Voters kibitz on City Island, New York City’s own Small Town, USA

This is NYC? City Island’s general store.
This is NYC? City Island’s general store.
Image: Quartz/Suzanne Guillette
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This is NYC? City Island's general store.
This is NYC? City Island’s general store.
Image: Quartz/Suzanne Guillette

Shortly after seven o’clock this morning, a couple arriving to vote at Public School 175 in City Island, a seaside enclave in the Bronx borough of New York City. They spotted a fluffy black dog outside the polling station, tied to the school’s gate by his leash. “Too bad we can’t vote for you!” the woman said. “Look at how cute you are!”

City Island has a decidedly friendly, small town feel. The population is just under 5,000, and the island is 1.5 miles long and a half-mile wide, with views of the water visible in both directions from main drag. P.S. 175 is located a couple blocks from a general store and next to a boat yard. There are a handful of bait and tackle shops. City Island Avenue is dotted with the occasional white picket fence. Some restaurants have parking lots (a very un-NYC phenomenon). Neighbors walking their dogs greet each other warmly and with familiarity. People make eye contact with and say hello to strangers.

Inside City Island Diner, a local breakfast spot, you’d never know you were ensconced in a eight-million person metropolis. Three older men, who were eating eggs and drinking coffee, were overheard opining on this year’s polarized political climate. One said of a friend, “He gets his news from a biased site—what does he think they’re going to say?”

Back at PS 175, a K-8 public school, voters of all political stripes showed up eager to cast their ballot. The PTA made the polling station an especially welcoming place—a salve after this long, contentious election season. They set up a bake sale with donuts, pastries, and coffee to benefit the school. Voters could also buy $1 raffle tickets for a host of prizes, including golf bags; baskets of homemade pasta, wine, and scratch tickets; and a framed photo with $55 cash. Leslie Hanley-Piri, a member of the PTA, said that this year already seemed busier than years in recent memory. “There was a line outside when I got here at 6:00am,” she said. “Usually, the first voters don’t come until 7:00am.”

Fellow PTA member Tom Waits noticed that, at least so far, the mood was different than in prior years. “They’re really serious, like they’re on a mission.”

Outside, as the sky brightened and seagulls flew overhead, residents of this urban-bucolic neighborhood did, indeed, seem intent. One woman entering the school called out to a neighbor, “Everyone’s up! No sleeping in today!” Another woman showed up a few minutes later and muttered, “Let’s get this over with.”

Residents leaving the school were a mixture of nervous, hopeful, and exasperated. An older man, when asked how he felt about voting, shrugged his shoulders: “Does it really make a difference?” A sixty-eight year old woman, who identified herself as a “clamdigger,” the term for people who have lived on City Island their whole lives, lamented the lack of basic civics knowledge in the overall election discourse. “The television ads were absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “People need to take political history courses to understand what governments can and cannot do. There are three branches of government. This is not a dictatorship.”

To make her point, she held up her index finger. “This is knowledge,” she said, gesturing to her whole finger. Then, pointing to the edge of her fingertip, “and this is what’s left of knowledge.”

As she waited for the bus, she conceded, “Well, at least this election made Saturday Night Live fun.”

Others expressed anxiety. One man quipped, “There’s lots of us looking into Canadian citizenship!” Steve Hargin, who was on his way to work after voting, said, “I’m apprehensive. I worry my candidate won’t win.” Hargin thought that this election season was tough, but not all that different from other general election years. “We always say, “Oh, it’s so ugly,’ but I’m sure we’ll do it again in four years.”

Emma Zucker, a thoughtful elementary school art teacher, wore a yellow t-shirt with an image of a snake, with “Don’t grab my pussy” emblazoned below. Zucker, who supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, said she was “extremely nervous.” “If Trump wins, our country will be the more divided than it’s ever been,” she said. “I don’t need to be living in World War II Germany.” (When asked if she would move if Trump got elected, she said she wouldn’t.) Her husband, Ben Zucker, thought that four years of a Donald Trump presidency would be “rough, but not the end of the US.”

Cesar Reyes, another longtime City Island resident, was weary, but positive. “This year, it seemed more about the candidates denigrating each other, instead of talking issues,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can get back to working on what matters.” Asked how he felt after voting, he said, “Lots of things, but exhausted—that’s the best adjective.”

One woman, walking out with a friend, had tears in her eyes. “It’s emotional, voting for the first woman president,” she said. “We just bumped into each other inside and started crying.”

Not all female residents agreed with that perspective. A member of the PTA was leaving to pick up her daughter, who is in the first grade. “I won’t vote without her!” she said proudly, adding that her daughter had become politically engaged through class discussions. For the PTA member, the mudslinging of this election season has been absurd and made her even more determined to cast her vote: “I’m not ashamed to say it—I’m voting for Trump.” Part of her reason was Clinton’s FBI investigation, along with the four deaths of soldiers and civil servants in Benghazi, Libya that occurred during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. “People don’t really know what they’re getting into,” she said.

While many leaving the polls said that they were relieved that this year’s fraught election season was almost over, one resident didn’t see things that way. Richard Doran, a older, soft-spoken Trump supporter, said, “I like this time. At least you see emotion—people are engaged.” The engagement reminds him of when he was younger, with the only difference being that now people engage mostly with people who think similarly to them. His hope is that people will continue to be passionate, but with a much needed return to civility: “Now, people are afraid. I really hope that we can get back to a time when people might disagree politically, but still be able to have a cup of coffee together, discuss their differences, and be courteous with each other.”

The atmosphere at PS 175 at least was warm and respectful, a sharp contrast to the online (and sometimes IRL) divisiveness that many residents cited. Regardless of political leanings, they seemed informed and clear on why they were casting their vote.

As the morning wore on, a man and a woman walked out smiling, holding cups of coffee and a glazed donut on a plate. Asked how they felt after voting, the woman replied, “Really good!” Then, after pausing, she said, “Well, hopefully. We’ll find out tonight.”