About the Regenerating Tottenville Project

From oystering to strip malls, to a community of on-going learning — searching for the path to 21st century revitalization by restoring human networks.

A Note from Susan Arterian Chang, Project Director

I grew up in Prince's Bay, on the south shore of Staten Island, half a century ago.  My recollections of the neighboring town of Tottenville, where I attended high school, was of a quiet marine village at the southernmost tip of New York City—surrounded by water and centered on a Main Street populated by small retail shops and professional businesses.  As historian Barnett Shepherd describes it in his book The Town the Oyster Built, "although a part of New York City [Tottenville retains] the feeling of a small coastal town ...with characteristics unlike any other place on Staten Island."

I returned to Tottenville in June 2016 with two Field Guide colleagues to visit the site at Conference House Park of a planned $60 million HUD-sponsored storm mitigation/community engagement project called Living Breakwaters. What we saw of Tottenville on that day saddened us—derelict and vacant storefronts on Main Street, many once-grand older homes in states of disrepair, and little evidence of the community connectedness and home-town pride that had once characterized the village.

Walking the woodland trails and along the often-litter-strewn shoreline at Conference House Park with our enthusiastic guide, Park Director John Kilcullen, we encountered few people. Something was clearly amiss in this town blessed with an abundance of natural and historic built assets. 

Our disappointment sparked a curiosity and a desire to take a closer look at Tottenville.  We turned for guidance to our colleague Dr. Sally Goerner. Sally is a scientist, engineer, psychologist, and author who collaborated with renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs. She has spent the last 30 years studying how civilizations rise and fall, and what makes them healthy over long periods of time. Sally is now integrating this life-long passion into what she calls "the science of naturally regenerative human networks."

The key to regenerating a community, Sally maintains, is learning and adapting as a community on an ongoing basis.  It's recognizing that investing in internal human and infrastructure capacities is what supports long-term vitality. Failure to make those internal investment puts a community's future at risk.

Sally believes that if we train ourselves to relearn the secrets of how well-functioning, healthy communities across time have functioned, we can begin to see what we are doing wrong now, and we can begin to plot a more effective course forward. It is her belief that for the last 40 years mainstream economic and development experts have been trained to apply the wrong concepts and measures to address our economic ills. Yet we keep using them despite the obvious evidence that they are not working.

Those old ways of looking at community well-being would fail to diagnose Tottenville's malaise because they define well-being in the narrowest of terms. Yet if we take a closer look at this middle-class community, an enclave of conservatism in an otherwise liberal city, it becomes apparent that it has experienced setbacks not dissimilar to those experienced by its inner city counterparts:  the loss of stable, skilled, well-paying local jobs and the small- to medium-sized enterprises that once provided them; an exodus of young talent; and, most critically, the erosion of community ties and knowledge networks. We continue to neglected communities like Tottenville at our peril.

We now know that we can most effectively address what ails a community like Tottenville by addressing the breakdown of its human learning networks. This common-sense insight points the way to economic development strategies that restore naturally self-sustaining vitality.

Jane Jacob's words from Death and Life of Great American Cities provide an additional and critical clue to the art and science of this regenerative process:  "Unsuccessful city areas are areas which lack ...intricate mutual support... the science of city planning and the art of city design...must become the science and art of catalyzing and nourishing these close-grained working relationships." 

Regenerating Tottenville documents a journey to restore those “fine grained working relationships.” We are enlisting the science of regeneration, the art of storytelling, and, most importantly, looking to the wisdom, knowledge and creativity of the people who care about Tottenville. We are excited to accompany them on this journey and to document how they identify and redeploy Tottenville's now under-utilitized social, natural, economic, and human capacities. Hope you will join us along the way.