Archive for the ‘Staten Island’ Category

Beautiful sailing ships at the South Ferry station

September 29, 2014

If you’ve ever taken the 1 train to its last, lovely, looping stop at the South Ferry/Whitehall Street station, you’ve probably seen them—15 beautiful terra cotta plaques depicting a sailing ship on the water.


The officials in charge of building the first New York City subway line in 1904 did a lot of things right. Not only did they hire brilliant engineers and planners, but they brought in designers to create inspiring decorative features on platforms.

Ceramic plaques like these were installed in the earliest stations. Each plaque reflects something about the station’s neighborhood or history: a sloop for South Ferry, a beaver at Astor Place, a steamboat at Fulton Street.


South Ferry’s ships might be the most magnificent of all, and it’s one of just a few stations that has a monogram panel with the station’s initials.

The visionary who created New York City

December 30, 2013

The name Andrew Haswell Green typically draws blank stares from today’s city residents, who are unfamiliar with his accomplishments helping to build the parks, museums, and zoos of 19th century New York—not to mention the consolidated city itself.

AndrewgreenIn the late 1850s, Green was a member of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, tasked with selecting the design for the new park.

It was Green who recognized the beauty and brilliance of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Greensward Plan, with its woodsy and pastoral landscapes. He shepherded the plan, helping it become reality.

The New York Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Central Park Zoo—give props to Green, now city comptroller, for these late 19th century achievements.

His 1868 proposal to consolidate the city, however, was a harder sell.

Nicknamed “Green’s Hobby,” the idea of combining Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other towns and cities along the city’s port barely gained traction.


But Green persisted. In 1890, the city council created a task force to look into the idea. By the middle of the decade, after much debate (and grumbling from Brooklynites), consolidation was approved; the new city was born on January 1, 1898.


Consolidation was an economic and practical success. But Green didn’t live long enough to see the results.

In 1903, while arriving at his home on Park Avenue, he was killed, ambushed by a gun-wielding man who mistook Green, then in his 80s, for someone else with the same last name.

The “father of New York City” was memorialized in Central Park with a bench bearing his name. He now also has a riverfront park named for him overlooking the East River at 60th Street.

[Middle photo: NYC Parks Department]

What New York Harbor looked like in 1905

August 5, 2013

What the harbor looked like on October 4, 1905, to be precise, with several ships pumping gray smoke into the sky.


There’s the Statue of Liberty—less than 20 years old—in the distance, and what looks like Staten Island far off on the left.

“Street types” shot by a pioneering photographer

July 1, 2013

Born into a well-to-do Staten Island family in 1866, Alice Austen found her life’s passion after her sea captain uncle brought back a camera from his travels.


[Street Musicians, 1896]

At 10 years old, she began taking photos, and by 18 was carrying around a heavy trunk filled with equipment, chronicling social events, family gatherings, and parties.

By the 1890s she was bringing her camera to Manhattan, where she “photographed the newly arriving immigrants and older residents as they went about their business,” states the website for Staten Island’s Alice Austen House, which preserves her home and legacy.


[Bike Messenger, 1892]

“Alice always photographed the people and places of her world as they actually appeared, giving us a beautiful visual window on 19th century America.”

She collected many of these photos in “Street Types of New York City,” an 1896 portfolio of images of peddlers, salesman, and other workers as she encountered them on city streets. She continued taking photos through her life; over 3,500 survive.


[Hester Street Egg Stand Group, 1896]

Austen’s comfortable life imploded after the stock market crash of 1929. For the remaining decades of her life, she and her companion, Gertrude Tate, lived in poverty.

Just before her death in 1952, her work finally received notoriety, and in the decades since, her standing as a pioneering female photographer of the beautiful and rich as well as the poor and struggling has continued to grow.


[Suspender Salesman; 1896]

The Alice Austen House recently ended an exhibit of her street photography. But the house continues to promote her reputation as an artist and early female photographer.

[All photos copyright Alice Austen House]

The “sloop murderer” hanged on Liberty Island

December 17, 2012

AlberthicksIn July 1860, dozens of boats jockeyed for a prime spot off Bedloe’s (now Liberty) Island.

The boats carried 10,000 New Yorkers heading to see not fireworks or another summer celebration but an execution.

The doomed man was Albert W. Hicks, a 40-year-old sailor who confessed to the gruesome murders of the skipper and two mates aboard the schooner A.E. Johnson earlier that year.

The Johnson was an oyster sloop, on its way from Spring Street to Virginia to procure a shipment of oysters. Days after departing, it was found floating 50 miles from New York without its crew, the cabin awash in blood and human hair.

AlberthickshangingharborAuthorities quickly deemed Hicks a suspect. When they picked him up for questioning in Rhode Island, he had the skipper’s watch.

So he confessed: He said he’d been drugged and shanghaied onto the sloop, then to escape he killed the crew, dumped their bodies into the Atlantic, and left in a yawl to Staten Island, making off with a few hundred dollars.

His trial captivated the city. After being convicted and sentenced to hang, he claimed he’d killed dozens of men at mining camps around the country.

That July morning he met his fate, the thousands of spectators created “a motley and strange scene,” The New York Times reported.

Alberthickshangingad“On the water, there were not less than from 10,000 to 11,000 persons present, in costumes almost as variegated as at a carnival. White shuts, red shirts, blue shirts, blue jackets, red jackets, green jackets and ever steamer, vessel and yacht, decorated with lively-colored flags, while the uproar was incessant—cries of “Down in front,” “Get out of the way,”—rising from hundreds of throats at the same time.”

At 13 minutes past 11 a.m., Hicks was hanged, the last person to be put to death for piracy in New York.

[Second photo: boats jockeying for the best view of Hicks’ hanging; ad: an ad for a trip to see the execution]

The women of John Sloan’s South Beach Bathers

July 16, 2012

Exchange the wool bathing outfits for bikinis, and female beachgoers today aren’t much different from their 1908 counterparts, as depicted in John Sloan’s 1908 painting “South Beach Bathers.”

“Sloan first visited South Beach, an amusement park on Staten Island that attracted primarily working-class clientele, on June 23, 1907,” states the web site for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“Like many of his New York–themed works, his depiction of South Beach suggests a story that begins when one person looks at another. In South Beach Bathers a woman adjusting her hat is eyed appreciatively from the side and behind by men lounging on the sand.”

“Women play several roles at once in Sloan’s art: beyond being objects of desire, they record the new independence of modern New Yorkers, while also presenting a variation on old ideals of beauty in art.”

A packed city beach on a hot summer day

April 9, 2012

Call it the other South Beach—not the one in Miami notorious for its topless bathers but the less posh South Beach on the eastern shore of Staten Island, featuring bathers sporting wool suits in this 1920-ish (?) postcard.

Back then, it was a jam-packed resort with hotels, an amusement park, beer gardens, bathing pavillions, and a general Coney Island-like vibe.

A century later, it’s a quieter place renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Beach with a much thinner crowd and a view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (not seen here, as it won’t be completed until 1964).

A never-built subway tunnel to Staten Island

May 31, 2011

If things went according to plan and the Fourth Avenue subway tunnel connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, proposed in 1912, was actually built, would Staten Island have become as urban as the other four boroughs?

We’ll never know, because like so many other ideas tossed out by the MTA and its forerunners, this one got shelved.

Okay, it did get off the ground a little bit. In 1923, the Brooklyn Transit Company began digging a tunnel under Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge that would connect the Fourth Avenue line to Staten Island off St. George.

But 150 feet in, digging stopped due to lack of funds. A Staten Island-Bay Ridge subway link was again considered in 1929, part of the city’s plan for subway expansion (see color map above).

The Depression ended that. In the early 1960s, community leaders proposed adding subway tracks to the under-construction Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

But anti-mass transit Robert Moses, Triborough Bridge Authority boss at the time, wasn’t going to let that happen.

[Black and white map, above left, reveals the original 1912 tunnel plan]

A long lost Narrows Ferry schedule to Brooklyn

May 20, 2011

In 1908, you had one transportation option if you were traveling between Staten Island and Bay Ridge—say to get to Coney Island or South Beach (Staten Island’s Coney-like amusement pier): the ferry.

This ferry schedule spells it all out for you. It was found stashed in Clinton Hill mansion all these years and is strangely well-preserved.

The ferry departs Brooklyn from Gelston’s Wharf in Fort Hamilton.

I don’t know if there still is a wharf known by that name, but the Gelston family settled here almost two centuries ago, reports a 1918 New York Times article:

“George S. Gelston came to Fort Hamilton in 1839 and bought the property on which was located the old Hamilton House, erected in 1750, and used during the Revolutionary War by both George Washington and Lord Howe as Headquarters.”

Today, Gelston Avenue in Bay Ridge looks like it may have at one time run down to the water.

Dorothy Day: the “paradoxical saint” of New York

April 24, 2011

Anarchist, pacifist, and committed Catholic Dorothy Day is in the process of being canonized for sainthood.

She’s not the first New Yorker to become a saint or be in line for the designation, but she may be the least likely candidate.

Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Day spent her early adult years as a Marxist journalist and agnostic, anti-war, pro-suffrage activist.

She lived lived on the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, in common-law arrangements with men, and had an abortion.

Then in the 1920s, after her daughter was born, she experienced a spiritual awakening. Day started going to mass daily, studied scripture, and embarked on an ascetic life.

And she founded the Catholic Worker movement: a newspaper with a socialist, pacifist slant that included a larger dedication to serving the poor.

Day did this by opening “houses of hospitality” in poor areas of the city that provided food, clothing, and shelter for the down and out.

Day herself lived in one, a group of cabins in Staten Island, the borough where she died in 1980 and is now buried in.

She never gave up her commitment to peace and improving the lives of the poor, which earned her accolades on the left.

But she also condemned abortion and birth control, which won her praise from conservative Catholics.


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