What do you do when you have to wait around at the Western Beef supermaket on Bay Street for twenty minutes? (Yikes!) Why, you take a stroll through the neighborhood, of course! Never mind that the streets look, at first glance, like the improbable setting of a zombie movie, they hold some interesting history, both legible and enigmatic.
As is customary on Staten Island, the houses at higher elevation in this area are larger and more luxurious than their lower neighbors. So, making the very dubious connection between more luxurious and more interesting, I started walking uphill. I got past the Trinity Lutheran Church just before St. Paul’s Avenue commits itself to a steep incline toward aristocracy. A sign there proclaims the St. Paul’s Avenue – Stapleton Heights Historic District. That being a bridge too far, I turned back the way I’d come and decided to visit the more proletarian delights on my way back to Western Beef.
Trinity Lutheran Church, which towered before me, was the obvious start. The door was open on this hot, muggy day and I could see that work was going on inside. A man there was plastering cracks in the wall, big cracks that looked serious. He said that the church had undergone a major restoration in recent years after being struck by a tornado in 2007 and he reassured me that these fissures, the last of the work, were nothing to worry about. He let me enter the nave and see the beautiful stained glass windows, imported from Munich, Germany. He told me that the earliest ones had gotten lost in shipment during the First World War and were only later discovered in a Belgian warehouse.
Behind the church going downhill from St. Paul’s Avenue is modest Jackson Street, where the lower middle class and workers built their wooden homes, semi-hidden on the leafy hillside. Over the decades these homes have deteriorated badly and now give an impression of Appalachian poverty set in peaceful, trashy neglect. One house is situated closer to the street than its neighbors, and its low, farmhouse profile marks it as the oldest house on the block.
The street curves around, becoming William Street to connect with Van Duzer Street, a parallel artery through the neighborhood along with St. Paul’s Avenue. Main road residences and commercial buildings have been built there over the years, and some of them are nicely restored. These look as though chunks of the carefully restored houses of Stapleton Heights had somehow tumbled down into place here in the hollow below. But most of the buildings suffer from long indifference, and there is one very large private home with an elaborate wooden porch that seems particularly decrepit and worn. It must have been a major presence in the neighborhood in the past but now it is almost invisible behind overgrown vines and bushes and the lawn debris of its spacious front yard on the corner of Van Duzer and William Streets.
Today this is a non descript neighborhood, lost somewhere between Tompkinsville, Stapleton and the downflow of Ward Hill, but when commercial properties along Bay Street currently being developed come on line, this area between that shoreline artery and Stapleton Heights will seem a lot more strategically located – and this wooden house community more like raw material for a charming neighborhood.