To make it to the Republican presidential caucuses, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been flip flopping the cosmopolitan stances he used to take on gay, women’s and immigrant rights. Once he supported them; now he’s against. And lately, he’s adopted another opportunistic tad out on the campaign trail: implying that Staten Island is a center for rustic values.
Reporting from the presidential campaign trail in Iowa yesterday, the New York Times described how the Rudy repeatedly exploited misperceptions about New York City’s least populated borough while responding to heartlanders who asked if he understands life in the boonies.
“You’ve been out here in the country where there are no roads,” said one Iowa farmer. “When you get back to the big city, are you going to forget the little guys out here who are farming to feed you?”
Rudy responded that when he was mayor, “I didn’t forget anybody,” because, “The place that kind of won the election for me was Staten Island. It’s the closest thing that New York City has to – I wouldn’t call it rural, but suburbs.”
When asked if he’d ever worked on a farm, he sheepishly said no, then again went into his Big-Apple Mayberry routine. The people in Staten Island, he said, “feel like they are part of their own community. You get the same feeling you get in smaller-town America.”
Staten Island may have more houses and more Republicans than the other boroughs, but casting it as a C&W song is as silly as Rudy’s recent claims that he dwelled for weeks at Ground Zero after 9/11 (in fact he spent only a few hours). Staten Island has probably never been “smaller-town America” in terms of multi-culti demographics. And though it used to have farms, they were hardly enclaves of social conservatism, even decades ago.
True to New York City form, I discovered all this last year while poking through mountains of shlock at an estate sale in Brooklyn.
It took place in a rambling old house that was bursting with price-tagged memorabilia, including schoolwork done by a young woman who attended Brooklyn College after World War II. I found one of her semester papers, done for Sociology 12 with Professor Waterman. It is neatly handwritten, on lined composition paper, and was submitted on December 23, 1947. Its title is “Visit to a Staten Island Garden Farm.”
For her research, the student interviewed several farmers, including Gus Thanasoulis, a Greek. He raised beets, carrots and other vegetables, and sold them at his roadside stand on Richmond Avenue.
The sociology student noted that just like Mexicans crossing the border illegally today — Thanasoulis and his wife were immigrants from a rural region, with no education. They’d started farming in Staten Island in 1919, and almost 20 years later, Thanasoulis still wasn’t so good with his English. He got news from a Greek paper, and his second-language grammar glitches were duly recorded in the research paper. (“We grow small stuffs, such as spinach.”)
And like farmers today who resort to hiring undocumented labor, the Staten Islanders had difficulty finding cheap workers. Of late, the student remarks, farm wages have not been attractive to men who drifted off the land after noticing they “could easily earn more in a war plant.” The bracero program must not have made it to the East Coast by then, because “to solve the problem,” children “as young as fourteen years of age” were employed in the Staten Island fields.
The term paper also describes a visit with a farmer who was a prominent activist in the Staten Island Growers’ Association. The researcher was weirded out to find this elderly man living with an unmarried daughter who unlike other farm women, she notes is dressed in “men’s sneakers” and “overalls,” and looked “most unfeminine.”
Shades of the Greenwich Village dyke scene a free ferry ride away. In fact, the student concludes in her 1947 paper, it’s wrong to think of Staten Island farmers as rural people. “They live in New York City,” she writes. They are “definitely urban in thoughts.” They act “no differently from the real urban dweller.”
“Interesting,” Professor Waterman writes on the paper’s cover page.
(Editors’ Note: New York Greens vividly recall that it was Farmer Rudy who personally directed the uprooting and eviction of dozens of community gardens across Brooklyn and the Bronx in the late 1990s. The mayor replaced these organic green spaces with condos, office towers and, perhaps, a Whole Foods outlet or two. AC/JSC)
DEBBIE NATHAN is a contributor to “America’s Mayor, America’s President? The Strange Career of Rudy Giuliani” (ed. Robert Polner with preface by Jimmy Breslin, Soft Skull Press). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org