Staten Island: 5 miles from Manhattan, but a world apart

''Sure, Staten Island is a part of New York City,'' says an office worker whose window looks across New York's Upper Bay to the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan. ''I'm not sure Staten Islanders would feel that way, though,'' she says, almost as an afterthought.

This resident of 23 years says she loves living on Staten Island, and also likes being close to ''the most exciting city in the world.'' But, as her comment implies, she doesn't quite consider herself a Staten Islander. In fact, people here are so sensitive to the issue that she asked that her name not be mentioned.

This sums up the dilemma of New York City's least likely component, the island that on a map looks like it should belong to New Jersey. In its few remaining exurbia villages, Staten Island feels like a sleepy county far from civilization.

But Staten Island is indeed a part of New York City - in fact, it is the fastest-growing borough. Many of its more recent residents come from other boroughs, particularly Brooklyn. And each weekday more than 40,000 workers get on ferries, cars, and buses to commute to Manhattan.

There's a twist to a Staten Islander's feeling toward the rest of the city, particularly the ''other'' island. In a diner in St. George recently, workers on a morning coffee break played Frank Sinatra's version of ''New York, New York'' on the tableside juke box. But ask most residents about ''the city,'' and they say it's a nice place to visit, but they are much happier here, thank you.

In fact, talk of secession from New York City has long been bantered about by Staten Island residents. Today that threat is taken more seriously because of a lawsuit challenging Staten Island's say on the city's Board of Estimate, which considers such business as budgetary and planning issues.

And the distinction between a native and a ''new resident'' is sharp. You were either born here, moved to Staten Island before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was built 20 years ago, or came ''after the bridge.'' The daily Staten Island Advance even distinguishes islanders from nonislanders in its obituaries; if someone moved here at age two months, that is noted.

All of New York City's five boroughs have distinct identities. But because Staten Island remained essentially rural and isolated for so long, its singularity takes on a different form. Residents are more concerned about the environment than crime. One does not find overwhelming unemployment or housing problems. There is an overall sense of community that Staten Islanders claim is stronger than in other boroughs.

There is a feeling that Staten Islanders are ''more in control of their destiny,'' says Terry Golway, a reporter for the Staten Island Advance, the only borough daily in New York City. Many of the newcomers - the population leapt from about 192,000 in 1960 to well over 350,000 today - came to find fresh air and a patch of land and to escape the urban woes of the other boroughs. Strangers will chat together in bank lines. A pedestrian will stop a car at a crosswalk to pick up a large nail in the road.

''We're a short ride from the hustle and bustle of New York,'' points out Lou Figurelli, an environmental activist on the island. ''We have the excitement and pleasures of both worlds.'' Sometimes outsiders try to console him when he says he lives in New York. Mr. Figurelli, who lives on a houseboat, waves them off.

''I see turtles, sparrows, possums, raccoons, falcons, eagles - all the animals they don't have. There are ducks and geese that travel by (when migrating).''

His hands imitate a goose landing. ''Honk, honk - there is nothing prettier in the morning. It's like Staten Island is a playground within the city.''

Like any suburban area in the throes of rapid development, Staten Island is experiencing some growing pains. The majestic Verrazano-Narrows suspension bridge links Staten Island with Brooklyn and thus opens it to all of New York City. Since the bridge opened there has been an increase in traffic congestion, crime rates, and the loss of land to housing developments. Some black residents of Staten Island have filed a class-action suit against four realty firms charging discrimination.

But by far the biggest concern among islanders is the quality of the environment of what one Brooklyn immigrant calls ''our Shangri-La.'' The bulk of New York City's garbage comes here via barge everyday. There is not a sewer system for the entire island. Problems from illegal dumping of toxic wastes, fumes from New Jersey's petrochemical industries, and pollution of the waters surrounding Staten Island have all been the brunt of battles by concerned residents.

''Staten Island is very environmentally minded,'' says Figurelli, whose Natural Resources Protective Association of Staten Island has about 12,000 members. He says he's seen ''definite improvement'' in the environment since he became active as a sports fisherman trying to save fish in 1967.

''We still have houses with big yards and wetlands where you'll only see wildlife and not cars,'' says another resident. ''There are problems, but it is not Love Canal.''

Staten Island is not a particularly affluent suburb, like Westchester County, north of the city. A shopping mall is anchored by Macy's and Sears rather than Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman-Marcus. The homes are solid and nicely maintained, but the hodgepodge development means a winding, quiet road can quickly change from woods to awkward-looking tract housing.

Still, Staten Island has the highest median income of the city's five boroughs. And though many residents work outside the island, local politicians mention some ''plums'' that they hope will bring employment here: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is opening a telecommunications center on the west shore. They want businesses to install their ''back room'' communication services there. And the United States Navy plans to base a seven-ship surface action group on the waterfront in Stapleton.

Critics charge that neither of these projects will generate much work or economic development for the island. And concern over the possibility of nuclear warheads on the Navy ships has been brought up in meetings on both Staten Island and Manhattan.

Because many of the changes in life style on Staten Island came ''after the bridge,'' those residents who came after 1963 sometimes are stigmatized by the old-timers.

''It's very easy to pick them out,'' says one native from Tottenville, which has been described as the last frontier by some island residents. ''They live in box houses on 40-foot by 100-foot lots. If the property has a large back yard, the family is usually not a newcomer.''

The old-timers often talk about traditional values and sorrow at seeing the neighborhoods change. But the more recent residents are often at the forefront of battles for Staten Island's quality of life. And if there is some resentment from longtime residents, it is tempered by appreciation.

''They bring to our provincial borough city ways,'' says Betty Darcy, who runs a preschool program at Silver Lake Park. She sees it in the stores that have arrived with the new residents, the style of clothes that are worn. But she also points out that some of the most active parents in helping to restore budget cuts for the preschool program last year were those who have come from Brooklyn and beyond. Borough President Anthony R. Gaeta has seen the same thing.

''The new residents came to get away from a certain environment,'' he says. ''When they see some of the changes here, they say, 'We spent our nickels and dimes to get away from these things, and now you tell us we have to live with it?' ''

''I am very happy to live on Staten Island,'' says one eight-year resident. ''I'm tired of hearing us labeled as 'after the bridge.' We've made the community better.''

Next: Secede from New York City?

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