Sunday, November 13, 2016

267. Wonders of Staten Island: the North Shore, plus a post-election chirp

         Staten Island has a bad press.  It’s the forgotten borough; the only borough in Democratic New York that consistently votes Republican (including in the recent election); that oddball distant bit of real estate squeezed up against New Jersey, which other New Yorkers think it should maybe be a part of; that unknown little island at the end of a half-hour ferry ride that tourists take so as to see the harbor and marvel at downtown Manhattan, following which they promptly board another ferry to return.  And in spite of its attempt to be “cool,” as seen in its much vaunted development plans for its North Shore -- the shore facing the harbor and Manhattan -- it still reaps derision, as seen in these comments online:

·      How can it be cool when it is isolated from the rest of the world?
·      The land that time forgot.
·      I’ve lived in SI myself and it was only for specific reasons, none of which involved much of a choice, and got out as soon as I could.
·      Staten Island’s biggest problem is its provinciality.  Residents still refer to Manhattan as “the city.”  It’s something foreign and other for most SI’ers.  The place has a morassy vibe it can’t shake.

         But this Manhattanite has hiked the Staten Island Greenbelt – how many Manhattanites have even heard of it? – as well as other parks on the island, and likes the quiet of some – not all – parts of the island.  And he has a guide, Victoria, an Ohio-born transplant who has lived most of her life on the island, and who has introduced me to the hidden wonders of the borough.  Last October, on an unseasonably mild and sunny autumn day, she offered to take me to Fort Wadsworth, which I had never heard of.  The trip took us by car along a certain segment of the North Shore and gave me a series of revelations.

         But first you have to access Edgewater Street, which runs along the shore, and from the ferry terminal that ain’t easy, but my guide knew the way and immediately we found ourselves near the water and the first revelation, the National Lighthouse Museum, which I had never heard of.  The day being mild and sunny, we decided not to visit the museum and instead walked along a broad esplanade beside the water, where three big modern apartment buildings loomed up that offered residents fine views of the harbor.

         Going on from there along Edgewater Street, we came to the second revelation: Miller’s Launch – again, a facility I had never heard of.  We drove onto the premises and found a narrow waterfront crowded with parked cars and, anchored beside several piers, the strangest assortment of boats I have ever seen: boats that looked like tugboats and yachts, and others like motor-driven barges, some of these with flat, empty decks, others with all kinds of gear on board, including towering cranes, winches and windlasses, huge drums, and stuff I couldn’t describe.

         Miller’s Launch, my guide explained, was a family-run enterprise providing all kinds of marine services in the area: transportation of workmen and supplies, rescue operations, oil-spill clean-ups, dredging, towing, undersea cable laying – you name it.  Their website lists boats equipped with vehicle ramps, rescue ladders, radar, depth finders, booms to contain oil spills and vacuums to suck them up.  If you have a maritime problem of any kind, Miller’s can handle it.  They have even rescued a Coast Guard vessel in distress, provided equipment to engineering experts and award-winning film crews, and assisted the police by dredging the harbor to recover bodies.

         Miller’s is open every day, 24 hours a day.  A friend of my guide, a woman who in her off hours writes haikus, handles a night shift at Miller’s and says it’s a welcome night when all she does is watch television.  In her office there is an array of screens showing the current operations of every one of Miller’s boats, and it’s her job to keep track of them all.  Emergencies are all too frequent, and that’s what Miller’s can handle.

         Just beyond Miller’s on the North Shore, heading east, loom a batch of hulking, abandoned buildings and a pier that constitute another revelation: Homeport, a U.S. naval station created in the Stapleton neighborhood by the Reagan administration in the 1980s as part of its Cold War campaign against the Soviet Union.  But soon it was deemed to be too small, too expensive and, because of budget cuts, unnecessary; it was closed in 1994 and the premises turned over to the city of New York.  So what can you do with a 35-acre decommissioned naval base and pier on Staten Island?  For years, nothing.  But Staten Island is trying to be “cool,” to lure developers and utilize its North Shore.  So in 2011 the city reached an agreement with a developer to create a new, mixed-use waterfront community.  Stores and housing, including affordable housing, are anticipated, as well as a waterfront esplanade.  It’s hard to imagine such a project in Manhattan, where developers and real estate interests, politicians and preservationists would soon be at one another’s throat, with resulting interminable delays.  New apartment complexes are now advertising studio apartments for $867 a month for tenants with a total annual income ranging from $31,097 to $38,100.  Are you listening, you rent-oppressed, snooty Manhattanites?  And for commuting, the Staten Island ferry is free – that’s what I said, free. 

File:Homeport Supreme Court gate jeh.jpg
Homeport in 2010, before development.  It's going to house more than a court.

         Just a short ways beyond this marvel is another: Urby Staten Island, a residential waterfront development meant especially to entice millennials new to the city who feel a bit lost in its vastness and intensity, and are put off by its astronomical rents.   Here they can live communally with affordable rents, enjoying a shared kitchen, a gym, landscaped courtyards, a 300-car garage, a bike room accommodating up to 500 bikes, a bodega, an apiary (yes – bees!), an outdoor swimming pool, and even an urban farm with a farmer in residence, providing some of the food for the meals.  Not to mention views of the harbor, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.  Current monthly rents range from $1795 for a studio to $3550 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.  No, I’m not kidding, and no, I’m not being paid by the developer.

                   After these marvels, one risks a comedown.  Edgewater Street ends at the Alice Austen House, the former residence of the pioneering woman photographer Alice Austen, now converted into a museum dedicated to her life and work.  Having already visited it, Victoria and I continued on our tour of the North Shore, now following Bay Street to Arthur von Briesen Park, a landscaped public park that was once the estate of the German immigrant Arthur von Briesen (1843-1920), who practiced law here and founded the German Legal Aid Society to provide legal services to impoverished German immigrants. When his heirs deeded the estate to the city, the original mansion had to be torn down, but the park offers a gently rolling wooded landscape, and a view of the harbor and the Verrazano Bridge.  While enjoying the view, my guide and I saw a container ship with HANJIN on its side, Hanjin Shipping Company being a South Korean enterprise that, alas, has just gone bankrupt, creating turmoil for its oceangoing fleet.  Fortunately, we were able to ignore the problems of Hanjin and enjoy the wooded scenery around us, its foliage gently tinted with the shades of autumn.

         Finally, the last and climactic revelation of our tour: Fort Wadsworth, a nineteenth-century fort guarding the Narrows, the narrow channel between the Outer Bay and New York harbor.  We couldn’t go inside, but we strolled about the part of the fort on a bluff overlooking the harbor, which gives a spectacular view of the nearby Verrazano Bridge linking Staten Island to the People’s Republic of Brooklyn.  And on the shore far below, we could see Battery Weed, with three tiers of slots for cannon (but no cannon) in its harbor-facing walls.  Being more into wildflowers than historic forts and cannon, I noticed, growing near us on the bluff, the blue-violet petals of New York aster and spikes of a late-blooming goldenrod.  We then walked under the approach to the bridge for a view of the bridge from the other side – also spectacular.  There were plaques giving a brief history of the fort, which, when closed in 1994, was the longest continually manned military installation in the country.  It was comforting to know that it and other forts around the harbor had been there for over two hundred years, valiantly guarding the harbor and city of New York.  And when did those doughty cannon discharge their murderous fire?  Except in practice or to fire a salute, never, for no hostile warships have dared to invade these privileged waters since 1783, when the British evacuated New York.  Still, New Yorkers must have slept more soundly, knowing that the British fleet in 1814, or a Confederate raider in the 1860s, would meet a fierce welcome if they presumed to threaten Gotham.  And the old fort, now a part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area, does provide great views of the bridge and harbor.  And this is where the annual New York City Marathon begins.  But no crowds were there to jostle us; Victoria and I had the place almost to ourselves.

File:STATEN ISLAND TOWER OF THE VERRAZANO-NARROWS BRIDGE, FORT WADSWORTH IN FOREGROUND - Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Spanning Narrows between Fort Hamilton (Brooklyn) and Staten Island, HAER NY,24-BROK,57-8.tif
The Verrazano Bridge, with the lower section of Fort Wadsworth.

         So ended our tour of this stretch of the North Shore of Staten Island.  Let the inhabitants of Manhattan take note: Staten Island, that fiercely neglected borough, offers splendid views, comprehensive marine services, and the fine affordable housing that Manhattan desperately needs and woefully lacks, and its cannon have long protected the city from nefarious invaders.  So don’t sneer, you spoiled sophisticates; that little island has every right to aspire to “cool.”  May it build and flourish.

          A post-election chirp:  Protesters continue to march in the streets of New York and other large cities, following Donald Trump's triumph, which shows how passion-fraught this last election was.  Three further thoughts occur to me:   

  1. The Donald promised to drain the Washington swamp (I'm all for it), but apparently is including Washington lobbyists in his transition team.  ???
  2. Among his followers being considered for high-level positions are Rudy Giuliani, our ex-mayor, and Newt Gingrich, who tried to impeach Bill Clinton for his sexual escapades.  The three of them have had nine wives among them.  How do the evangelical Christians, who backed Trump, feel about this?  ???
  3. Mike Pence, governor of Indiana and Trump's vice, has been described to me by relatives in Indiana as quiet and diligent -- a notable contrast with Trump's impulsiveness and flamboyance; they like their governor, but don't seem excited by him.  (He has had only one wife, by the way.)  Can he and other sober Republicans restrain their impulsive and often vindictive leader?  ???

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          My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  Confessions of a Comma King: My Life as a Freelance Editor.

         ©   2016   Clifford Browder