balls and hearty chickpea-filled doubles while you wait. If at all possible, save room for a coconut roll as dessert, best eaten as you stroll down Victory Boulevard in the serene contentment of a meat trance. 65 Victory Boulevard

Flagship Brewing Co.

The reconstruction of Staten Island’s north shore is slowly but surely coming — America’s largest Ferris wheel, an outlet mall, a waterfront village and hotel — with over a billion dollars invested along the coast of St. George, Tompkinsville, and Stapleton. At the vanguard of this reinvention is Flagship Brewing Co., founded in 2013. Its large taproom is set up like a proper indoor biergarten, with a glass partition that overlooks the whole operation. Many seasonal beers are in rotation in addition to glorious standards like Flagship’s American Pale Ale (APA), American Wit, Dark Mild, Metropolitan Lager, and IPA. Flights are recommended for first-timers, and the taproom operates on a coin system: $5 per coin, which gets you one pint of anything on offer. Pizza from Pier 76 can be ordered directly to the taproom via a touchpad on site, and tours, which include a brewery tasting, are offered on Saturdays at 2:30 and 4. 40 Minthorne Street

120 Bay Café

Formerly known as “The Cargo” (which is what the locals still call it), this bar and bistro located two blocks from the ferry is the gold standard for watering holes in St. George. Despite its new moniker, 120 Bay Café still displays the eclectic local artwork it’s always been known for, including massive murals that cover the entire front and side of the building. The current iteration is gray, with half a man’s face spliced around the building four or five times. But the draw isn’t (just) the artwork, it’s the local beer on tap (Flagship), the comfort food (fried-chicken sandwiches, pierogis, Jamaican jerk pork), and the welcoming local clientele. 120 Bay Street

Staten Island Yankees/Richmond County Bank Ballpark

Minor-league baseball doesn’t get any prettier than this. Located directly on the Staten Island waterfront, steps from the ferry terminal, is the holy home of the Staten Island Yankees (since 2001). Looking out from the stands across the well-manicured field and over the outfield wall, you’ll find an unbeatable view of Lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the boats in New York Harbor. The stadium isn’t massive, but neither are the nightly summer crowds that come out to see the players in pinstripes whack balls toward the New York skyline. 75 Richmond Terrace

Against Da Grain

Located in the former home of the Wu-Tang/Wu-Wear store and continuing the same color scheme (lots of yellow on black) is St. George’s best barbershop, Against Da Grain. The cuts are fresh, the fades are tight, and you’ll come out looking dope a.f. Owner Sean White has cultivated a cool and harmonious atmosphere in his shop, which draws patrons from all five boroughs. Don’t be surprised if you spot Method Man in the chair — White trims a lot of celebrities who’ve walked through these doors. Still, the place remains unintimidating to newcomers. As its website states, ADG promotes “Peace, love & hair grease.” 61 Victory Boulevard

St. George Theatre

Walk up the hill on Hyatt Street from the Staten Island Ferry and at the top you’ll come to the historic St. George Theatre. If Staten Island feels like a small town, this is its small-town stage. Opened as a movie house for film and vaudeville acts in 1929, it has recently had its marquee and its baroque interior (red carpets, chandeliers, wall murals, sprawling staircase) restored to their former glory. Along with films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease (with sing-along!), the St. George Theatre is now primarily home to music and comedy acts. 35 Hyatt Street

 

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Neighborhood Stories: Staten Island’s Wheel World

Riding the Staten Island Ferry is likely the best (and certainly the cheapest) way to get a feel for the expanse of New York Harbor, with outstanding views of the Statue of Liberty, the shores of Brooklyn, and, of course, downtown Manhattan. The longstanding challenge — for Staten Island boosters, at least — has been how to convince tourists and New Yorkers alike to stick around once they arrive on Staten Island, instead of just taking the ferry right back where they came from. The answer one borough advocate (who also happens to be a real estate developer) has come up with? The world’s biggest Ferris wheel, of course. Or, to put it more in line with its marketing, the world’s largest “observation wheel.”

Inspired by the success of the London Eye, which since opening in 2000 has provided tourists with a panoramic view of the British capital, developer Rich Marin got the city’s approval for the New York Wheel back in 2013, initially slating the project for completion by 2015. For a blissful 38 minutes, riders would float above the ground, getting a new vantage on New York City (and paying a pretty penny to do so: $25 by day, $45 at night). Like many New York development projects, however, the Wheel immediately became mired in behind-the-scenes infighting, with the price spiraling to more than double its original $300 million budget, leaving developers scrambling for more money and investors. The Wheel finally broke ground last year; four 100-ton pedestals were recently installed to support the structure, which is now slated to open in April 2018. Finally, tourists will have what they always wanted out of their visits to Staten Island: more impressive views of Manhattan.

Don’t miss the rest of the Village Voice’s guide to New York neighborhoods — by New Yorkers.

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Larry Liedy: Your Neighborhood Ambassador to New Brighton

(As told to Max Rivlin-Nadler)

Larry Liedy, owner of Liedy’s Shore Inn

Jody Hagerty’s place, an Irish pub called Jody’s Club Forest (372 Forest Avenue). A really outstanding place. Entrées are like $14 to $16. Jody just passed away. I used to tend bar there. It’s the elite Irish pub on Staten Island. We used to have many Irish here, a lot of pubs, but now they’re all gone. They all died out, and no more are coming. All the drinking and the smoking, I can tell you, it didn’t help in terms of health. But the smoking ban didn’t help either. A lot of guys, truckers, would come into the neighborhood bars and have a beer and a cigarette. Now that you gotta smoke outside, the truckers just have a cigarette. They skip the beer. That’s where you lose the money.

Best steakhouse on Staten Island, hands down, is Ruddy and Dean (44 Richmond Terrace). The reason why it’s called Ruddy and Dean is it’s the owner’s grandmothers’ maiden names. Grade A steakhouse, as good as any in Manhattan. People come over from Manhattan for the bargain, because the prices are that great. The wheel is going to be right over in front of their place, so they’ll do good business. Question is whether people will keep walking past that and check out other parts of Staten Island.

One of the things that people really should know about is the Snug Harbor Cultural Center (1000 Richmond Terrace). It used to be where all the retired sailors would end up, built by Robert Randall, a very wealthy guy during Revolutionary times. He gave his estate to the sailors, because these guys lived on the water for the first forty years of their life, but then they had nowhere to go once they got off their boats. They’d come from Snug Harbor over to our bar, just down the street, or I’d deliver whiskey right to their rooms. These guys would be drinking morning, afternoon, and night. Beers were five cents. But now it’s this beautiful place, they got shows, a garden, just incredibly peaceful. Very different than what it was, I’ll tell you that much.

The first brewery on Staten Island in 75 years, called the Flagship Brewery (40 Minthorne Street). These breweries are the new thing now. It’s in an old car dealership, used to sell Buicks there. Now they make beer. Right off the train tracks. They got a goldmine there. Lot of young people, very different scene. Great beer. You gotta see this. They get a lot of grants from the government, which is great, but I can’t get shit. These neighborhood bars, it’s a lot of stress. Every day in my life I wonder how long I’m going to keep doing this. Oldest bar in Staten Island. Closing it is a decision I hope I never have to make, but I got to be a realist.

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Staten Island’s Wild, Beautiful Snow Ponies Have Been Captured

Milk? Check. Bread? Check. Wine? Slanket? Fourteen hours of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts? Check, check, and triple check. Ponies? … Ponies?

Every New Yorker’s icy nightmare and every urban pony’s winter fantasy were simultaneously realized this morning on Staten Island, when two ponies escaped their living quarters and ran like the exquisite, snow-dusted creatures of God they most certainly are.

Ponies don’t take the subway, so they cared not about service changes or frozen MetroNorth kiosks (their hooves aren’t useful on touch screens anyway). Ponies don’t go to school either, so their freedom isn’t judged against some science project or pop quiz — it is woven into every fiber of their sleet-kissed manes.

NYPD spokesman Sergeant Lee Jones tells us that a few minutes before 10 a.m. police responded to a 911 call of “two small horses running loose at Richmond Avenue and Hylan Boulevard.”

By the time a patrol car responded, an off-duty officer on his way to work had used a tow strap to hitch the ponies to a lamppost. The ponies were uninjured and were returned to their owner, who lived nearby.

*** UPDATE : Ponies have been captured !!***

10:23 on Richmond and Hylan
PONIES SPOTTED ON HYLAN & PRESTON, STATEN ISLAND!!! ***

Posted by Lost-and-Found Pets Staten Island on Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ponies are legal to keep as pets in New York City, but we asked Sergeant Jones if the owners had received a citation for allowing them to escape.

“It wasn’t intentional, their door came open because of the wind,” he responded.

Ponies in the wind, indeed.

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

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Staten Island’s Republican Congressman Suddenly Not So Eager to Repeal Obamacare

Pity the poor congressional Republicans. They just don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into.

For eight years, they clung to the safety blanket of Barack Obama. As voters in their districts railed against the communist Muslim in the White House, Republicans could promise to do their bidding, voting repeatedly to scrap the Affordable Care Act, the flawed but very real achievement of Obama’s presidency.

House Republicans would vote to repeal Obamacare more than sixty times, building party discipline and shoring up support at home while wasting everyone else’s time. They always knew Obama would come to their rescue with a veto.

After getting elected to an open congressional seat on Staten Island, Dan Donovan got in on the act. The Republican gleefully voted in January 2016 to repeal the ACA. “Obamacare just isn’t working,” Donovan said at the time. “Middle class families in Staten Island and South Brooklyn are already burdened with some of the highest costs of living in the country.”

Donovan, ever the good Republican soldier, knew his vote was for show. Obama was waiting with his veto pen.

A year later, Donald Trump is president and Donovan, like the rest of his colleagues, has learned that the Obamacare Kabuki theater of the last eight years is over. “I will not vote for anything that pulls the rug out from beneath people’s feet,” he recently told the Staten Island Advance, affirming that he would no longer take votes like the one he took last January.

Donovan, who represents a Staten Island district that also includes a sliver of southern Brooklyn, has never been known for his courage. He failed to secure an indictment in the Eric Garner chokehold case when he served as Staten Island’s district attorney. He’s yet to hold a town hall in his district since Trump became president, enraging residents who would love to see Staten Island’s pathetic Democratic machine field a competitive candidate against him in 2018.

Donovan surely realizes by now how ludicrous his vote to repeal Obamacare really was. The law is imperfect — deductibles are too high, subsidies are too low and insurers are fleeing the marketplace in certain states — but fixable. Nihilistic Republicans, schooled to playact as rebels and do little else, have no interest in policy.

John Boehner, the former House speaker, laughed off the idea of repealing and replacing Obamacare simultaneously, mocking his old colleagues for failing to produce a substantive alternative.

“In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever, one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like,” Boehner said at a recent panel discussion. “Not once.”

Donovan’s healthcare solutions are Pollyannaish at best, disingenuous at worst. He wants to retain Obamacare’s most popular provisions: letting people stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26 and requiring insurers to cover preexisting conditions. He also wants to scrap the individual mandate while somehow making healthcare cheaper. This is impossible.

Forcing people to buy health insurance helps control costs. If or when the mandate disappears, and the government still lets the sickest people access plans while allowing some of the healthiest (those under 26) avoid the marketplace altogether, costs will be stratospheric.

And if the federal government rescinds the funds it doled out to states for Medicaid expansions, budget holes in New York and elsewhere will be blown open. Absolutely nothing will be cheaper.

If Donovan believes the mandate is onerous, why not back a public option to compete with private insurers? It doesn’t amount to that dreaded “government control” of healthcare because it’s an option, not a requirement. In most industrialized nations, public healthcare is readily available but not forced on everyone. People who want private plans can still get them.

Other possibilities Republicans like Donovan would never consider include increasing federal subsidies or raising the income threshold for individuals to qualify for Medicaid. The government could also simply force healthy twenty-one-year-olds to buy health insurance.

In a statement to the Voice, Congressman Donovan’s communications director, Patrick Ryan, categorized the previous Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare as “largely symbolic.”

“Thankfully, a new President occupies the Oval Office, and Congress has a real opportunity to reform a system that forces many families to purchase health coverage they can’t even afford to use. The overarching goal is to help those who Obamacare has harmed while not harming those who the law has helped,” Ryan said. “Congressman Donovan’s responsible commitment to not vote to pull the rug out from people deserves praise, not twisted logic to find fault at every turn.”

Just about every American paying even vague attention to this oncoming train wreck knows that no serious plan has been put forth to replace Obamacare. Donovan surely isn’t cooking one up. As uncertainty reigns, skittish insurance companies will struggle to adjust to this reality and hike their premiums more, justifying misplaced Republican outrage. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that might just please Trump.

Yet Donovan and Trump will ultimately have to own the inevitable failure of a true repeal, if it ever goes forward. Trump will face a polarized nation in 2020, hoping his neat trick of sweeping Midwestern states by miniscule margins somehow repeats itself.

And Donovan, representing a district that voted for Obama in 2012 before swinging to Trump in 2016, must pray Democrats and independents never get too disgruntled or too organized. Otherwise, he might have a real election on his hands.

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Far-Right Xenophobic Austrian Politician Says He Met With Staten Island Councilmember

A far-right Austrian political party with Nazi roots, which recently signed a “cooperation agreement” with Vladimir Putin, may have a friend on Staten Island. (Those are words we never thought we’d be typing.)

Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the virulently anti-immigrant Freedom Party, says he and other party officials met with Staten Island councilmember Joseph Borelli when they came to New York this past fall.

The news that Strache met recently with Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, created something of a stir when the Times reported it yesterday. But Vienna-based daily newspaper Die Presse noted way back in November that Strache also met several other U.S. politicians, including Borelli — who served as a co-chairman of Trump’s election campaign — on a visit to the U.S. between October 30 and November 6 of this year.

In addition to Borelli, the paper said those officials included Republican Congressmen Steve King of Iowa and Robert Pittenger, of North Carolina.

Strache himself mentioned the meeting with Borelli on his Facebook page in November.

Google Translate helped us with the highlighted portion in the screengrab below:

Here is a rough overview:

Meeting with the Austrian Consul General in New York

Participation in a rally (election campaign) on Long Island

Meeting with Councilman Joe Borelli in Manhattan

Meeting with Congressmen Pittenger and King

Asked about the encounter, Borelli admitted that he met with Freedom Party members, including Harald Vilimsky, for what he called an “informal meet and greet” at his office in Manhattan, but that he didn’t remember crossing paths with Strache.

“I can’t say that I met with him,” Borelli told the Voice, noting that Strache’s name didn’t appear on a list of the delegates he spoke with. “I don’t recognize him at all.” He later added that his building has no record of Strache ever being there.

The Freedom Party has been ascendant in Austria for the past few years, nearly capturing the presidency in recent elections on a platform focused on demonizing immigrants. Strache has called for the expulsion of immigrants who don’t assimilate fast enough for his liking, and his party, which emerged in the 1950s as a refuge for literal former Nazis, is seen as part of the overall far-right, nativist and neo-Nazi revival in Europe. Strache often focuses on the supposed ills of immigration.

“In some school classes just two out of the 30 children are Austrian, and they are confronted with racism every day,” Strache once told the Telegraph. “It is inverse racism. Austrian youths are beaten up in discos.”

As the Times reported yesterday, Strache recently announced that he had signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s ruling United Russia party, a signal that Russia may be interested in promoting the rise of the far-right worldwide.

Borelli was among the first and loudest Trump supporters on the local political scene, and helped him campaign in New York. (Trump lost the state by 23 points.) Borelli has tried to distance himself from some of Trump’s more bigoted policies — like a proposed ban on Muslim immigration — but he regularly appears as a talking head to promote the president elect.