By Emmet White 

As the ferry bobbles back and forth through the converging New Jersey and New York Upper Bay waters, an off duty, monochromatically dressed firefighter’s radio crackles on and off and a young mother rocks her stroller back and forth. The rest of the passengers murmur, barely audible. Like a sedated mob onboard, then like pedestrian Olympic sprinters in boarding and departing, Staten Island only moves fast for the ferry. 

Even the 2:30pm Manhattan departing Ferry creates a frenzy upon arrival at St. George Terminal. Photograph by Emmet White.

But the island’s pace is about to change. Fenced off, empty lots, to shining motorcycle dealers, to fast food chains with faded signage, the corridor of Bay Street, although destined for rezoning, remains industrial in a postindustrial world. Initially zoned in 1961 for manufacturing purposes, traverse down Bay Street today and you will find Americana eateries and a newly installed, clean windowed Urbys Housing development across from a blinding neon pink text advertising Dominican Hair Stylists and the warehouse style Western Beef supermarket. After its approval over the summer, the Bay Street Corridor Rezoning Neighborhood Plan was described by North Shore City Councilwoman Debi Rose as the “renaissance that we have talked about for years.”

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Shoulder to Shoulder with Island locals and tourists alike boarding the Samuel I. Newhouse vessel. Photograph by Emmet White.

Destiny Small and Imani Ebank, both 17-year North Shore residents, who attend Susan E. Wagner High School and Concord High School, respectively, grew up watching the North Shore evolve, and they believe some updates are long overdue. One late afternoon, seated under the overhang of a mural slathered bus stop at Barrett Triangle, Small opened a nearly empty blue tin of lip balm, which she applied with one finger to her lips before she said of the island: “When you come here, there is nothing to do. We have laser tag and Fly High, but we be bored.”

Gentrification, as her friend Ebank put it, is an unnecessarily “big word” that assumes an air of negativity. Ebank noted that during the so-called renaissance, everyone’s welcome on the island.

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The freshly minted, white tabled clothed The Richmond eatery sits squarely in the Bay Street Corridor. Photograph by Emmet White.

The rezoning plans, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a June 2019 press release, will include 2,600 new homes, 450 permanently affordable homes through mandatory inclusionary housing, and 850 affordable homes on city-owned sites. The plan also includes two new schools that will add 1,776 school seats to the North Shore, and a revitalization n of the now defunct George Cromwell Recreation Center complete with playgrounds and swimming pools. 

For some on the island, Staten Island’s rate of change, which has been simmering, is nearly at a boil. 

Unlike the density of high-rises in Manhattan or sprawling blocks of multi-family homes in Queens, Staten Island seemingly abounds with available space. Developers are particularly flocking to the North Shore, with its easy access to the St. George Ferry Terminal and the Staten Island Ferry into Lower Manhattan, or the Staten Island Railway, or 16 bus lines. Developers rightfully hope to capitalize on a potential influx of people in search of a cheaper living.

On the island, ground is constantly being broken. In November, there were shovels at a subdivision of six soon-to-be single family houses on Scribner Avenue in St. George. A stop work order was issued to a high-rise condominium in progress at along Bay Street. There are also the beginnings of redevelopment of one of the corridor’s new schools, according to Troy McGee, a representative of City Councilmember Deborah Rose’s office.

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Much of the Bay Street corridor appears like this skeletal building at Bay Street and St. Julian Place. Photograph by Emmet White.

While the construction of more housing on the North Shore may be needed, there is not a consensus among residents. Celeste Holmes, a member of the Youth Services committee of Staten Island Community Board 1, expressed concern over the density of the six new houses on Scribner Avenue, lamenting that the development was degrading the neighborhood’s Victorian character.

Hanane Dbajat, a 20-year North Shore resident and staffer for New York Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, preferred to see the changes on the island in a positive light. “When I moved to Staten Island, half of my block was a dirt road,” Dbajat said, after a sparsely attended Community Board 1 general meeting, “Everyone’s now coming here.” And this isn’t hyperbole. Data from NYU’s Furman Center shows nearly 14,000 new residents moved to the North Shore between 2000 and 2017. Dbajat noted when it comes to space and price, Staten Island is a comparative bargain. However, Dbajat admitted she was wary of developer’s intentions for the borough. “It’s profit, profit, profit,” she said, “but to what degree?”

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Strategically placed along the Tompkinsville, Stapleton, and Clifton SIR stations, Lime E-Bikes signal to another developing foot in the door. Photograph by Emmet White.

Longevity is another factor that will affect where and how developers build. According to the city’s flood risk chart, the North Shore showed the highest risk of flood damage.

At the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, with a model, life-size black-and-white speckled cow stood in the background, and an American Flag strewn behind the board members, Jorge Ventura of the Department of City Planning emphasized the importance of “better design controls” for all building types to retrofit flood resiliency as development ramps up on the North Shore.

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Dividing the North and South Shores of Staten Island, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge symbolizes the physical and cultural disconnect between the largely conservative South and Democrat-likened North. Photograph by Emmet White.

Change almost always requires a level of coping. But in the case of older Staten Island residents, this attempt also comes in the form of desired parking spots and a rebuking of plans for a homeless shelter along Victory Boulevard in Tompkinsville. 

For a younger generation of Staten Islanders, like Small and Ebank, the change necessitates riding a rerouted bus due to construction and invokes fantasizes of leaving the island for places like Atlanta, Georgia.

Since the early stages of this rezoning plan, Councilwoman Rose has noted that this reconstruction “will not be fully realized for decades.”

However, Staten Islanders are quintessential New Yorkers, brash and gritty, and, in being that, naturally adaptable. It’s no longer a matter of when they will have to adapt, but how and how much.