Tottenville today through a historian's eyes
We tour Tottenville with a local civic leader, as she assesses her home town's current challenges and how its underutilized assets can be deployed to catalyze its regeneration.
In November 2016, I toured Tottenville with Linda Cutler Hauck, Founder and President of the Tottenville Historical Society. It was an invaluable opportunity to view the town through the observant eyes of both a historian and a life-long resident.
As we toured Main Street and then Page Avenue and talked about the critical factors that contribute to any community's vitality—or to its decline—it became increasingly clear why Linda was feeling a bit uneasy about Tottenville's future.
But our tour ended on a positive note, as she affirmed that what had made Tottenville a vibrant community in the past might provide clues to how it might regenerate today.
— Susan Arterian Chang
A Fragmented Community
On the day of my visit, Linda met me at the Tottenville train station, the last stop on the Staten Island Rapid Transit line. I confessed to her that I had felt a bit uneasy toward the end of my train ride, as I was alone on a car with two people who appeared to be high on drugs. Linda asked if I had seen any Guardian Angels on the train, who, in the absence of adequate police protection, had recently begun patrolling the them.
From Tottenville station we strolled up Main Street, lined with boarded up buildings and derelict storefronts. As we walked, Linda shared her concern about how the hometown she loves had lost its connectedness. She reported that affluent newcomers from other New York City boroughs had built imposing residences in enclaves along the waterfront, where wetlands had once provided a buffer against storm surges. The more established community was residing in older housing stock (like Linda's home), some of it landmark status-worthy, further inland. The community had been resistant to landmarking, however, and many older homes had been demolished or renovated in ways that destroyed their original architectural distinctiveness.
Near the train station and along Main Street, a growing population of renters inhabited new construction, sited in ways that removed the complexes from interaction with the larger community. Others were living in repurposed commercial buildings and older homes, many in sad states of disrepair.
Linda told me that she had been searching for ways, sometimes singlehandedly, to bring people together to celebrate the town's rich history. "When the Historical Society came into being," she explained, "I focused on the past because I thought the community had lost its sense of the past." To make history more alive, the Tottenville Historical Society rented a storefront on Main Street near the post office. “We knew at the outset that it would not be affordable long term," she reported. "But it was good to meet with so many residents who would stop in to chat. We were encouraged to learn that they were anxious to see changes; but getting them involved has been the challenge.”
Did the challenge arise because no one was putting down roots anymore, Linda asks herself? "I know what can happen to a place like Tottenville," she said. "We will lose what makes it special and has enticed people to come and live here. But I don’t think it is just Tottenville. It is going on all over the country.” Tottenville's physical isolation from the rest of the city added to the challenge, she acknowledged. “We are at the end of the line here. You don’t drive through and stumble upon it. You have to have a reason to be here.”
Linda says she is now looking more to the future for answers, not just the past. "I honestly had not given the future too much thought except for the fact I could see the changes that had happened since we lost our local groups, an active civic association, the boy scout troup," she admits. "I see these changes everywhere, in the shops and I hear it among the people I have known for a long time too…there is a sense of lawlessness. I just think we have lost so much by not having any kind of organization or unification, someone looking out for us. If we can connect now with people who can pull us into the future I think we will be a better community for it."
MAIN STREET IN DECLINE
That sense of lawlessness—that no one was watching over the street—was palpable as Linda and I walked up Main Street from the train station.
Page Avenue and the Drive-In State of Mind
A tour of Main Street on foot made it easy to share anecdotes, trade memories from our shared knowledge of Tottenville's past (including local gossip), and envision a future for this once-thriving marine village. But as we navigated the heavily trafficked Page Avenue in her car—Linda only half-jokingly refers to it as "a war zone"—our spirits wilted. We drove past an endless string of strip malls, housing chain stores, banks, and fast food restaurants.
"I think people have just accepted that the kind of commercial activity we had on Main Street has moved to Page Avenue, but that is not what we are after," Linda said. "That is just a bunch of stores slapped up to make money. I don’t know how much interaction there is with business owners. They all have their signs up, 'this is for parking for such and such store, all others will be towed.' Are they looking for options to help the whole area, or are they just focused on their own space, their own world?"
A Look Back to Look Forward
Tottenville was once world renowned as the Oyster Capital of the World, its Main Street was a bustling community of shops, hotels, and professional businesses supported by flourishing shipbuilding and tourism industries. Later it became home to small factories—including those using native clay—founded by a wave of industrial entrepreneurs.