Planet of the Guidos

Why Staten Island is New York City’s most mocked borough.

Staten Island’s cultural export

This week, MTV will air the season finale of Jersey Shore. Over nine episodes, the reality show has evolved from its initial, one-joke premise—an intimate look at the boardwalk blunders of a vulgar tribe of self-identifying Guidos, distinguished by their gelled coiffure and tangerine skin—into a portrait of the sort of dysfunctional but lovable TV family we’ve been welcoming into our homes for years. Snooki, that exhibitionist Oompa Loompa, tumbled into our hearts and passed out on the beanbag. Mike, aka “The Situation”—who, despite his prized cobblestone abdominals, failed for the first six episodes to seal the deal with any of the ladies of Seaside Heights, N.J.—has an endearingly delusional optimism about him. Ronnie is at once fearsome for his temper and sympathetic for his romantic streak—he’s Stanley Kowalski with a heart of GNC Ultra Mega Gold. And Pauly D.’s “blowback” hairdo, a character in its own right, has benefited from prolonged exposure—its sculptural audacity deserves our awe, not our disgust.

Italian-American organizations, a New Jersey state senator, irritated Jersey locals, and Alyssa Milano were among those who tuned in (or refused to) and hammered MTV for trafficking in negative stereotypes. I’m among those who watched Jersey Shore on behalf of another interested, albeit less vocal, party, one that has resigned itself to a regular regimen of slights and abuse: Staten Islanders. Three members of the Jersey Shore cast (Vinny, Angelina, and The Situation himself) are natives of New York City’s fifth borough, which sits obstinately across the harbor from Manhattan. “Did you see the show?” asked a story on the Web site of Staten Island’s local paper, the Advance, after Jersey Shore debuted. “Are you proud or ashamed that three of the cast members have ties to Staten Island?”

Staten Island is to the Jersey Shore what, say, the Upper West Side is to the Berkshires: a prime summer-rental feeder community. The relationship between shore and island is occasionally fraught—the mayor of Belmar, N.J., recently took flak (and won some fans, no doubt) for a statement denigrating the island-headquartered “Guidos” who flock annually to his beaches—but it holds firm. “Go back to Staten Island, bro!” an antagonist yells at Ronnie in one episode. “I’m not from Staten Island, bro,” he responds. Honest mistake.

People who know little about Staten Island tend to know this much: It is a historical haven for mobsters (Paul Castellano’s former mansion is a short drive from Vito Corleone’s Godfather compound); it is home to a 2,200-acre landfill, the city dump from 1948 to 2001; it is home to the city’s strongest conservative voting bloc (it’s the only borough McCain carried in 2008); and it’s home to the largest per-capita Italian-American population in New York state. This last factoid extends back to the 1950s, when “white flight” began to scatter Brooklyn’s Italian-American communities out to suburban Staten Island. This migration was further enabled and encouraged by the 1964 opening of the Verrazano bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island and which gave the rest of the city a means of entry besides public ferry. (There are three bridges that connect Staten Island to New Jersey.)

MTV deserves ample credit, however, if Staten Island is best known today as Planet Guido. Jersey Shore isn’t the first time the network has tapped the island for deliciously unflattering programming. The past few years have also seen the broadcast of True Life: I’m a Staten Island Girl, in which three teens share their preferences for buff, “orange” guys and fantasize about high-paying waitress jobs; and My Super Sweet Sixteen: Cindy, in which a luxuriously pampered adolescent arrives at a garish New Dorp catering hall via Cinderella-style carriage, her beau in full-on princely regalia and wearing a blowback to make Pauly D.’s wilt with envy. One commenter responding to the Advance article wrote that “thanks to MTV, no one believes me when I tell them I’m from SI, NY … they say I’m not orange enough.”

Saturday Night Live has done its part, too, and with none of MTV’s documentary pretext. A 1999 sketch featuring host Gwyneth Paltrow sent up a pair of “Staten Island Nurses“: gum-smacking, big-haired, empty-headed, attitudinal. In late 2009, a sketch called “Gossip Girl: Staten Island” told the same joke, more or less: Bobby Moynihan put on a shiny shirt and mook accent, Bill Hader gesticulated wildly in a pizza parlor, and host Blake Lively tottered on high heels under the tremendous weight of her hair-sprayed wig. (Maybe it’s written on some SNL idea board that patrician blondes impersonating outer-borough trash = big funny.)

I was born in Brooklyn, but when I was six, my parents moved to St. George, the northernmost neighborhood on Staten Island. St. George is occasionally referred to as “downtown,” typically by residents hoping that some of the designation’s urban cool might rub off: It’s the part of the borough that most wishes it were somewhere else. Periodically, reports citing the neighborhood’s prewar architecture, skyline views, small artists’ community, and some newly opened café will announce St. George as a burgeoning hipster enclave, but that’s more or less the same thing my parents heard in the ‘80s. The poor public-transit access and dearth of nightlife and cultural life keep that dream deferred. In high school, a classmate of mine wrote an essay bemoaning the absence of a Barnes & Noble on Staten Island: A middling prize, you might say, but the island’s culture-hungry couldn’t be choosy. (One did open in 2000.) My own relationship to Staten Island is ambivalent. And yet I get a little defensive whenever it shows up in the popular culture as a cheap punch line.

A recent film offers a somewhat fresher and more complicated vision of Staten Island than we’re used to: Big Fan, which came out on DVD last Tuesday after a limited theatrical run. Written and directed by Robert Siegel (who wrote The Wrestler), and starring the comedian Patton Oswalt as a Giants-obsessed parking-lot attendant, Big Fan is part of a tradition of films—lean, but a tradition nonetheless—in which Staten Island plays a crucial supporting role. The landmark of this genre is Mike Nichols’Working Girl, from 1988, which concerns a Staten Island-based Wall Street secretary (Melanie Griffith) who sets her sights on big-city glory. Staten Island allowed Nichols a fresh twist on the age-old tale of the diamond-in-the-rough hero who yearns to escape her nowhere hometown: In Working Girl, the nowhere hometown is part of the greatest city on earth. Griffith’s ambitions are captured in an early scene on the Staten Island waterfront when she gazes hopefully at the Manhattan skyline: The harbor becomes a moat, the twinkling kingdom so close but so far. Staten Island, a 2009 independent crime comedy in which three Island nobodies strive for better lots in life and peer, Gatsby-style, at the lights of lower Manhattan”> 

Big Fan captures a different side of Staten Island: the one that wants nothing to do with its neighbor to the north. Oswalt’s Paul Aufiero has one friend, lives with his mother, and likes it that way. He’s barricaded himself comfortably among his obsessions, and his happiest contact with the outside world comes in the form of nightly calls to an AM sports-radio talk show. Big Fan nods not just to Staten Island’s McMansion-studded topography—Paul’s brother is an ambulance chaser who lives on a gaudy, stucco-drunk street—but also its unique brand of semi-urban decay: the crumbling warehouses, empty storefronts, gas-station mini marts, and run-down houses that line formerly industrial waterfront neighborhoods like Stapleton and Port Richmond. released on DVD, in which Staten Island appears as a gutted, drug-riddled hellhole pitched somewhere on the desolation scale between Camden and Beirut”>  Early on, Paul takes a disastrous trip to Manhattan that threatens to draw him out of his world, and he spends the rest of the film hiding out in his bedroom, pretending it never happened. The harbor is a moat in Big Fan, too, only the kingdom has switched shores.

The longing, Manhattan-ward gaze and the stiff-armed big-city rebuff: this duality is key to Staten Island. But the latter is the borough’s dominant attitude, especially as you get farther and farther south. In True Life: I’m a Staten Island Girl, one South Shore teen puts it nicely: “Nobody in my family has really left. I have everything I’ve ever wanted here. I drive a Lexus truck.” Several parents of friends of mine lived lives in which the city at large pointedly played no part. I remember one mother describing Manhattan, with a theatrical, revolted shudder, as crowded and gross: She liked to leave Staten Island on weekends, but preferred to head for the air-conditioned confines of New Jersey’s Short Hills Mall. Provincialism can be sniffed out in suburbs everywhere, naturally, but it’s jarring to find a chunk of the stuff bobbing, intact, within the so-called melting pot. There’s something of the chicken-and-the-egg to the issue, as a systematic inferiority complex shades into fierce, hermetic pride. The borough’s geographic remoteness at once mandates isolation (the ferry is a hassle to build a life around, except perhaps as a 9-to-5 commuter) and caters to isolationism (the present-day population remains nearly 80 percent white).

The stiff arm was ratified in 1993, when a majority of Staten Island residents voted to secede from New York City, tired of paying taxes to a city that rewarded them with megatons of waste and megatons of scorn. The State Assembly swatted down the resulting bill in 1994; secession talk resurfaced in 2008, though its chances of success are as slight as they were 17 years ago. The isolationist spirit is there, too, in a different way, in the music of the Island’s greatest cultural export, the Wu-Tang Clan, which challenged both the supremacy and strictures of Bronx- and Brooklyn-based hip-hop—from which perspective Staten Island was taken about as seriously as Peoria, Ill.— and refigured Staten Island as “Shaolin,” a proud, kung fu fantasyland.

Other New York boroughs claim strong self-reliance, too, of course, but Staten Island does so in a way that is more oppositional, and less appealingly “exotic.” Urbanites take foodie trips to Flushing, Queens, for authentic ethnic cuisine and can relate, at least implicitly, to the striving-immigrant narrative that animates a community like Jackson Heights or Sunset Park. Staten Island is much harder to assimilate into the fabric of New York. Politically, culturally, and sociologically, it is the strangest bedfellow in the city’s ménage à cinq, regarded as a little red state full of orange people who seem to have crash-landed on our blue planet.

In this light, the Staten Island Guido is the most vivid, visible (and, some might say, grotesque) reflection of the borough’s psychology. He turns “Guido” from a slur to a badge of honor and wears his déclassé otherness as proudly and aggressively as a punk rocker. (In its snob-scandalizing powers, the blowback is a far more radical hairstyle today than the Mohawk.) “The Situation” is exemplary: part insufferable rooster, part underdog. Kind of like his hometown.