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The Outer Borough

There are more people and more money here now, but this is the same Staten Island I grew up on. It's a place where excess is proudly celebrated and discretion is, thankfully, not at all the better part of valor. And kids are cultured into it from a young age. By the time I was 14, I had my name in gold block letters -- MIKE -- hanging around my neck, with the i in diamonds, a fabulous gift from my parents. A few years later, they gave me a ring that flashed my initials in diamonds -- ms. It glittered beautifully in the sun as I hung my hand on the steering wheel of my new Trans Am, also courtesy of my parents.

We didn't live on "the hill" -- as we called nearby Todt Hill -- opting instead for the more middle-class neighborhood of Dongan Hills (where there aren't really any hills). But my father did have his Lincolns, his Cadillacs, his Jaguars, and his vintage Rolls-Royce in the garage, and we lived quite well. That said, he'd drum into our heads that we were not to take any of it for granted. Like many proud, self-made Staten Island men, my father saw the kids as somewhat spoiled. He broke his back -- as he liked to say -- working twelve hours a day, six days a week, owning deli restaurants, first in Brooklyn, then in lower Manhattan, for as long as I can remember.

And we were closer to the rule than to the exception. One of the biggest misconceptions about Staten Island is that it is solidly working-class. Though shades of the movie Working Girl are apparent, the island is not exactly the blue-collar bastion in which Melanie Griffith, playing a secretary named Tess, struggled to make ends meet. Those older, prewar North Shore neighborhoods are all still here, as are blocks and blocks of new middle-class detached and semi-detached homes. But Staten Island has for some time been the suburban home to a growing segment of New York City's more ethnic upper middle class. The value system may in many ways be solidly working-class -- which perhaps accounts for the confusion -- but the money that people are making and spending is definitely something else.

"I've never seen anything like it," Earnestine Lannigan, a physical-education teacher at New Dorp High School, notes. An African-American who moved to the island 19 years ago, she lives in a racially mixed townhouse complex on a plateau halfway up Ward Hill, and she has a tiny yard on a cliff with views as commanding as my cousin Joann's. "One of my students said to me, 'I'm getting an ankle bracelet from my boyfriend for Christmas,' and I thought that was nice," she observes. "When Christmas was over, I didn't see it on her ankle. She said, 'No, here it is,' and there it was, full of diamonds, around her neck -- they wear the ankle bracelets on their necks. It's very different out here. Sweet-sixteen parties that are like weddings -- I went to one at the Excelsior Grand; it had to cost at the very least $20,000. We saw a horse and carriage on New Dorp Lane the other day, and I thought, Oh, someone's getting married. You know what it was? Someone's first communion."

Staten Island is where boys get Corvettes and BMWs on their eighteenth birthdays, teenage girls get furs and gold and diamonds, and toddlers have their birthday parties in catering halls. Just last year my brother Vinny threw his son Vincent's first-birthday party at the Staaten. In the middle of the dance floor, the kids tumbled about in one of those huge inflated playrooms from an amusement park -- one that was so big it kept hitting the chandeliers -- while the 100-odd adult guests sat on the sidelines at tables, devouring lasagna, shrimp, and calamari.

Back in the forties, Staten Island was a summer retreat for literary types like Jane and Paul Bowles. Now it attracts celebrities like Steven Seagal, who has a huge compound on the beach in Annadale. Alyssa Milano and Rick Schroder grew up here four blocks away from each other, but they never moved back. Outside of Manhattan, Staten Island is the borough with the highest per capita income at $29,159. It is the fastest-growing borough in the city, and the fastest-growing county -- Richmond -- in New York State.

Tens of thousands of upwardly mobile Italian-Americans began moving to Staten Island as soon as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge -- sometimes derogatorily called "the Guinea Gangplank" -- was built in 1964, connecting then-bucolic Staten Island to Brooklyn. That was a period of "white flight" from New York's inner-city neighborhoods, and a time that saw the most dramatic growth on Staten Island in the more than 300 years since the Dutch first tried to settle here and came to blows with the Raritan Indians time and again.