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)

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star