By Samantha Ecker Angerame
It feels strange to look at an old photo, one taken long before you or your parents were born, and recognize something. It’s a disconcerting feeling that uproots you from your present life. Suddenly you find yourself in a faraway place that feels antiquated and remote—but it’s also eerily familiar. You realize that you once knew it very well.
The Tottenville Review is named after my hometown—an unlikely place, I thought, to appear in the name of a literary review. I discovered the review by accident. I was researching graduate writing programs when the site popped up during a Google search. I was busy planning my future when I was suddenly pulled back into the past.
The review’s homepage had featured an old sepia-tinted photograph of a church. The church has an austere brick façade and a steeple with small arched windows. A large rose window peers out from the top of a darkened portico. The scene is washed-out and bare. The photograph seems to have been taken on a winter day, ages ago. I stared at the church, at the steps leading into the shadowy doorway, and I realized that I had once been inside. I had once known this church very well. And twenty-five years later I haven’t forgotten what it was like inside. Slowly, I realized the answer to my own question: Why is Tottenville, of all places, a fitting location to name this particular review after?
The tiny town of Tottenville is easy to overlook. Just eighteen miles from Manhattan, it’s technically part of New York City, but it seems a world away. It’s perched on the city’s edge, in its shadow. Like the literature discussed in the review that bears its name, Tottenville deserves a second look.
Tottenville is probably the least-known neighborhood in Staten Island, which is the least-known borough of New York City. There are approximately 660 miles of train tracks connecting 468 stations throughout four of the five boroughs. To get to the fifth—Staten Island—you’ll need to transfer from the train to a ferry. To get to Tottenville, you’ll then take a forty-five minute ride on another train until you arrive at the very last stop. Stepping out of the train onto the concrete platform, you will notice that the tracks end beside a channel of water that separates Staten Island from New Jersey. You’re standing in the southernmost neighborhood in New York State. And, despite the long journey, you haven’t left New York City. You’re in Tottenville.
If you were to stop and ask a resident of Tottenville why they endure the long commute, they’d probably say something to the effect of “Because it’s worth it.” Many see their little neighborhood as a respite from the bustle that consumes the rest of the city. So they take trains and ferries, buses and cars. They plot their commute down to the minute, memorizing schedules and devising alternate routes. They become experts at making the most of their time. For many, this means reading.
The long commute creates voracious readers. They devour newspapers, magazines, and books. What begins as an effort to pass the time often turns into a habit, finishing 400-page books in just a few days. Some of my Tottenville friends start a second book while they’re still finishing the first. They are stalwart commuters who appreciate a good story.
Even among Staten Islanders, Tottenville is considered the boondocks. As a teenager, I both loved and hated the distance. I loved being able to see the water from the end of my street. But I knew that only the best of friends would offer me rides all the way home from my high school on the north shore of the island. More than one potential boyfriend rolled his eyes when I finally revealed that I lived in Tottenville. (Oh the heartache of long-distance relationships!) But the experience of being at once a part of and separate from a community prepared me for life as a writer. For every moment spent with friends, there are hours spent alone. Being a writer means being secluded—alone with your thoughts, entrenched in a staring contest with a blank sheet of paper.
Sometimes all the seclusion has a dangerous side effect. Writers run the risk of getting so caught up in their own world, their own thoughts, that they become unable to step back and see the bigger picture. The years I spent in Tottenville taught me the importance of perspective. Looking out across the water at container ships that cross oceans and the flickering lights of the New Jersey coast—the country stretching out behind it—I learned that the world is much more than what I knew, more than what I could see. Perspective is what enables a writer to look past stereotypes in order to create characters instead of caricatures and rich, palpable settings instead of one-dimensional backdrops.
Growing up in Tottenville also taught me the importance of history, and its role in writing. Fictional characters demand their own history. Even if their past isn’t written on the page, it’s there in the character’s personality. It affects their thoughts and actions, and often plays a role in where they eventually end up.
Much of Tottenville’s history unfolds in the form of ornate Victorian homes, stately hotels, and cozy summer cottages. Named after the Tottens, a prominent family of settlers, Tottenville takes up less than two square miles, but it is steeped in history. Surrounded by water on three sides, it was the thriving center of shipbuilding and oyster harvesting industries in the nineteenth century. It’s rumored that the roads of Tottenville were once paved with oyster shells.
The more recent history of Tottenville includes swimming at the Tottenville beach and skating at the Rinky-Dink Roller Skating Rink. There were mom-and-pop shops like “Mary’s” and “Rose and Paul’s.” And there was the famous Flag Day Parade. Every June, marching bands and homemade floats ambled down Main Street in front of cheering crowds. Long after other towns began to cancel their own parades due to lack of money or lack of interest, Tottenville continued its tradition of patriotism, proud of its history.
Occasionally people take notice of Tottenville’s allegiance to the past. The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The New York Post have all run articles comparing Tottenville to a modern-day Mayberry. The articles usually mention the “quaint charm” of the neighborhood, and how it has “resisted the hands of time” by dodging the commercialization that many small towns succumb to. But the truth is, Tottenville has changed. Quickly but quietly, commercialization has crept in. The old Victorian homes have been torn down in favor of compact, nondescript housing. Monster-size strip malls have swallowed the mom-and-pop shops. The once quaint streets are now laden with traffic jams. Our little, out-of-the-way town has become over-crowded.
And so has the world of writing. Gone are the days when it was a rare thing to be a writer. Today there is a blogger or a memoirist or a short story writer in each of us. The landscape of writing and literature—like the landscape of my hometown—is shifting. In the midst of all this change, I find myself wanting to go back to my roots. Roots are what keep us grounded. They make us who we are and then let us develop into something more. When we lose our way, they give us a place we can return to.
Which brings me back to the photograph of the church.
I was a little girl the last time I was inside that church, and while memories fade and become distorted over time, I remember a few details with great clarity. I remember the narrow, spiral staircase inside that steeple. I remember the smoothness of the worn wooden banister beneath my hand and my excitement at climbing up the stairs to get to the choir loft. I remember sitting in a school bus on an afternoon when a fire broke out inside the church. One of the older boys ran past me, off the bus. He ran towards the church as smoke rose up from the windows. He thought his little sister was inside.
No one was hurt in the fire, but the old church was destroyed. In its place now stands a new church. It’s modern, with lots of open space and light. Gone is the spiral staircase, the smooth banister, the choir loft—those details that I kept with me over the years, the kind of details that might help a writer transform a story from words on a page into something tangible.
As the landscape of literature changes, with so many new books being published each year, it’s important to keep searching for exceptional new voices that might otherwise go unheard. By taking it’s name from a tiny, over-shadowed neighborhood, the Tottenville Review reminds me of the importance of looking twice; of digging a little bit deeper to find the pearl inside the oyster.
I live in New Jersey now, and sometimes I catch myself looking across the water at the flickering lights of Staten Island. It seems even smaller now, more distant. I miss the quiet of the early morning walks to the train station. I miss the old waterfront homes that sagged beneath the weight of their history. I miss the neighbors who offered me rides home from the train station when it rained. I feel lucky to know Tottenville as well as I do because there are so many who don’t know it at all. I am grateful—no matter how much it continues to change—to have grown up in the boondocks of Tottenville.