A Look Back to Look Forward
Clues to regenerating communities that have been damaged by unmanaged development are often revealed in the rich patterns of human collaboration that existed in their economic heydays, before the corrosive effects of extractive development were fully felt. Here we explore the history of those collaborative human networks in Tottenville. Perhaps what we learn can help Tottenville and other communities develop new mutually-supportive learning networks that will be relevant to revitalizing economies in the 21st century.
The Legacy of an "Intricate" Economy
A Short Economic History of Tottenville
We know that in regenerative local economies, residents and enterprises, financial and educational systems, and built and natural environments thrive through continuous, mutually supportive exchanges. Human network scientists call this "intricacy"—when human knowhow, cultural mores, resources and infrastructure create naturally synergetic, self-nourishing systems.
Intricacy characterized Tottenville's economy during most of the roughly 100 years beginning in the mid-19th century when it was first the heart of New York City's oystering industry. In his book, The Town the Oyster Built, Barnett Shepherd describes Tottenville as a small community at the mouth of New York Harbor, first settled by farmers in the 17th century but later transformed into a bustling mid- to late 19th century village centered on Main Street and energized by oystering, ship-building, and related maritime trades, and tourism.
In the late 1800s a second wave of enterprising industrial-era businessmen opened factories in Tottenville, including a metals refinery that became known as “the College by the Creek” because of the many locals who went on to careers in the industry. Tottenville's Atlantic Terra Cotta, a terra cotta manufacturing plant, supplied the entire façade of Manhattan’s Woolworth Building with terra cottta fashioned by highly skilled artisans. Kreischer Brickworks, located in a contiguous village, used local clay to produce their distinctively colored bricks. The last of these south shore factories closed its doors in the year 2000.
By the late 20th century, however, a combination of sewerage, toxic industrial effluent, and overfishing had all but erased this once-thriving maritime economy. With the closing of Tottenville's oyster beds in the early 20th century, Barnett writes:
“...an entire economy and culture that had created the town of Tottenville were eliminated." Later, he notes, "in the 1930s the closing of Atlantic Terra Cotta [factory] and Brown’s Shipyard, among other industries, gave impetus to this change. Nassau Smelting was the last [factory] to go, scaling back in the 1970s and finally closing in 2000."
With no local industries to anchor it, by the late 20th century, Tottenville's Main Street – like so many others across the country– fell victim to a car-centric economy of big-box and chain stores. Tottenville's lively retail and service economy, once centered on Main Street, has devolved into a series of strip-malls located on nearby Page Avenue. Gone are the jobs that offered skill building and a living wage to locals and a Main Street where the community could congregate.
Were it not for its natural assets — its gently contoured shorelines, the ideal ecological conditions that allowed oysters to grow in abundance in its waters, the deep offshore channels that allowed ships to transport goods to and from its dockyards and later its factories—Tottenville's local economy would never have prospered as it did through the mid-20th century. However, as systems scientist Dr. Sally Goerner notes, it was the collaborative human relationships that grew out of its interdependent local industries that created the vibrant, self-sustaining economy that Tottenville enjoyed in its economic heyday. Understanding how those networks formed provides clues to how they might be revived.
“What happened over time,” Sally speculates, “was that relationships developed among people making a living in Tottenville. It was a very practical kind of thing. For shipbuilding, for example, you needed a whole variety of specialists and artisans. Not only did each specialist business need the other, but also over time they began to know each other. You knew who did high quality work and who didn't. Who was a deadbeat and who would honor his or her contract. These were all essential to the functioning of Tottenville's human economic network.”
Sally maintains that this complex co-evolution of interdependent human relationships took time. One-off or single-focus projects in communities like Tottenville won't nurture meaningful revitalization. Weekend workshops and events, and large-scale, exclusively outside-engineered infrastructure projects, purely "green-focused" initiatives, and mega commercial developments requiring large taxpayer subsidies are unlikely to generate the desired community vitality, however well-intentioned.
It also helps to develop a local “ecology of knowledge,” a system of natural, hands-on learning that grows out of individual participation in those various interconnected businesses. Recreating this today means Tottenville must develop projects and enterprises that appeal to multiple interests and draw in some way on existing local talents or skills. Where those skills don’t exist locally, they must be cultivated through apprenticeship programs, sometimes bringing in outside experts, to ensure that the projects or businesses can continue when the experts fold up their tents and leave the community. In short, Tottenville will need to develop the local “know-how” infrastructure, not just the “physical-material” infrastructure.
We tend today to focus on the environmental damage wrought by our industrial economy, especially in the days before the Environmental Protection Agency ushered in an era of environmental regulatory constraints. However historian Barnett Shepherd reminds us of the positive roles that local factories once played in communities.
For example, Nassau Smelting, a metals refinery located along Tottenville's Mill Creek did indeed pollute local waters. But, as Shepherd points out, before it ceased operations in 2000, many young Tottenvillians "found their first jobs at Nassau Smelting before going on to other work." It was, in fact, nicknamed, “The College by the Creek.” A stop on the Staten Island train was also established to create mass transit for those factory workers.
Next Steps for Regenerating Tottenville
The key to revitalizing a community lies in bringing together people who can identify and harness the resources required to take on new projects, who can make ongoing assessments of their success and course corrections when necessary, and who can plan next step strategies on the path toward regeneration.
We now look forward to identifying in Tottenville what Hanmin Liu of the Wildflowers Institute calls "informal capital and leadership," and to documenting how the community moves forward. We've already begun to imagine some possibilities.
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+ Tottenville's Early Main Street
The painting of Lower Main Street in the illustration above is a reproduction by Edith Dow of an original painting by Chester Graham. Here is Graham’s description of the commercial activities taking place at Totten’s Dock, from which sprang Main Street, and the businesses that lined lower “Maine” in the early 1900s, as pictured here:
Lower Maine Street, Tottenville, From Old Broadway, to the old Totten’s Dock, as it was in the early 1900s. This painting, of lower Maine, is from memory. At the time, it was the hub of the town’s business section, where all the food stuff came into the old Totten’s dock, in barrels & cases of wood, and carted away by horse drawn vehicles.
Freight was brought in by the S.I.R.T.R.R. in car load lots, at the freight station, and on the siding, such as potatoes, cabbage, turnips & etc. Weighted and bagged right at the siding, then carted to the dealer.
By steamboat from the city, came condensed milk in 48 cans to a wooden case, 350lbs barrels of sugar, coal oil, at the time, for our lamps, came into the dock by steamboat.
There were 5 hotels in this section, Ben Streeter’s having the largest, catering to the harness racing trade that came in from all over Jersey, then they all tied up at Ben’s Hotel over night, with a barn and shed in back for the stock, the next day they’d hold their races at Dongan Hills race track, or at Steve Slover’s race track in Pleasant Plaines in back of Steve’s Hotel.
+ Science Advisor Sally Goerner on the Value of Networking
I grew up in a time when Americans took pride in their ingenuity and know-how, a time when quality, integrity, and reputation counted, one in which your relationships with others in your business network and community were critical to both your industry’s health and your own income. The corporatization of America has largely eliminated this type of truly free enterprise. But it turns out that the most innovative and powerful economic networks in the world follow the same principles. Found from northern Italy’s industrial network to California’s Silicon Valley, these economic engines are built of numerous small, high-quality firms linked by a natural pattern of cooperation and niche building.
Called “flexible manufacturing networks,” such networks achieve tremendous economies of scale through large collections of small, symbiotic enterprises. Most have only 5 to 50 workers, with a few more having one or two hundred. Because they are small, cooperative, and still connected to one another, such enterprises also tend to produce very sophisticated and high quality work. Innovation is high because personal creativity is a central theme and because partnership and craftsmanship are still valued. Quality is high because people care about integrity as well as profit. Creativity is high because workers and ideas circulate. Such circulation builds expertise, breadth of experience, and an invisible chain of valued human connections.
Such webs tend to grow and develop because breakaway enterprises spring up easily and often, as workers trained by existing enterprises move out to start firms of their own while retaining the past connections. Such spin-offs often collaborate with the older establishments because they share history and have related work. In this way, people in the network establish their own “coherent role in the web of processes,” while members, information, and expertise cycle easily throughout. As a result, advances anywhere tend to stimulate benefits everywhere. Members prosper in a synergistic, not a zero-sum way.
Such networks exemplify regenerative economics’ central premise – that economic vitality is primarily a function of healthy human networks. They also clarify that healthy human networks consist of:
- An intricate web of human expertise, material infrastructure, governing structures, financial flows, communication systems, learning systems, behavior patterns, and cultural systems…that have grown up together such that:
- All elements play mutually-supportive roles in maintaining the vitality of individuals and groups at all levels of the social, economic and environmental whole.*
+ How Community Connections Frayed
Tottenville is one of the least diverse residential communities in all of New York City—eighty four percent white. It was recently featured in a New York Times article entitled “What it is Like to Live in Segregated New York.” Despite its homogeneity, in recent years there have been fewer and fewer ways for residents to engage informally with one another and forge community ties and support common goals.
One reason is that the town has lost its commercial center. Tottenville’s once thriving Main Street is a shadow of its former self. The town’s commercial heart has migrated a few blocks away to car-friendly strip malls on Page Avenue and to big box stores on the outskirts of town.
A new Richmond Valley Merchants Association includes Page Avenue businesses but excludes the historic Main Street district. A representative from City Councilman Joe Borelli’s office reports that “The [Main Street] merchants had no desire to participate.” Says Borelli: “The reason people don’t go to Main Street is because there is no parking. Staten island uses cars for everything.”
+ Mass Transit Disconnect
A number of ferry services once operated from several points on Staten Island, beginning in 1869 with a Tottenville to Perth Amboy, NJ, service that served commuters between those two points for 81 years and the 69th Street Ferry, connected Bay Ridge Brooklyn to St. George from 1912 to 1964. Today, however, only a single ferry line connects commuters to Manhattan’s financial district. Staten Island is also disadvantaged viz a viz other city boroughs because of the linearity of its rail system. The Staten Island Rapid Transit’s single branch extends from St. George’s Staten Island ferry terminal to Tottenville, stopping at 21 locations along the way.