Staten Islanders look back on secessionist fervor of 1993

The Staten Island Ferry. photo by Dr. Gracelyn Santos

The Staten Island Ferry. photo by Dr. Gracelyn Santos

By Cristina DC Pastor

In 1993, New York City came on the verge of losing one of its five boroughs when secessionist fervor swept Staten Island. The debate threw the community in disarray and splintered residents into different factions.

The idea began to bubble forth in 1989, a time when the borough was spoken of more in terms of being New York’s dump site rather than home to luxury estates and affluent white families.

Proponents contended the “forgotten borough” with its large tax base deserved its own mayor, city council, police force and school system. Opponents, led by then-Mayor David Dinkins and the city council, would not hear of it. But then-Gov. Mario Cuomo made the stunning decision to put the sentiment to a vote. The question of whether Staten Island should become independent was carried in the 1993 non-binding referendum. But Rudy Giuliani’s victory over Dinkins mollified Staten Islanders after he offered to act on the closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill.

Dr. Gracelyn Santos

Dr. Gracelyn Santos

“It was a volatile issue,” recalled dentist Gracelyn Santos, a long-time resident. At the time, she was a dental student at NYU and was living in a Manhattan dorm, but her folks remained entrenched in Staten Island.

There was a lot of mixed feelings, she told The FilAm. “We were the smallest borough, and some felt we were being shortchanged in terms of services, taxes.”

Self-rule was an attractive political concept to some residents, yet others were wary about its long-term consequences. “Some were excited about it,” she said, but sustainable survival was the overarching concern.

Dr. Prospero Lim, a psychiatrist and another long-time Staten Islander, said the movement emerged from a feeling of disgruntlement and “being ignored.” He said borough residents bristled at paying property taxes and yet Staten Island was known as the “Garbage Capital of New York.”

“You open your door and there is this strong smell,” he said. “And yet you were paying taxes.”

Dr. Prospero Lim. Photo by Rolan Gutierrez

Dr. Prospero Lim. Photo by Rolan Gutierrez

Count Santos and Lim among the Filipino Americans who found themselves on the side opposed to the city’s ‘balkanization,’ yet recognizing the arguments that fostered the secessionist debate. “People just got tired of being taken for granted,” said Lim.

Staten Island is New York’s wealthiest borough, said New York political journalist Errol Louis during a discussion on “Covering the 2013 NYC Elections” sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. “It is also the most conservative,” he said, the most Republican of New York’s five boroughs, including Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens.

As for Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, it has been cleared and is undergoing massive conversion into a “world-class” park, according to the website of the Department of Parks & Recreation. The last time the site was in use was in 2001 following the World Trade Center attacks, when debris from the fallen towers were transferred here.

“Looking back, I’m glad we didn’t (secede),” said Santos, who has a dental practice in the borough with her husband.

Echoed Lim, who moved to Staten Island in the 1970s, when most of the borough was farmland. “I was not in favor.”

Hardly anyone is talking about seceding now, said Santos. “People are now talking about (hurricane) Sandy and the government response. Let’s face it, there are still some people without homes.”

The FilAms are doubtful the slow government response would spark renewed debate over secession and revive the divisiveness within the community.

“It’s dead in the water,” said Lim, shaking his head.

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