Staten Island Hates Russians (And Other Groups, Too)

Neighborhood-level ethnic tensions are a funny thing. They’re usually stressful, frustrating and embarrassing – even to observers. But in America, they’re also incredibly dependable.

So predictable are they that I can write a template article to be used for the clash between established residents and immigrant newcomers in any neighborhood during any point in history. It would go something like this:

Residents of _____________ (name of locality) are up in arms over the recent arrival of a wave of ____________ (ethnicity/race) immigrants.
Beginning in the _______ (decade), pockets of __________ (ethnicity/race) have been popping up across the nation. Here in ___________  (name of locality), they’ve started planting their roots, much to the disturbance of long-time residents who see them as upending the neighborhood character.
“They just wont adapt to the American way of life,” said longtime resident. “They don’t learn English, they _______ (insert relevant stereotype). It’s not good for the neighborhood.”
There are also concerns that the new immigrant community is cheating taxpayers by (suggestion of welfare scheme)
“They’re getting money from our taxes,” said longtime resident. “But I see them in their (nice car/fur coat/expensive sneakers/all of the above).”
But _______ (ethnicity/race) say they’re here to stay, and just want a piece of the American dream.
“I came to escape ________ (relevant problem of host nation),” said immigrant. “I want what every American wants: to own a business, own a home and provide for my family.”
The immigrant community is already showing signs of integration. They ______________ (checklist of “American” things the immigrants do).
The arrival of new immigrants to any neighborhood sparks off hostilities with those that have lived there for years. But the case of ________ (name of locality) is unique. Unlike other immigrants, _____________ (insert generalizations about economic, education, cultural or perceptive differences between the immigrants and the long-time residents, usually without attribution or relevant statistical data). And that stands in stark contrast to the neighborhood’s traditional demographic makeup.
_______ (ethnicity/race) say the tensions are unjustified, and are caused by ________ (bigotry if newcomers are not white/jealousy if white).
“America is about diversity,” said academic/activist/immigrant/anyone not objecting. “In time ______ (race/ethnicity) will become part of this great melting pot society.”

There are hundreds of ways to tailor this, whether it’s in an analysis in the wake of a hate crime, an “around the neighborhood” piece, or examination of opposition to a business or institution proposed by the newcomers. Seriously – I could take this template on the road and make a career out of rewriting it for local news outlets across the country and never want for work.

But why am I mentioning this now? Because the New York Times just did a piece about the supposedly budding resentments long-time Staten Islanders have towards the “newly-arrived” Eastern Europeans. Though the reporter insists the Eastern Europeans there are different than Brooklyn’s Eastern Eur- okay, I give up – Russians, and thus it’s a different situation, the same article could have been (and probably was) written for Sheepshead Bay 15 years ago, or Brighton Beach 25 years ago.

The New York Times piece hits all the hot points. Really. The controversy was sparked over a proposed daycare center to be operated by an Eastern European, and residents say it will be “another Russian thing.” Residents also say the state gave them money, but “you see them coming out of the center with their expensive cars and their mink coats.” The Russians counter by saying they live there because they want the American dream, or, to quote, “looking for something with a backyard, like an American family.”

My favorite part, of course, is the reporter’s demographic breakdown of Staten Island’s Eastern Europeans. So desperate is he to make this seem like a unique story, and not – really, it’s not, he promises – like Brighton Beach or Sheepshead Bay.

The reasons he gives – jealousy over the group’s wealth, education, and rapid ascension in American society – are the same ones I frequently hear for Russians in this part of Brooklyn. I’ve also heard it for Chicago’s Russians. It’s just so unique that it can be used anywhere Russians are.

Make note of this part. It’s the reporter’s money shot. This “unique angle” is what he tells the editor in order to justify the story, his paycheck, his existence, and the perception he may actually have talent.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that ethnic tensions don’t exist or are meaningless. Or that they don’t deserve some sort of coverage. But if every story can be boiled down to a Mad Libs-style report, is it helping to give an understanding of the situation? Is it helping mend fences and bring sides together? Or is it just another gross simplification that will lead to further cultural divisions?

There’s got to be a better way to report on these issues. What do you suggest?