As Staten Island Goes, So Go Most Suburbs?

Middle-class borough may opt out of New York City in coming vote, presaging more hollow urban areas

TEN years ago, Priscilla Giannaris left Brooklyn, N.Y. She left the crime, the crowding, the schools, and the high price of real estate and moved to Staten Island.

``We did it for my son,'' she says as she gets her hair cut at a Supercuts salon, not quite out of range of the penetrating stench of the world's largest landfill.

Her next stop: Nevada. Staten Island is ``just like any other borough now,'' so she and her husband bought land near Las Vegas this summer.

The flight from a city that seems increasingly alien to their values, at odds with their interests, and out of control is driving many New Yorkers to contemplate a more radical departure: a Nov. 2 referendum to withdraw Staten Island from New York City, creating a new city of 379,000 people that would surpass Buffalo as the state's second largest.

None of the mayoral or gubernatorial races next month offer outcomes as potentially dramatic as the Staten Island vote, a nearly unprecedented leap in a decades-old trend: hollowing the middle class out of urban centers.

As new immigrants and racial minorities grow in numbers in cities - poverty, drugs, crime, and dysfunctional schools seem to be concentrated there - the middle class is abandoning the city to the poor and to affluent professionals who have no children or can afford to send them to private schools.

Usually, middle-class families move into suburbs one by one, just as the Giannaris family left Brooklyn. Atlanta, for example, lost 7 percent of its population during the 1980s, leaving blacks inside city limits with a median income of $23,000, and a much smaller group of whites with a $63,000 median income.

With Staten Island, a whole community - the whitest, best-paid borough with the largest mix of homeowners and households with children - may bail out.

The extreme diversity of New York, where 1 new United States immigrant in 7 settles, has maneuvered most Staten Islanders to one remote end of a nearly unspannable political spectrum.

The secessionist impulse is also appearing elsewhere. In Los Angeles, mostly white and middle-class San Fernando Valley is pushing to break up the Los Angeles public-school district into smaller units. In Dallas, the middle-class community of Oak Cliffs tried and failed to secede from the city. So did parts of Miami. Long Island, Maine, did secede from Portland. And a new effort is beginning in a New Haven, Conn., neighborhood.

Staten Island is proletarian and middle class, dense with mid-size US-made cars, Italian restaurants with banquet facilities, grandiose cemeteries, and small single-family homes. It has more high school graduates per capita than any other borough, but fewer college graduates than the city average. While other boroughs are mostly minority, Staten Island is 80 percent white.

Staten Islanders feel dumped on, figuratively and literally, by New York City. It begins with the Fresh Kills landfill, ominously smooth mountains of earth rising mid-island, where the city dumps its garbage. There is the $6 toll to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn, and the sludge dump sites that the city has ruled out now for every borough except Staten Island.

Alone among the boroughs, Staten Island has no subway system or sewers along much of the island's south side.

``Right now,'' says Scott Plissner, who owns the Photomania camera shop, ``Staten Island's considered garbage.''

The last straw was when the federal courts ruled New York City's Board of Estimate unconstitutional and disbanded it. The board acted as a sort of senate, where each borough had equal votes. Without it, Staten Island has only 3 out of 51 votes on the city council.

This wouldn't matter if political interests of islanders were not so different from the rest of the city, notes Joseph Viteritti, a New York University management professor who has directed the state commission studying the feasibility of secession.

STATEN ISLAND can seldom find a common interest with another borough for a strategic alliance, says the island's chamber of commerce president Mark Muscaro. ``We are developmentally distinct, and culturally distinct,'' he says.

When New York's ousted school chancellor, Joseph Fernandez, sought to make condoms available in secondary schools, without veto rights for parents, and wrote of same-sex parents in grade-school primers, Staten Islanders were appalled.

It ``intensified'' secession sentiment, says state Sen. John Marchi, a founding father of the secession movement.

The specter of race and racism is never far from talk of secession, since race is often intertwined with crime and drugs in many minds.

This charge rankles many islanders. ``What color or ethnicity is a sludge or a sewer-treatment site?'' Mr. Muscaro asks.

``It's not a racially motivated thing at all,'' says Dr. Viteritti, who is neutral on the issue of secession. ``It has to do with governance.''

The finances of secession may come close to a wash for the island and the rest of New York City. Early estimates by the charter commission indicated that the island is receiving $170 million a year more in services than it pays for. The prospect of doubling or tripling real estate taxes has had a dampening effect on secession's popularity.

More recent calculations indicate that the island could probably provide its own services cheaper without overhead of New York City bureaucracy. It would lose its share of the Manhattan commercial tax base, but it would lose a lot of expensive social problems in the Bronx and East Harlem as well.

But the Rev. Terry Troia, who runs a nonprofit project to help the poor and homeless, says she has not heard anyone seriously address how Staten Islanders would deal with their own homeless and AIDS victims without the city's help.

Viteritti calls secession not likely, but certainly possible. If islanders vote for it next month, then the state legislature must pass it, and the long litigation over dividing up shares with other boroughs begins.

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