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Staten Island seeks home rule: If the fifth borough secedes from New York City, the republican victory of last week may well be the last

NOBODY on Staten Island seems to have heard of the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, let alone seen it. Pity. They would enjoy the tale of a small but plucky borough in a huge metropolis discovering that it has the will and perhaps the wherewithal unexpectedly to rise up and declare itself free.

This suburban isle of 380,000, 20 minutes south of Manhattan by the Staten Island Ferry, is battling to cast off from its municipal mooring as part of New York City. Last week it came a lot closer to achieving that ambition.

As they voted in Tuesday's New York mayoral election - won by Republican Rudy Giuliani - residents on the island were also asked whether they would support a formal separation from the Big Apple. Disenchanted with a city government they consider unresponsive to their needs, they approved the proposition by a margin of two to one; it now rests with the state legislature in Albany and the governor, Mario Cuomo, to decide the issue.

'It would be the height of cynicism, it would be immoral for them to stand in the way,' said John Marchi, the island's state senator and a champion of secession. 'We're not leaving the country, we're not leaving the state, we're just asking that the island be given the opportunity for self-governance.'

The mood of revolution was theatrically evoked at a victory rally on Thursday by pro-secessionists, including Senator Marchi, at an old fort on the island's north shore. With some dressed up in Civil War or American Revolution garb, they fired four shots (blanks) from a cannon across harbour, one for each of the other boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Tea-bags denoting the Boston Tea Party and rebellion against the British were stapled to placards reading, 'Staten Island; the First City of the twenty-first century'.

The secessionist rumblings, largely disregarded until last week by the rest of the city as romantic and wrong-headed, are suddenly receiving attention. Separation would turn Staten Island into New York State's second largest city after NYC itself. It would also mark the biggest single municipal rupture in America since the departure of the Confederacy in the Civil War. As a reflection of feeling all over the country towards big government, it could also trigger such movements elsewhere (even within New York, Queens has begun to debate secession).

Most importantly, its departure would radically alter the city's political map. Mr Giuliani's narrow margin of victory over outgoing mayor David Dinkins was provided by Staten Island. Overwhelmingly Republican, the islanders voted in unusual numbers because of their enthusiasm for the secession referendum. Without the island, Mr Giuliani and the Republicans might be denied re-election.

A secession could also herald a novel phase in the 30-year flight of middle-class whites from America's cities. The island, a pretty, suburban patchwork of wooded avenues, parks and single-family homes, a world apart from the city, is four-fifths white. It was mostly the ethnic minorities which voted against secession. While whites, and some middle-class blacks, have steadily abandoned the hearts of cities such as Detroit and Chicago, here they want to try a different approach: leaving the city but keeping their neighbourhood.

The reasons for the falling- out are many. The most obvious has to do with garbage. For years, New York has been depositing its waste in a vast landfill on the west side of the island, one of the largest and rankest in the world. An attempt to visit it last week drew an angry reaction from Sanitation Department officials, who chased a photographer and me away after suggesting that our car might be bulldozed into the pit.

The landfill has become the symbol of the island's treatment at the hands of the city. 'I think islanders feel they have been dumped on, literally and figuratively,' said John Competiello, 33, an insurance broker who commutes with thousands from the island to Manhattan each day on the ferry. 'They have the feeling of being repressed.'

Of scores of commuters interviewed on the five o'clock boat from Manhattan on Thursday night, not one spoke against separation. At the heart of this secession movement, like most others, is a grievance over taxation and representation. In 1989 the US Supreme Court disbanded the New York Board of Estimates on which all boroughs had an equal voice. Left behind was the City Council, with 51 seats of which only three are granted to Staten Island. While taxes go to the city, the island, with 5 per cent of the population, has little say over their redistribution. John Panierello, 59, a retiree, is among many who want secession even if it would mean paying higher taxes. 'Our taxes are going over there and we have no say in what is happening to them,' he said. 'If we secede, at least we would be deciding our own fate.'

But there is also a less easily expressed feeling about what the rest of New York City has become: the Big Apple gone rotten, infected by violence, crime and drugs, associated in many minds with the city's racial frictions. 'We don't have as much crime, and we want to keep it that way,' said Dorothy Fitzpatrick, 59, who works for the borough. 'We don't like the way the city is going with the crime and the drugs.' Like others, she laments the changes that have already come to the island, especially since the opening of the Verrazano Narrows suspension bridge linking it to Queens in 1964. Woods have been cleared for housing and the last farm has disappeared. No one, however, will concede that race has anything to do with the separatist drive.

Some can be found on the island who have doubts about the practicalities of secession. Nick Gevrekis, 48, runs a restaurant, Uncle Nick's, in an area close to the ferry terminal, where the atmosphere is already reminiscent more of the Bronx than of the rest of the island. 'Look outside,' he gestured. 'Druggies, and now the murderers come too.' He would like separation, but considers it a dream. 'People here, they like to be alone, to be separate. But it means nothing, when they think about it.' But it may yet happen. Governor Cuomo has remained studiously neutral in the affair. Even the new mayor, Mr Giuliani, has promised not to block secession, though he has hardly expressed enthusiasm for it - no great surprise given what it could do to his electoral base. In Albany, the instinct of most lawmakers will be to resist what they fear may spark a balkanisation of city, if not the state.

But simply to ignore the democratic call of the islanders may be impossible. 'Island independence is nothing less than the spirit of American freedom incarnate,' said Senator Marchi after the firing of the cannon. 'They cannot deny that from us.'

(Photograph omitted)