Front Street has potential!

A well built and pleasing industrial structure from 1912.

Long considered just a littered and potholed alternative route for Bay Street with no appeal either esthetically or commercially, Front Street has lain hidden in plain view along Staten Island’s North Shore ever since the demise of the dockyards that once operated there. With the opening of the URL complex of housing and retail that is fast approaching, there is now talk about the potential for the building stock directly across the road from the URL site. There are some historic industrial buildings there that are presently being used for back road commercial activity: auto repair, warehousing, etc. There is certainly a place in our island economy for such businesses, but probably not on a major pedestrian and commercial roadway, which is what Front Street will soon be.

Here is the latest article on the topic from the Staten Island Advance on line, SILive. 


The pleasure of a stone wall

photo from St. George Civic Association

photo from St. George Civic Association

People have strong opinions about stone walls, they can denote stubbornness, isolation, incremental projects… Stonewall Jackson, The Great Wall of China,

But the beauty of a stone wall is not discussed all that often. In St. George there are many stone walls, and they add an esthetic element to the terraced lawns, hillsides and public parks here. The long stone wall at Curtis High School is an example of the typical St. George stonewall, both in its make-up and in its history. It deserves to be considered for preservation in its own right.

Curtis High School is extremely overcrowded. But instead of considering the construction of another high school in the area, the School Construction Authority continues to add piecemeal expansions of Curtis. Not a great policy in any case, but in the latest proposal, the existence of that historic stone wall is threatened.

The St. George Civic Association has created an online petition directed to the New York School Construction authority, urging them not to remove or damage the historic stone wall on St. Mark’s place in order to build an additional annex.

Here is the petition. Sign if you can!

The Only Natural Park Land in St. George is about to be Paved Over

Go for a stroll next to the ferry terminal one day and look through the fence at the land about to be dug up and paved over for the Lighthouse Point development. Take a good look because you are about to see the last of St. George’s parkland for the last time. Is there any other natural hillside that goes from water level up to Bay Street or to Richmond

Rendering of Lighthouse Point (credit: Triangle Equities)

Rendering Lighthouse Point (credit: Triangle Equities)

Terrace anywhere else between the Verrazano Bridge and Snug Harbor? It is not a huge parcel of land, and unlike Empire Outlets and the New York Wheel, both going up on the other side of the ferry terminal, it is not a large project. Plans call for some street level shopping and a moderate sized hotel and a 12 story residential building. It is only three acres with some of that land already occupied by historic buildings which will be restored. Plans call for some open space, but if the preliminary plans are an indication, little of that will be green landscape. Details are here at NYCEDC

While the restoration of the historic structures is very welcome, the loss of open land in the heart of St. George is certainly not. One of the sad things about the urban landscape of St. George is that the beautiful hillside location has been paved over with no regard for the terrain, that the great potential of the hillside has never translated into beautiful parkland. Yet, here it is, and we are just giving it away to, what some might call, a mediocre development (though the final plans have yet to be revealed) without even a whimper of protest. DSC00179DSC00180

The Place at St. George Terminal where No One Ever Goes

The upper level that most people don’t even know about. It is greatly underused. Is it sad or is it beautiful, or just blah?

A stand of metallic trees

A stand of metallic trees

Then entrance almost no one uses. A friend asked me to meet her here once… and then was furious when it took me a half hour to find it.

Then entrance almost no one uses. A friend asked me to meet her here once… and then was furious when it took me a half hour to find it.

I have actually seen tourists sitting here… good for them!

I have actually seen tourists sitting here… good for them!

Those trees

Those trees

Where’s the drinking water? Underneath the lake.

Silver Lake shimmers in the sun just before the storm.

Silver Lake shimmers in the sun just before the storm.

Silver Lake is the largest body of fresh water on Staten Island. It is called a reservoir by islanders because for many years the lake was fed by the NYC water supply and served as drinking water for Staten Island. However, since the early 1970s, the drinking water has been collected in a large tank underneath the lake protected from surface pollutants, and the lake itself has ceased to serve that function. It is a beautiful sight for anyone driving by on Victory Boulevard or Forest Avenue.

The history of Silver Lake on the Parks Department website.

Staten Island needs a Wooden House Project of its own!

There are many lessons to be learned from the gentrification of Brooklyn. For Staten Island, one of the most relevant is the revival of the wooden framehouses.

There is a reawakening of interest in the woodframe houses of Brooklyn that is bringing beauty to neighborhoods once thought of as ugly, substandard and ripe for destruction and rebuilding. This renaissance comes as a surprise, since wooden houses have always been seen as the ugly stepsisters of the elegant brick and brownstone townhouses that, for most people, characterize Brooklyn charm. The sturdy row houses of brownstone, carefully built and beautifully ornamented, have always been valued as important assets in the urban fabric, and even during their darkest days of neglect they rarely suffered the indignities of thoughtless refacing and degradation. The wooden houses, however are quite different. Generally older and built in a variety of individualistic styles, they were not treated with kindness or understanding by their twentieth century owners. In only the rarest of cases have they survived intact to this day. However, in the new century they have come into their own, as an appreciation for their uniqueness and wide range of styles and histories takes hold. In a turnaround of fate that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, a considerable number of old Brooklyn woodframe houses have been allowed to shed their aluminum siding and have been returned to their original beauty, or in some cases, to a beauty they have never had before.

For several years three inspired and dedicated preservationists, Elizabeth Finkelstein, Chelcey Berryhill and Sara Durkacs, have been writing the Wooden House Project website and blog. The original focus of the blog was the stock of wooden houses in Brooklyn, but it has since broadened its view to Manhattan and elsewhere as well, as the ever restless writers have grown. The scope of the “project” has grown, too, perhaps beyond what these writers could have hoped for. It seems that the Wooden House Project website has tapped into a nascent movement and has given that movement a voice, a look and a forum. Even as the writers have moved on to other interests and other places, their website has continued to inspire, and, if I am reading the tea leaves correctly, convinced them to continue their project, even as they personally pursue new interests.

I grew up in a wooden house in Brooklyn. It was one of two typical frame houses with old fashioned porches sitting side by side on an original block of Bergen Street. An original block because before that this was farmland. The house was built in the 1870s and it still retained its original cladding of wooden shakes, having never suffered the re-siding or renovations that disfigured so many others. However, with the passing of time, the house slowly dried up and cowered down in a weedy lot, until it was finally demolished in the late 1980s. I imagine how nice that house might look now, were it to have survived until today, and been restored. In Brooklyn the glass is half full and half empty, so many wooden houses destroyed, so many others still standing, still hoping to be selected for a celebrity makeover.

Tale of two St. Georges, both wood, both historic. One neighborhood is baronial, meticulously preserved, highly valued. The other is just hanging on, hoping for a better day.

Tale of two St. Georges. Both wood, both historic, but one neighborhood is baronial, meticulously preserved, highly valued. The other is just hanging on, hoping for a better day.

A highland street in St. George

A highland street in St. George

On Staten Island’s North Shore, the situation is quite different. There are no brownstones. Instead there are many large wooden residences that are over 100 years old. These are to be found at higher elevations, away from tawdry commerce and where the harbor views are often spectacular. Many of these have been beautifully restored in St. George, Stapleton Heights and elsewhere. Then there are the lowly woodframe houses built for more modest residents. There are many more of these, entire neighborhoods characterized by one and two family detached houses from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mostly at the lower elevations near the shore. Some have distinctive facades, mutilated or not, many come with surrounding gardens, some paved over, some full of trash, some lovingly tended. They are in dire need of the attention that those large manors on the heights have long enjoyed. With modern improvements to the streets and urban context, these historic houses can form the core of charming, human scale neighborhoods in places like Mariner’s Harbor, Stapleton, Rosebank that would be unique in the city.

The area between Tompkinsville and Stapleton is a prime example of an extensive woodframe neighborhood with great potential.

A lowland street in St. George.

Take a look at the neighborhood between Stapleton and Tompkinsville, for example. It is full of wooden houses waiting to be restored, all along a dozen quiet streets, a stone’s throw inland from the URL development now under construction at the old Homeport site. For some images to the area, click here: Exploring the forgotten hollow between Stapleton and Tompkinsville.

Some people are already on the case and are restoring these neglected homes, but despite the hard work of these individual homeowners, there is still no critical mass, no forward momentum. What is lacking is the vision, the will and the market. Perhaps if we had such a wooden house movement like the one that this Brooklyn blog champions, we would be on our way to revitalizing these wooden neighborhoods. I am sure that the wooden house movement will eventually take hold on Staten Island as well. Hopefully it will happen before many more local houses succumb to the fate that befell my old Bergen Street home.

Two homes on Hendricks Street. One with its beautiful original natural shakes, the other showing the signs of fussy, inappropriate renovations and subsequent neglect. Which one is a harbinger of the future?

Two homes on Hendricks Avenue. The darker one with its beautiful original natural shakes, the other showing the signs of fussy, anachronistic renovations and subsequent neglect. Which one is a harbinger of the future?


Verrazano Narrows! Forget the mad dash and give the Italian his due

A blog commenter’s instinctive back-formation “error” leads to a logical renaming.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which opened 50 years ago in 1964, was one of the last of Robert Moses’ many enormous projects aimed at remaking New York for an automobile verrazminsociety. The central span is 1300 meters long and it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at that time. It would whisk motorists (pedestrians, cyclists and proletarian subway riders keep your distance!) between Brooklyn and Staten Island, thus connecting all the city boroughs and by extension, linking Long Island and New Jersey (to the extent that anyone in those places noticed). It had everything a bridge could want: a spectacular position, an important function, superlative construction, except for one thing: a great name. The working name, the “Narrows Bridge” was so generic, it seemed to beg for improvement. John LaCorte, the president of the Italian Historical Society in Brooklyn, had a bright idea early on, in 1954 he proposed naming it for Giovanni Verrazano, the first European to sail through these waters in 1524. Robert Moses resisted, saying the name was too long and obscure. Perhaps RM, a man at the end of a long career, was holding out for a “Robert Moses Memorial Bridge” renaming in the future? But after an epic campaign lasting many years, LaCorte’s proposal to name it after Verrazano gained resonance in the political calculus of the time, and the name Verrazano-Narrows was adopted.

That was a while ago, a half century or more. On the comments thread of a blogpost recently I read where someone (probably born much later) refered to the Narrows as “the Verrazano Narrows” an apparent back formation rechristening the body of water with the bridge’s name. Predictably, there was an immediate response from someone else, indignantly correcting the uninformed writer. But I was intrigued by the apparent error and inspired to think of that water as, indeed, the Verazzano Narrows. It makes perfect sense, and back formation, be it of grammar forms or name references, is a form of language growth with a long pedigree.

Italian Americans are comparative latecomers to North America and have had few opportunities to contribute to the naming of our geographical entities. This small and logical concession of a name at the entrance to New York harbor would be very easy, merely to accept an already existing tendency to connect Verazzano with the waterway he “discovered.” And it is particularly apt here, where Italian Americans are a considerable segment of the communities that line the shores on both sides of the narrows. There are Bay Ridge, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn and Rosebank and South Beach on Staten Island, all to some extent characterized by their history of Italian American settlement. Moreover, the bridge was so instrumental in bringing over a large number of us Italian American Brooklynites to new homes on Staten Island, presumably with our gold chains and garden Madonnas, that many resentful native born Staten Islanders gave the bridge a nickname of their own, “the guinea gangplank”!

So from now on, I will be calling it the Verrazano Narrows whenever I can get away with it. Both water and bridge. I am sure many typists writing about the bridge would agree with that, who needs that annoying dash anyway? .. now how many r’s, how many z’s, how many n’s was that? Two r’s one z and one n. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, i.e., a bridge spanning the Verrazano Narrows. Problem solved! And thanks to John LaCorte for getting the ball rolling.