Tuesday, March 01, 2011

PORT RICHMOND - and I mean it

The first of several planned posts on Port Richmond.

Without a doubt Port Richmond has the potential to be the greatest neighborhood on Staten Island. Much of its old housing stock has survived the despoliation that ravaged so many older neighborhoods on the Rock. Right off Port Richmond Avenue is Veterans' Park, towered over by the great edifice of P.S. 20, and surrounded by several churches and pleasant pre-war apartment buildings. Architecturally, few neighborhoods have held onto such a significant portion of its past as Port Richmond. Even the simple residential back streets hold significant and attractive homes. In its layout and buildings it is still one of the most pleasing looking parts of Staten Island.

Along Port Richmond Avenue are countless commercial buildings, large and small, many with office space and apartments on their upper floors. At present the neighborhood is well served by several bus lines. But, if the North Shore rail was ever actually built or the Borough President's excellent idea for a bus linkage to the NJ light rail in Bayonne were implemented Port Richmond's stock would go through the roof. It could become the starting point of one of the fastest Manhattan commutes going.

Unfortunately, once New York City decided to allow itself to become dependent on cheap, often illegal, immigrant labor, places had to be designated for them to live. On Staten Island, Port Richmond, much of it a troubled neighborhood by the early nineties when this trend began, drew the short straw. Soon men, working tough, physically exhausting jobs in many cases, were living together packed into poorly maintained apartments. Only later did immigrant families take root and businesses to serve them specifically open.

Much of the Port Richmond of today is one of decayed commercial properties, poor or little municipal maintenance (I dare you to drive either way on Port Richmond Avenue in a straight line without ripping out your car's underside on a pothole or sudden depression in the roadbed), several slumlike apartments, and a steady level of distrust between the African-American and Mexican residents. The latter led to the present near occupation of the neighborhood (at least the section between Nicholas, Castleton, Heberton and the Terrace) by units from the 120th Precinct.

Like much of Staten Island, Port Richmond is an oddly dichotomous place. North of Castleton Avenue has a mostly African-American and Mexican population and there is substantial poverty and several abandoned, tattered houses. South of Castleton Avenue is white, black and all shades of brown and the home of such stalwart Port Richmond businesses as Denino's Pizza, Ralph's Ices and Merlino Photo Studios.

The possibility of the northern section becoming attractive is very real in the light of improved transportation. I don't know how this would happen though without many of the poor or minority residents being forced out. But if the travel time to Manhattan is reduced I see it happening and I don't suspect it will be a pretty event.

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