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.
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.
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.
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.
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 society. 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.
As construction at the new waterfront development at the former Navy Homeport in Stapleton gets underway, we turn our attention to the shoreline. What will the new waterfront esplanade look like?
One rendering on the NYEDC website is of a charming inlet of restored wetlands,
and that most of the waterfront will consist of concrete walkways and hard edge sea walls. Is this consistent with the stated goal of creating soft edged shorelines within the harbor? To learn more about the NYEDC’s Waterfront Vision and Enhancement Strategy click here.
Let’s look at what is there now. The shoreline is in terrible shape and will need a complete restoration. However, it is easy to see that there is much potential for a pleasant interface of land and sea. In fact, a far larger segment of the waterfront could be dedicated to wetlands than is shown in the renderings.
This waterfront was an active longshore area in the past. Debris from the light rail line that serviced the dock facilities are still there, including rusting rails and ties. Around these old rail lines are many discarded cobblestones, now green and wet. It is probably too much to ask for a restored light rail service, considering that the Staten Island Railroad is just 100 yards away, but perhaps the cobblestone pavement can be reinstated to give a link to the waterfront past.
Here is where the hardedge presently begins in front of the Ironstate construction site. It is clear that this seawall is a far less satisfying aesthetic experience than the wetlands. If there must be such a section of wall, are there ways to mitigate it, as is being done on Governor’s Island? Additionally, are there plans for a ferry dock here to connect Stapleton by sea with the rest of the harbor? If there is any hope of modifying the present plan for the waterfront, we should be discussing these things now and engaging the EDC on possible changes.
After years of dusty, dead slow construction, the new state Supreme Court Building in St. George is finally getting ready to make its case. The St. George courthouse is nearing completion, shedding its plastic netting and construction fences and revealing itself to the world. And it is a revelation, far more engaging and integrative into the fabric of the neighborhood than one could have feared. For years now, the busy facets of its facade seemed to bode ill for the finished product and the variety of materials and jagged lines of the structure looked garish and too aggressive. However, with the fences coming down one can see that there is a connection between the bulk of the courthouse and the nearby buildings, and that the materials blend in well with the 20th Century mix all around it. In addition, the placement of the courthouse behind the hillside park allows it to maintain a comparatively low profile for pedestrians on Hyatt Street. Even the odd rampart roofline, which looks a bit clumsy from the neighborhood behind the courthouse, has a certain appeal when viewed from the harbor, giving the St. George skyline a certain Gibraltar-esque quality. (The first two numbers of St. George’s telephone exchange, 44, by the way, refer to “Gibraltar,” so the analogy is apt.)
The courthouse was designed by Ploshek Partnership, which has, for some odd reason, recently changed its name to Ennead Architects.
This is the same firm that created the new entry pavilion to the Brooklyn Museum, the Rose Center at Hayden Planetarium and many other bright, innovative buildings going up in New York and elsewhere. A look at their website shows that they are very, very busy indeed.
A look at the rear aspect of the project shows that some problems persist. St. Marks Place is still an eyesore across from the courthouse with its string of haphazard and poorly maintained housing. The parking component of the project, the St. George garage, has been open for several years now and the leafy vines that soften its facade in the warm months become grey bristles in winter. And that special blight of Staten Island, frayed and tangled telephone wires, line the sidewalk.
One large art installation that is part of the ongoing St. George waterfront revitalization project seems to be all but invisible in all the reportage. Siah Armajani’s 1996 lighthouse sculpture and pedestrian bridge stands apparently unseen and definitely closed behind the chain link fences and bus ramps leading into the ferry terminal. Now that the waterfront area just beyond it is finally being restored, and the upland parcel of land is being developed, it seems to be the right time to assess the added value that this work brings to the area.
It may not be a great wonder to look at on its own, but when viewed in context it has some very noteworthy qualities. It is in a style that seems to bridge the gap between 19th century warehouses along the waterfront and the 21st Century ferry terminal, thus giving its bridge theme an appropriate visual aspect. Its placement also creates a visual corridor for the restoration area, giving it a separate identity from the modern developement to be built on the upland segment of this parcel. In March of 2014 the Lighthouse Point development project, which includes retail, condos and a boutique hotel, received final approval and construction may begin later this year. And just as importantly, the sculpture serves a practical purpose, as its stairway, when reopened, will provide a welcome alternate route into the terminal, allowing pedestrians from the waterfront (and Bay Street Landing) to avoid the depressing crawl underneath the ramps. The stairs will undoubtedly afford a spectacular view of the harbor and the ongoing construction. According to a report in DNAinfo a few months ago, it is in for a restoration of its own, after being left to decay practically since the day it was completed. According to the report, repairs to the structure should begin in the summer of this year and be completed by Spring, 2015… that is, if anyone can find it.
Tompkinsville is a historic area just at the edge of St. George. The settlement was founded by Daniel Tompkins, the fourth governor of New York and the sixth Vice President of the USA at the place where Dutch settlers would replenish their fresh water supplies as they entered the harbor. The center of Tompkinsville is probably this intersection of Victory Boulevard and Bay Street, where many bus lines stops on their way to and from the far flung towns of the North and South Shores. The little park here is a pleasant place to get out away from the bustle. The area has a lot of daily foot traffic, and is a perfect area to become a commercial hub, thus drawing some future development pressure away from the more preservation worthy parts of St. George. But Tompkinsville is not “desirable” at present and is blighted by neglected structures and haphazard urban planning. It could use a little love.
Could we begin by imagining this busy area without the raging chaos of telephone and electrical cables that crisscross overhead? Here is a photo taken from a bench in the park, looking up at the first block of Victory Boulevard, both in its present state and then photoshopped to show what it would look like without the wires and the shadows that they cast on everything below.
A previous post here on The Rock Across the Harbor showed a similar wishful transformation on Wall Street in St. George. Here it is.