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Borough's Push for Secession Smolders

Government: Although largely content, Staten Island may think again of splitting from New York City if a mammoth landfill reopens.


NEW YORK — If the San Fernando Valley is, as secessionists believe, Los Angeles' abused stepchild, Staten Island is more of an afterthought to New York.

The most remote of New York's five boroughs--a half-hour ferry ride from Manhattan--and the smallest in population with 440,000 souls, Staten Island is politically and culturally left-footed as well: a Republican bastion in a Democratic city, a rolling landscape of split-level homes with driveways instead of high-rise apartment buildings. The inhabitants aren't easily riled--Staten Island was the site of the Revolutionary War's only peace conference--but they do harbor grievances.

In fact, beneath its tranquil surface, Staten Island is a tinderbox of separatist passion, say those who understand the island's nature. And New York City's perpetual garbage crisis--met recently with calls to reopen Staten Island's Fresh Kills Landfill--may just provide the spark to set it off anew.

Since former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani closed the landfill last year, Gotham has struggled to find a home for its 10,000 tons of garbage produced daily. For now, the city spends a bundle to truck its garbage out of state, and some consider the issue one of the most important facing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Just this weekend, the New York Times editorialized that it was "irresponsible" of Giuliani to have closed the landfill without a workable alternative for New York's trash. The newspaper called on Bloomberg to reopen the landfill "on a temporary basis."

Long Fight Over Landfill

From Staten Island's perspective, even the suggestion threatens to reopen a generations-old wound. Islanders had been fighting to close Fresh Kills--reputedly the only man-made object, other than China's Great Wall, that can be seen from space--since the mid-1950s.

Lawrence DeMaria, president of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and a 40-year resident of the island, said that reopening Fresh Kills wouldn't just rekindle the secession movement, it would lead to "civil disobedience." DeMaria said he can think of several otherwise law-abiding matrons in his neighborhood who would chain themselves to the landfill fence in protest.

Staten Island's secessionist movement got rolling in the early 1990s over issues similar to those that irritate Valley residents: The city government, meeting in a distant downtown, seems unresponsive to local concerns about schools and zoning. Staten Islanders complain that they have little control over development, and as a result, the island is a mishmash of commercial, industrial and residential uses. The public schools, even down to the appointment of principals and assistant principals, are run from afar.

To be sure, islanders are used to being ignored by New York. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn, Staten Island's only physical link to New York City, didn't open until 1964. "The lack of a bridge allowed us to live in splendid isolation," said state Assemblyman Robert A. Straniere, who can recall a boyhood spent roaming woods and open fields where now there are industrial parks and housing developments.

The locals could tolerate New York's neglect well enough, but what they couldn't abide was what secession activist Dan Singletary once called being "dumped on." The Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest open garbage dump on earth, was always the biggest rallying point for secessionists.

In 1993, the secessionist movement peaked as the islanders overwhelmingly approved an initiative to split from the Big Apple. The proposal passed the state Senate, and then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said he would have signed it into law. But the Assembly, backed by a court ruling, blocked the move, arguing that all of New York City should vote on the matter. The movement has been stalled since.

Straniere, a 21-year veteran of the Legislature, considers himself the keeper of the flame. In every Assembly session, he reintroduces his Act to Incorporate the City of Staten Island, and in every session, it dies in committee.

The closing of Fresh Kills, which locals attribute to the island-friendly alignment of three Republican politicians--Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and then-Borough President Guy Molinari--"took the wind out of secession's sails," DeMaria said.

Indeed, the toughest obstacle faced by pro-secession forces may be contentment.

Giuliani Was Benefactor

Giuliani, aware of the island's overwhelming electoral support for his campaigns, was careful to lavish money and attention there, notably the renovation of the ferry terminal at St. George and the construction of a minor-league ballpark for the Staten Island Yankees. Bloomberg is fully aware that support from the island--despite its representing only about 6% of New York's population--was one of the biggest factors in his election in November. It's too early to tell whether Bloomberg, also a Republican, will follow Giuliani's lead in the care and feeding of Staten Island; he has promised a proposed solution to his city's trash problem by the end of the month.

But for now--as long as the landfill stays closed--islanders are basking in their newfound status.

"Secessionist sentiment is not overt at the moment," Straniere admitted. "I guess I'm the last man standing in keeping the issue alive."

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