An Emerging Staten Island Narrative

Staten Island is getting upset.

Staten Island is a borough that has an uneasy relationship with the rest of New York City’s boroughs under the best of circumstances. It has felt treated like a literal and figurative dumping ground for the other boroughs’ garbage (at one point, 650 tons of garbage per day were dumped in Fresh Kills landfill). In 1993, a referendum for Staten Island to secede from New York City and form an independent city actually passed with voters. Rudy Giuliani smoothed things over and averted the secession by closing the Fresh Kills landfill and making the Staten Island Ferry free.

But now, after Sandy, Staten Islanders are feeling positively scorned. With an election in four days, this could spell some serious problems for Obama.

You wouldn’t know it from the news coverage, which portrays Manhattan and perhaps the Jersey Shore and Queens as hit hardest by the storm. But Staten Island arguably suffered the brunt of Sandy’s torrent. At least 19 of the the 41 people who have died in the storm died in Staten Island, including little children who were ripped from their mothers’ arms. But there has not much news coverage until today. Not coincidentally, the members of the media work in Manhattan and often live there. They do not live in Staten Island. New Jersey has a passionate and charismatic spokesman in its governor, Chris Christie. While people in Staten Island are homeless and powerless and grieving, the mayor — who has just embraced Obama — is going ahead with the New York City marathon on Sunday, which begins in Staten Island.

You might think of New York City as being the ultimate favorable territory for Obama. Staten Island is an exception to the rest of the city in this way as in so many others. Staten Island was the only borough to go for McCain in 2008. In fact, it has only elected the Democratic presidential nominee three times since 1952. The residents are likely not nearly as favorably disposed toward the Obama administration as the rest of New York City. Thus, they are less likely to see delays in aid as necessary hold-ups in a good faith effort, and more likely to see them as incompetence.

There is also a racial and class component. Staten Island is the only borough that is majority non-Hispanic white. Staten Islanders tend to perceive themselves as more working class than the rest of the city. That’s actually not true – in 1999 the median household income for Staten Island was $55,093 while for the rest of New York City it was $38,293. Even Manhattan had a median income of $47,030. My guess is that Staten Islanders tend to feel more working class because they sense they are poorer than the other non-Hispanic whites in the city, or at least the ones in Manhattan. When news articles muse on what the Sandy may do to waterfront real estate prices in the Hamptons, how can you not think that rich white people do not have any sense what the hell is really happening to the devastated working class areas?

Dolly Lenz, a high-end broker at Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, said that even though she was scrambling to get some clients appointments lined up in the wake of the storm, others in flooded areas like Battery Park City were “reassessing whether they want to be there on a long-term basis as they had originally thought.”

Her advice: “Take a pause, wait a few weeks and see what happens. Those kinds of decisions should not be made in a panic. They’re in a panic. They’re not accustomed to having their life upended that way.”

She said at least one deal, a $1 million year-round Hamptons rental, had fallen through. Before the storm, her client had “only wanted the primest of prime oceanfront.” Now the priorities have shifted to a home in the estate section farther inland. “They don’t want to put their family and pets in the way of any potential danger,” she said, “and do not wish to pursue the waterfront opportunity.”

There’s a sense of the white working class being ignored by the president who looks after minorities and rich elites. And this plays perfectly into the narrative that appeals to a certain stripe of Romney voter. With Obama and Democrats in power, your interests are ignored by elites who mock you and your values, and who are all too happy to give your hard-earned money to poor minorities.

I would be hesitant to say that Staten Island is Obama’s reverse-race Katrina for many reasons. First of all, it is impossible at this point to compare the scope of devastation. Also, it may well be the case that Staten Islanders are mistaken. Perhaps FEMA is doing the best it can possibly do; perhaps order will be restored shortly. Craig Fugate seems widely admired, and FEMA has been strongly praised otherwise. But there is little time to correct the narrative before November 6.

Sandy perhaps seemed like a bit of a positive for Obama. Although it might depress voting in very blue areas, these are mostly states that would go blue anyhow. He got to look presidential, Republican governor Chris Christie praised him to the skies, storms remind people of why they like a federal government who can marshal the resources to save people when state governments cannot. However, if the last taste in voters’ mouths is a bitter pill from Staten Islanders, who feel ignored by their president and billionaire mayor who is newly in love with the president, then that could make a difference. Perhaps not a huge difference, but this is a close race. And any difference might matter.

UPDATE: To be clear, I do not think this could possibly affect Obama’s chances in New York. But the coverage of Staten Island’s grievances has been a national story. It could affect voters watching and judging from afar — especially those inclined to identify with Staten Islanders.

UPDATE 2: I’m guessing the cancellation of the marathon radically reduces the chances that this will be a story with legs.

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133 thoughts on “An Emerging Staten Island Narrative

  1. “then that could make a difference. Perhaps not a huge difference, but this is a close race. And any difference might matter. ”

    The race isn’t even close in NY and it won’t matter even a little bit. As you noted Staten Island is historically GOP territory and it’s less than 6% of the population of NYC. NY state polls show Obama with a roughly 60% – 30% advantage over Romney. Don’t believe the horse race nonsense you see in the media.

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  2. It’s good to see Staten Island starting to get some attention, poor devils. But I doubt their legitimate frustrations can affect the presidential race much. Polls show Obama leading by almost 30 points in New York. Applying FoxMathTM, that means he has a 15-20 point lead. Since Staten Island probably already included a sizable proportion of likely Romney voters, there can’t possibly be enough would-have-been Obama voters who will switch to make up that kind of ground.

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  3. “There’s a sense of the white working class being ignored by the president who looks after minorities and rich elites.”

    So they’ll go with the rich elite guy who’s made no pretense about despising them unless it was convenient. As long as it’s not that minority guy. And they’d rather no one got disaster relief, just because they THINK they’re not getting their “fair share”.

    No wonder they’re a joke to the rest of New York.

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  4. I agree that Staten Island is suffering a lot of damage but I think you contradicted yourself a bit.

    I don’t see how this is going to be bad for Obama if Staten Island is already and always has been the Republican bastion of New York City. They weren’t going to vote for Obama if Hurricane Sandy did not happen and there are certainly not enough people on Staten Island to switch New York’s electoral college votes to the Republicans.

    However, I still think Hurricane Sandy is a wild card in terms of Tuesday’s elections. People generally seem to be giving the President high marks. However, I still think there is a strong chance of Sandy causing difficulties at the polls.

    Otherwise, I think your sociological analysis of Staten Island is very spot on. I think they largely do align themselves with working class whites or non-college educated middle class whites. But there are some very wealth sections on Staten Island like Todt Hill and some professionals are slowly starting to make the move out to Staten Island because you can get a detached house and still be in the city.

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      • If this gets national play, it could make a difference.

        This appears to be the part everyone responding to is failing to notice.

        That said, there doesn’t seem to be any lack of rescuers or rescue resources in Staten Island, just a lack of attention from the major media outlets, and insensitivity on the part of Bloomberg, who doesn’t seem to be particularly popular anywhere but New York anyway. In addition to the fact that a lack of media attention is not the sort of story that gets voters riled up for or against a candidate, it’s also precisely the reason why it’s not likely to cause any ripples outside of, well, Staten Island: most people won’t hear about it.

        I do think it’s pretty shitty that they talk about how many deaths there were in “New York City,” and then show pictures of flooded out areas of Lower Manhattan when such a large portion of the deaths were on Staten Island.

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        • That said, there doesn’t seem to be any lack of rescuers or rescue resources in Staten Island, just a lack of attention from the major media outlets, and insensitivity on the part of Bloomberg, who doesn’t seem to be particularly popular anywhere but New York anyway.

          I strongly suspect this is really what’s going on in SI. But that’s not what Staten Islanders think, and that’s not what the news stories are saying. They are reporting that SIers are upset about the lack of resources and the marathon.

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          • I can understand why Staten Island residents would consider their problems really, really, really critical important problems. (You know, being their’s).

            What I don’t get is why the rest of the nation would (1) Care more about Staten Island than, say, any other part of New York. Or New Jersey and (2) Why Staten Island would be chosen as representative of the post-Sandy phase over, you know, anyone else.

            For a story to go “national” — Staten Island would either have to be seen as representative of the whole, or there would have to be some special quality (or screwup or whatever) about Staten Island and the post-Sandy stuff to elevate it above everything else.

            And I guess that’s sorta what’s missing here. Why should I, in Texas, view Staten Island’s problems as bigger than, oh Brooklyns? Or half of New Jersey?

            I’m just not getting that. And since we’re talking “going national”, aren’t I the news audience you’re aiming for? People who don’t live in New York City? If Bloomberg and Christie are on my TV talking about how well everything’s going, then some guy from Staten Island is complaining he’s not getting enough attention, why should I listen to that guy over the mayor? Or Governor?

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      • I don’t know, Rose, I think the cement’s already firming on this election.

        And the news quote doesn’t really do what you seem to think it does. For folk interested in real estate markets, this is news, and to the extant that that it displaces news about Staten Island, it reflects media choices, not relief efforts.

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        • As I said above in response to Chris, I do wonder if this is a mistaken conclusion drawn by SIers from the lack of media coverage. They see rescues elsewhere and stuff of less immediate importance discussed, but not what they are going through.

          I agree the real estate stuff is news. It’s the kind of news that doesn’t read well to certain people.

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      • If Bush was President, the press and the Democrats would be going at the Staten Island story full tilt.

        “They’re still pulling bodies out of the water and the Republicans want to have a marathon?!!!”

        “People are still without power, days later, and the Republicans moved in three huge diesel generators to run press tents for a footrace?!”

        “They’re closing the only route for relief supplies so rich Republicans in silk shorts can go jogging?!”

        Believe me, it would be non-stop, and very, very angry. Or suppose Mitt happened to be mayor right now, instead of a former governor. The ad blitz Obama would run would be overwhelming.

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  5. I do think SI has not gotten what it needs, however I blame Bloomberg for that mostly who could direct Red Cross, FEMA, etc. there. Bloomberg is in office because of Staten Islanders constantly voting against their own interests. Look where it has gotten us. It is pretty amazing how Staten Islanders have come together to help each other out though, without the help of the mayor this island put back in office.

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  6. I’m sorry, I can’t really accept “Part of New York Unhappy” is gonna really affect the election.

    If nothing else, Americans have a sense of proportion. Sandy ate the East Coast.

    “Staten Island upset they’re not getting helped fast enough as entire East Coast struggles to deal with Sandy” isn’t gonna catch eyes, because Staten Island is tiny and the East Coast is large.

    To your average American not directly involved — me! I haven’t been to New York in a decade and live in Texas — this entire complaint feels like one guy saying “Hey! Why isn’t my power back on? My neighbor’s power is back on. Half the neighborhood’s power is back on. Why are you discrimating against me? Huh?”.

    You look around his neighbrood, see houses damaged by flood and wind, see some lights on and not others and you don’t think “Hey, this guy is gonna really change things around here. He’s gonna tell those Power Guys what’s what”. You think “What a whiny jerk”.

    That’s why this story isn’t gonna “go national” or affect the election. Because no one is gonna consider Staten Island a special snowflake, but just another small area in a devestated region.

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  7. This is an interesting idea, Rose.

    My first thought is:

    But the people who might get upset enough to vote against Obama because of this are 1) most likely not going to vote for Obama anyway, and 2) not really going to care about Staten Islanders because they’re Coastal Elites from New York just like all those other New York heathen.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but the right has been using New York as a boogeyman for a long time and I don’t see that changing so suddenly. Not that there won’t be some who try to push this concept. I’d guess that in the eyes of most people, Christie is the same as Staten Islanders, and he’s already endorsed Obama’s response.

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  8. Good post, Rose. I do wonder how much of this quite justified ire from Staten Island is going to be directed more at Bloomberg than Obama. From New Jersey, it seems like Obama’s visit here did a fair amount of good for the state; Bloomberg, by contrast, lamely refused Obama’s visit on the grounds that it was “too dangerous” for the President in Manhattan (but somehow not “too dangerous” to run a marathon through all five boroughs just a few days later). Bloomberg’s focus, from the limited information I’ve had, has also been – as usual – heavily biased towards Manhattan. That Bloomberg is also taking the time to send in commentary pieces about his Presidential endorsement while all of this is going just adds to the unconscionability.

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  9. “With Obama or Romney in power, your interests are ignored by elites who mock you and your values, and who are all too happy to give your hard-earned money to minorities and elites.”

    I fixed this for you so it covers both parties. :)

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  10. I saw on C-SPAN this morning that the Staten Island guy who was complaining so loudly yesterday is now thanking the Red Cross for showing up with food, etc. So his “issues” appear to have been resolved.

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  11. I don’t think there’s enough time now for perception to change regardless of the facts on the ground or ‘the truth’. The initial take in the National Zeitgeist is that Obama has handled the situation well (70% approval) (as has Christie, but I don’t have a number) and that’s good enough to avoid any down vote next week and will probably get him a few up votes. (enough that the chances of a Romney pop vote victory with an Obama electoral college victory are probably an order of magnitude than Silver’s latest chance of that happening – i.e 0.2% vice 2%)

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  12. As we watched this horrendous drama on S.I. play out my husband commented ‘they vote Republican. that’s why they’re not getting the help.’ I checked it out and he was right. Dems are mean, vicious people – I’m almost tempted to say ‘may the earth open up and swallow NYC whole.’ But I won’t.

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  13. Actually, watching Anderson Cooper on CNN. The entire show is about the devastation on SI and lack of response.

    The borough president was on and praising Obama and Cuomo for coming through.

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  14. Rose,

    I would say that today, on the NY-based news stations, SI was getting a lot of coverage, with some attention paid to the feelings of abandonment.

    Regarding well perceptions, I think SI lacks the elite, super concentrated wealth of Manhattan. There is no 5th Avenue or CPW in SI.

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  15. How many of these people were supposed to evacuate? When I look at the maps, it seems most of the perimeter of the island was on mandatory evacuation.

    Did they? Or did they decide to stay, to tough it out?

    Was the flooding and storm surge beyond then the mandatory evacuation area?

    Does anyone know?

    Because I keep thinking of Vermont last year during Irene; where nobody expected what happened; and where people were stranded in remote areas, the bridges and roads washed out, for many, many days.

    But this, it was expected. One of the best storm forecasting successes on record.

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    • It’s not just the deaths. People have returned to their homes to find them in shambles or shifted hundreds of yards into marshlands. Destruction just as bad as the Jersey Shore and LI and worse than most of Manhattan. But, as is so often the case, SI remains the red-headed stepchild of NYC’s buroughs.

      Rose would know better, but I think the mindset is self-fulfilling at this point. The rest of NY (and even NJ) shit on SI. SI flips the bird back. Rinse and repeat.

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      • Thank you, Kazzy.

        My husband used to work on Mt. Washington, in NH, where people die nearly every year. They hike it in a tee-shirt and without water; they ski in avalanche conditions. And he’d have to risk his life to go out and rescue them. I have a hard time forgiving stupidity like this when it puts other people’s lives in danger.

        So thank you. You helped.

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    • Here’s some of the answer:
      http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/daughter-survives-mother-dies-article-1.1195317

      Despite repeated warnings to evacuate the Zone A district, many residents chose to stay and guard their homes, unwilling to believe the storm would be as ferocious or deadly as officials warned. It was a decision they all now regret.

      I’m very sorry so many lost loved ones, so many had lost personal property. Very sorry. But the decision to stay was theirs, and that decision carries the weight of putting other lives in danger to undertake rescue. And unlike NOLA, there was clear communication, clear instruction to get the fuck out of this storms way. I am very sorry, these things are horrible. But some of this, at least, was also unnecessary; so I’m also struggling with some deep-seated anger here. If you opted to stay, don’t you bear some responsibility for what happened?

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      • Zic,

        There is no doubt that folks who ignored evacuation orders subsidized their risks on others. Some folks had seemingly good reason not to evacuate: an inability to; a mistrust of government that made it hard to accept their orders; a misjudgement if the risk of leaving versus the risk if staying. Christie, in his usual blustery way, rightfully called out folks who didn’t adhere to evacuation orders. If more lives are lost by rescuerers helping people who wouldn’t need help if they had evacuated, the tragedy is heighted and those non-evacuees are at least party responsible.

        But disasters are just that… Disasters. Expecting sound, thoughtful reasoning is hard. Expecting it from people who have rarely gotten such thought directed towards them or at least perceived as such (including residents of SI, AC, NOLA… Notice a trend? All marginalized groups) is harder still. I personally wouldn’t put non-evacuees in the same boat as hikers voluntarily going into hostile areas ill-prepared, but that’s just me. I think the circumstances differ two greatly. But I understand your frustration, especially if it is your loved one putting his/her life on the line. I can empathize with this as the son of a firefighter and husband of a Naval nurse.

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  16. I did my best to scan through the comments here but if I missed a similar point to the one I am about to make, apologies in advance…

    Everyone seems to be very critical of Rose because she seems to imply that the unhappiness in Staten Island could affect the election. I don’t know if that is a bridge too far and I don’t know NY state culture very well but is there no solidarity in the Empire State? is there no bleed over of that dissatisfaction from Si into other areas?

    Also, let’s not forget that there are places that are going to have a lot less turnout. A blogger I follow who also writes for the Atlantic said this today:

    “The NJ update — no power until late next week, major gas shortages, drop in temp. Bloomberg is an ass for keeping the Marathon. There’s no way that they can hold elections in NJ next week.”

    Beyond NY and NJ you also have to think about other places that just barely missed getting hit hard. Virginia, Maryland, Deleware. Then you have other places around the country that have experienced natural disasters in recent years and they are going to be angered on behalf of the people in SI. On top of all of this, there is a nor’easter scheduled to hit the east coast around election day.

    I’m not predicting Obama loses this election. What I am predicting is that we just don’t know what will happen. People wavig Rose’s concerns aside aren’t looking at the big picture IMO.

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    • is there no solidarity in the Empire State?

      That’s actually an interesting question. I don’t know NY well, but my general understanding is that it’s one of those states with a big downstate/upstate divide. Which doesn’t mean there’s no solidarity, but considerably less than I would expect from, for example, Kentucky. I imagine there’s some East v. West in Kentucky, just as there’s some North v. South in my native Indiana, but probably at a pretty low level (correct me if I’m wrong, Mike, I’m no Kentucky expert, either). Indiana’s genius is to have it’s capital and large city smack in the middle of a not too big state, with easy access to it from everywhere, but in some states the divide is very very contentious.

      In Illinois, there are downstaters who’d just about throw a party if Chicago got swallowed up by Lake Michigan, and Chicagoans hardly give a thought to anything south of I=80. Oregon and Washington each have a pretty serious East-West divide that maps pretty closely to a conservative-liberal divide, to the extent there’s persistent low level talk about forming a state out of their East of the Cascade regions. And in California the North-South divide is serious enough that they’ve actually formed commissions to make proposals for dividing the state (although none has ever come close to passage, I believe).

      So when you ask if there’s no solidarity in New York state, it’s possibly not just a rhetorical question. But it’d take someone with more knowledge of the state than I have to answer it with certainty.

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      • James, the dynamic in KY is more simple. It’s Louisville vs. Everyone Else. They see us as Yankee heathens and basketball traitors. We see them as backward hillbillies that have an unnatural love of UK. Funny that they still don’t mind spending on our tax dollars though…

        I’d say if there were any legs to the Staten Island thing it would be coming from other folks around the country that sympathize more than the people in NY that maybe understand the dynamics better. Like I said, I’m not making any predictions other than, “this might prove interesting.”

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        • Mike,

          Ah, so KY does have its own such problem. Me learn new thing. That good.

          Seriously, every state should have followed Indiana’s model. Our only problem is “the region” (Chicagoland area). But even that’s a pretty moderate divide.

          From my perspective the only thing really wrong with Indiana is that we’re unfortunate enough to be home to Notre Dame.

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          • KY’s capital is pretty close to being centrally located. Everyone just resents Louisville because the lion’s share of the money is here and we don’t root for UK.

            As for dissing Notre Dame, you wound me sir. I love my Cards but I bleed blue and gold. Ignoring the squeaker with Pitt, this season has been a blast.

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      • I think Rose’s point, and as I understand the local culture (grew up just outside NYC in NJ), is that SI doesn’t engender the type of solidarity that other areas of NY might. James is right that is a big upstate/city divide. But even within that, there are lots of mini-divides. NYC looks down on Long Island. Manhattan looks down on the outer boroughs. And everyone looks down on SI. SI likely won’t engender much support; they’re not seen as sophisticated urbanites by Manhattanites but they are seen as city-dwellers by the Upstaters. But, as Rose argues, folks elsewhere in the country, who don’t know that might watch the TV and say, “Hey… those Staten Islanders look like me… there neighborhood looks like mine. Why is the government shitting on them? Would they shit on me?” Folks who are inclined to think the government is hostile to the white working man could see the situation in SI as confirming this narrative. Will that happen? I dunno. But had the city diverted resources from helping victims to running a marathon (which, thankfully, they wised up and didn’t) that started in SI, it could easily have turned out that way, especially if folks took that football and ran with it, exploiting the tragedy for political ends.

        Rose might be wrong in just how impactful this turns out to be but her demonstration of the unique circumstances at play is, from my vantage point, spot on.

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      • This is part of the optics of geography. At home, the divisions define. Step further from home, and they bind.

        In Key West, I once watched to men, both from Boston, one from Southie, the other from Hyde Park, meet. At home, they’d have been ready to rumble; and they admitted as much. But here, far from home and alone, they were neighbors, nearly brothers. Joined by the solidarity of their geography.

        So when you’re at home, the proximity separates tribe. And when you’re far away, it combines them.

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  17. I am going to express a rare disagreement with my co-blogger.

    I don’t think this gains traction for several reasons:

    1) The overwhelming number of people outside of New York have no idea where or even what Staten Island is. They don’t really get the whole “five boroughs” thing, and whatever notion they have of New York City is pretty much encapsulated in Manhattan. In order for them to grasp a disparity of post-Sandy resources, they’d need to become much more savvy about what comprises the City, and the differences in population within the City. I don’t see that happening, certainly not in the time remaining.

    2) The Chris Christie thing has defined the Obama-response narrative. I think people have made their impression, cemented by the effusive praise of a fiery Romney surrogate. I don’t think there is enough time for a change in narrative to overcome the cognitive inertia that has already taken hold.

    3) I imagine the novelty of the Sandy story has already faded, and most of America’s interest in the story has begun to wane. People are innately self-interested, and there’s little stake in following the story very closely now that the drama of the storm itself has passed. So I suspect that people just aren’t paying attention enough for the story to have any further impact on the election.

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    • I think you might be right that the impact won’t be as Rose speculated, but I don’t think folks need to know all the ins-and-outs of NY life for it to have. All they need to see is blue collar white folks complaining about the government ignoring them to have their worst fears confirmed. All they need to see is old white ladies standing next to destroyed suburban homes juxtaposed against brown city folk getting food rations to stir that pot up. It’s not JUST the realities, but the narrative that is being stirred up (which isn’t wholly inaccurate, mind you).

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  18. Staten Island and its relationship with the Verrazano Bridge is hard to describe unless you’ve known people who live on SI. I knew a nun who taught at St. John Villa on SI, Sr. Maura Hyland, arguably the best giver of small Christmas presents who ever lived. She explained a good deal of it to me.

    They really are different people, Staten Islanders. They’ve tried to keep it that way, too.

    At the Verrazano, the start point of the NY City Marathon, the city had lots of port-a-potties, stores of bottled water and generators set up for the race. CNN said they were secured behind a high fence and could have been used by the residents of SI. It’s easy for me to see why those people would be upset by these facts.

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