On March 7, 1788, the New York State Legislature divided Staten Island into four towns: Castleton, Northfield, Southfield, and Westfield; a fifth, Middletown, was added in 1860. Each town had its own elected and appointed officials. Basically an agricultural and fishing community, the Island's population grew slowly, and with little funds to invest in capital improvements, its roads and sewage system were the worst among surrounding counties that now make up the City of New York; more schools were needed as well as better police and fire protection. Many residents believed that Andrew Greene's proposal in 1868 for a unified city would be the answer. As conditions grew worse, support for "consolidation" grew stronger. However, not every Islander supported the idea. Many opposed consolidation because they believed it would bring New York City's blight to Staten Island. A dissident group even went so far as to propose the idea of forming a separate city independent of New York City. Nevertheless, a non-binding referendum in 1894 was overwhelmingly supported by Islanders 5,531 to 1,505. Support among the other potential boroughs, however, was not as strong. Brooklyn, for instance, approved the measure 64,744 to 64,467 -- a winning margin of only 277 votes. Consolidation was finally approved by the Legislature in 1897, over the strong objections of New York's (Manhattan) mayor.
Since consolidation, roads and sewer systems have improved, but the Island still remains to this day far behind the other boroughs. For many, consolidation turned out to be something less than the miracle it was expected to be. Many parts of the borough still have septic systems, and most of the roads were built by developers with only a few inches of asphalt over dirt. A rail link to Brooklyn or Manhattan was never constructed. It was not until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was opened in 1964 that the Island had a direct link to the other boroughs.
The Question of "Home Rule"
Islander feelings were galvanized when the city planned to open a garbage dump at Fresh Kills in 1948. Assemblyman Edmund Radigan introduced a secession bill in the Legislature in 1947. While the dump was the impetus for the legislation, there where other grievances driving the movement. Even as early as 1799, Staten Island had not been able to control its own fate. New York State had taken some 30 acres of land by eminent domain to build the Quarantine Station, where immigrants with infectious diseases would be held. After decades of protest, Islanders finally took matters into their own hands by burning it down in 1858. Assemblyman Radigan expressed Islander feelings that home rule would give back to Islanders control of their own future and protect the Island from the city administration and from other interests that would interfere with "our progress". The measure was defeated, and it was not until the 1980s that another issue would give momentum to a renewed effort to secede from New York City.
Each of the five borough presidents had one vote, regardless of population, on the Board of Estimate. Although this scheme had been in existence for many years, it was challenged for violating the one person, one vote principle of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, and as a result the City Charter was revised, eliminating the Board of Estimate in 1989 and leaving the entire representation of the Island in the hands of 3 members of a 51-member City Council. This "loss" in representation convinced some that the only way they could have control over their future was to secede. On the final day of the 1989 session, the State Legislature passed a measure, signed by then Governor Mario Cuomo, authorizing a study and initiating the process of secession. In November 1990 the voters of Staten Island overwhelmingly approved (by 83 percent) a study of secession and the legal procedures for separation, and in 1991, Governor Cuomo swore in the 13-member New York State Charter Commission for Staten Island.
If approved by the State Legislature, it would be the largest municipal separation in the United States since the Civil War. The City of Staten Island would be the second largest city in New York State, and the 36th largest city in the country. With approximately 400,000 people, it would be larger than Miami, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. In 1993, a proposed charter for the City of Staten Island was presented to the voters, and in November 1993, a non-binding referendum to secede from New York City was approved by the voters of Staten Island by a margin of roughly 2 to 1 (65 percent). Subsequently, the State Senate passed a bill approving secession; however, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has not allowed a similar measure to be voted on in the Assembly without a "home rule message" (permission) from New York City, which has not been forthcoming.
Written by Dr. Thomas Matteo
Dr. Thomas Matteo is a local historian and has written three books on Staten Island history. He is the founder and a current member of the Board of the Sea View Historic Foundation. From 1991 to 1994, Dr. Matteo served as the Chief of Staff for the Staten Island Charter Commission and was later appointed as a member of the Commission. On May 30, 2007, Dr. Matteo was appointed Staten Island's fourth Borough Historian. He is also an Associate Professor of Business at St. Peter's College in Jersey City. Prior to his appointment, he served in several executive positions in New York City government. For more information about Staten Island History, visit his Web site at www.statenislandhistorian.com