Exploring Staten Island

I’ve tried my best to think good thoughts about Staten Island, honest I have, even though that puts me in a minority among residents of the other four boroughs, most of whom greet any mention of New York’s most sparsely populated county with a mixture of contempt (“It really belongs in Jersey”), ignorance (“I’ve never been there, except once when we had company from out of town and they made me ride out and back on the ferry”), and bewilderment (“What the hell goes on out there, anyway?”).

Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of having a great big mysterious island to explore, and only a 25 minute boat ride away. My first forays onto Staten Island were back in the 1960s, when the ferry cost a nickel (it’s probably the only thing in this city, certainly as far as public transportation goes, that has gone down in price over the years); like most visitors, whether New Yorkers or tourists, I didn’t venture much beyond St. George, the slightly (but only just) colorful and quaint community abutting the ferry terminal. But in the early summer of 1968, when I was an aberrant flower child squatting in the squalor of the Lower East Side and felt myself fading fast (okay, wilting, for the sake of preserving the metaphor) in the concrete and broken glass garden of the city, I decided that some fresh country air might re-invigorate me. Thus motivated, I marched right through St. George, climbed the hill that rises behind it, and set off boldly and blindly into the interior.

This being long before the days of Google maps, I have no idea where I was, but before long I encountered some open fields, which seemed like a miracle to me at the time considering that I was still (technically, and never mind the naysayers) still in New York City. And then an even bigger miracle: an unpaved dirt road. I swear, it almost made me cry. I would have seriously started singing that “Take Me Home, Country Roads” song except it wouldn’t come out for another couple years, but I did almost lie down in the dust and gravel to commune with Mother Earth.

The name of this bucolic little lane was Alaska Street, and speaking of Google, I can now ascertain that it’s no longer bucolic or unpaved, and that it’s way the hell over near Port Richmond, which of late has been making a name for itself for vicious gang attacks on Mexican immigrants who happen to wander through the area. Not the classiest part of Staten Island, in other words, but trust me; in 1968, Alaska Street looked, at least by Manhattan standards, like a little corner of country heaven.

Although I visited St. George and the immediate vicinity a number of times in the ensuing decades, I never attempted any serious bushwhacking again until 2006, when, beguiled by the prospect of national seashores and beaches and hiking trails that, according to the maps, seemed to line part of the eastern shore, I set out on a semi-successful hiking expedition that you can read about here. And, having just re-read my own account, I’d say “semi-successful” might even be overegging the pudding.

As I noted at the time, I had grown accustomed to hiking as it’s done in England, where cross-country walkers have their “right to roam” enshrined in law, there are reasonably well mapped trails and paths that make it possible to travel almost anywhere in the countryside, and most towns have a railway station where you can catch a train back to civilization when your walking day is through. As I found then, and found again on my latest expedition, Staten Island falls somewhat short of these standards.

In fact, during one of my many harrowing moments of traffic-dodging and cursing the imbecile drivers (who were probably cursing me for being imbecilic enough to travel through their domain on foot), it occurred to me that the entire physical and social structure of Staten Island is arranged so as to deliver a giant fuck you to pedestrians and bicyclists, to anyone, in fact, who doesn’t fully embrace the suburban lifestyle that mandates driving as the sole acceptable means of transportation.

Oh, there are buses, lots of them, and even a rudimentary train line that runs every half hour (sometimes more, sometimes less frequently; it’s timed to coincide with the arrival and departure of the ferries to and from Manhattan), but unless you live right along the route, you’ll probably have to drive to one of the stops. Sidewalks appear and disappear without rhyme or reason, frequently leaving the hapless pedestrian (that would be me) having to either dash through expressway-like traffic to the other side of the road (where, after a quarter or half mile, that sidewalk would disappear, and I’d have to reverse the process) or risk walking on the roadway itself, which, depending on the volume of traffic, could be anywhere from mildly unnerving to downright terrifying.

It wasn’t meant to be this way; I had planned on making most of my hike from St. George on the northern tip to Tottenville on the southwest corner of the island (approximately 17.5 miles) via what looked like, judging from the map, the picturesque hills and open country in the center of the island. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of said picturesque hills had arranged things so that you couldn’t travel far though their precincts without encountering dead ends and cutbacks; eventually I had to bow to reality and do the lion’s share of my walking along the very busy Richmond Road and the appropriately named Arthur Kill (pedants, please save your energy; I know that “kill” actually means stream in old Dutch, but considering how many times my life was put at risk by speeding cars, the modern meaning is more appropriate).

One advantage to this was that I got to see “Historic Richmondtown,” a cluster of semi-well preserved houses and commercial buildings from, gosh, I forget which century. Definitely not the 20th or 21st, so probably either the 18th or 19th. When I got there I was the only person in sight. I don’t know if it was closed (this was about 5:30 pm), or if it’s always closed, but it definitely added to the ambiance, as did the flock of rapacious geese (or somesuch; I’m not good with bird names) who looked inclined to menace me if I crossed onto their side of the street.

My many detours while trying to find a more pleasant cross-country route cost me both time and miles; with only about an hour’s worth of daylight remaining, I calculated that I had at least another five miles to go before I’d reach Tottenville – a place that through a long afternoon’s walking had begun to acquire an almost mythical significance and allure – which, to be fair, would have set it apart from almost every other hamlet on Staten Island, but bear with me: like many travelers, I’ve long had a fascination with last places, where the trail peters out and being interfaces with nothingness or the end gives way to the beginning or some such claptrap. Maybe I just thought the end of Staten Island (and, let’s not forget, New York State) would be synonymous with the end of the rainbow and a pot of gold would await me there.

In any event, I wasn’t sure I could make it there on foot before dark and I was starting to develop some blisters, so I took one final detour to Annadale, home to a station on the somewhat grandiosely named Staten Island Railway (it’s a nice idea; just needs to go a few more places) and sat down to wait for the train to Tottenville. While waiting, I heard the gruff tones of what sounded like grade-Z mobsters on the stairs above me, one guy sounding straight out of The Sopranos as he described various sorts of mayhem he was going to unleash on various sorts of people, interspersed with accounts of his latest jail time and encounters with his parole officer. If you bear in mind that the upper reaches of Staten Island are virtually littered with garish McMansions constructed by actual gangsters of, for example, the Gotti ilk, you might appreciate my concern.

The voices kept getting closer, but very, very slowly, as if their owners were taking one step a minute, and I prayed for the train to arrive before they completed their journey down to the platform and found me sitting completely and utterly alone. (I should mention that while the Staten Island Railway allegedly charges the same $2.25 that every other train and bus in New York City does, in practice it’s a free train, as the only place there’s a turnstile or ticket check point is at the St. George terminal). No such luck, anyway; the gravel-throated thugs finally emerged from the stairwell, only to reveal themselves as several feral 14 year olds, and the one with the loudest and most malevolent voice as the almost comical short, fat kid that seems to hang around every gang and compensates for his lack of a convincing gangbanger profile by being twice as loud and obnoxious as everyone else.

They didn’t kill me, as it turned out, barely acknowledged me, in fact, except to ask rather casually for a light so they could smoke their cigarettes in the no-smoking waiting area (do I look like the kind of doofus who carries around a lighter or matches, I thought but didn’t say). Turned out the young hooligans were riding with me to Tottenville, and while they didn’t seem particularly dangerous, they sure were annoying, so at the next stop I changed cars, only to find them skulking around again when I got off at the end of the line, before they eventually migrated down to the shore to throw rocks into the water and try to murder some birds or turtles.

Meanwhile, I’d come face to face with a blood orange sun as it sank into a chemical haze over Perth Amboy, New Jersey, across the Arthur Kill (yes, they have a waterway as well as a highway by that name, and I suspect it’s equally lethal), and for a moment, at least, Tottenville basked in a golden twilight glow that very nearly did replicate that end of the rainbow, magical mystery woo woo land sort of thing. But once the sun was snuffed out and I took a look around, Tottenville revealed itself as a somewhat decrepit Victorian seaport from which the last ship sailed long ago. A pleasant, shabbily genteel place, to be sure, in which it seemed completely incongruous to encounter police cars and fire engines emblazoned with the logo of New York City.

And with that I boarded the Tottenville Trolley for the long – 45 minutes to go 17 miles? then a wait for the ferry, then a subway uptown and another to Brooklyn – trip back to the actual New York City, vowing to return soon to suss out the true treasures of Staten Island and explore the many uncharted byways I’ve managed to miss so far. You may call me a dreamer – or more likely, a masochist – and apparently I am close to being the only one, but somehow in my heart I know there’s more to the island than the ugly face it shows to eccentric pedestrians. Next trip: a climb up Todt (Death) Hill and a hike through the greenbelt, followed by a promenade along the boardwalk (yes, they have one; they’re not about to be left in the shade by Coney Island or Atlantic City. Staten Island, you may be tough to love, but I’m tougher. Wait, that didn’t come out right. Never mind, the point remains: I’ll be back, so you might as well get used to me.

5 thoughts on “Exploring Staten Island

  • August 13, 2010 at 3:11 pm
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    My one and only Staten Island adventure happened back in the Nineties, when I ventured by ferry and a short walk to some club (name long since forgotten) to see Screeching Weasel. Except the SW van had died in Pittsburgh that day (this was long before the Internet and/or cell phones would have made that information instantly accessible) so I made the trip for nothing. Well, the opening band,Plow United, played anyway, so I got to see them. But I could have gone to see Rattail Grenadier (in their only ever NYC performance at CBGB) instead, so I still regret my one S.I. foray. I have been driven through Staten Island on various trips a few times and my impression has always been that the whole place is pretty much an extension of Bayonne, NJ, even more reason not to go there.

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  • September 3, 2010 at 4:59 pm
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    I grew up in Tottenville, and have just very recently moved back after some time away. I’ve got to admit, this is a pretty dead on assessment, particularly the white collar hoodlums at the Annadale train station. I applaud you for being curious enough to visit, and doubly so for going past St. George, as most visits from outsiders start and end there. It’s interesting to think that it’s even loosely conceivable that I could be out walking around listening to the potatomen on my headphones and bump into the man responsible for some of my favorite songs(songs that I have always generally associated with the distant West Coast) just a few blocks from my house. What’s next? Will I find Aaron Cometbus camping out in my mom’s toolshed?

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  • September 7, 2010 at 2:30 pm
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    I’m fairly certain that you “introduced” me to Staten Island, and riding the ferry became one of my favorite pastimes.

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