2:45 pm Jun. 25, 2012
Introducing a series of articles and picture galleries from Capital New York
Perhaps fans of the hip-hop group The Wu Tang Clan know that not all of Staten Island is predominantly white and working- or middle-class.
The Park Hill projects and the surrounding neighborhoods of Stapleton and Clifton, referenced often in the Wu Tang's lyrics, are home not just to a large number of African American New Yorkers but to a diverse mix of immigrants, including Dominicans, Mexicans and West Africans. The latter group, which includes a significant Liberian population, stands out enough that "Park Hill," as the area around Park Hill Avenue in Clifton is commonly known, is also known to many as Little Liberia.
The neighborhood is home to the most densely populated Liberian community outside Liberia. According to the 2010 Census, the Liberian diaspora in the United States is currently around 66,000 strong. It's hard to say exactly how many Liberians live in Staten Island, because many of them still haven't sorted out their immigrations status, but their number is now estimated between 8,000 and 10,000, half of whom reside in Park Hill. The community, formed through different waves of immigration over the past 30 years, grew exponentially in the 1990s and early 2000s, when many Liberians were forced to flee the war that was plaguing their home country.
From 1989 to 2003, the Liberian civil war is said to have caused between 250,000 and 300,000 deaths, in a country of less than 3 million people at the time. In 1991, Liberian citizens fleeing the war were granted a Temporary Protected Status by U.S. Government, backed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which gave them permission to stay in the country they had just been resettled in.
Apart from the numerous war refugees, many other Liberians came to the United States as asylum seekers or skilled migrants, before and after the war, and settled in Staten Island.
During the war and in the years immediately after, Liberians in Park Hill seemed stuck in a limbo, incapable of integrating into the American social fabric, keeping to themselves and preserving a social network imported from Liberia to the plain brick buildings of the dozen housing projects so many lived in.
Many were paralyzed by the trauma of the Liberian civil strife and tribal hatred.
The area became known for its very high crime rates and the fights between gangs of young Liberians, often former child soldiers, and African American teens.
Over the past five years, however, Little Liberia has slowly gotten back on its feet, in large part through the help of local charity associations as well as programs funded by the city. The area has become safer, and the Park Hill community has started playing a much more active role in local political and social organizations, and has even gotten a voice in the quick-moving politics back home.
Over the last several months I've spent many days in Park Hill, documenting every day life in photos and interviews. This gallery is a sort of introduction; I'll be filing feature stories from Park Hill, documenting the evolving life of the Liberian community there, throughout the summer.