Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Lorenz Hart presented Staten Island as an amusing municipal afterthought in his 1925 song “Manhattan,” which playfully dismissed two outer boroughs with the line, “We’ll have Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island too.” The island has long existed in creative tension with the rest of New York City, owing at least in part to its physical isolation, especially prior to the 1964 opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and tightly knit local neighborhoods. Unique demographic and cultural characteristics also distinguish borough denizens from other New Yorkers. Staten Islanders drive many more cars, have double the rate of homeownership, live in more middle-class and suburban-like neighborhoods, and vote for far more conservative political candidates than their neighbors in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. They have battled the city intensely over the past half century concerning rapid development, poor municipal services, high transportation costs, and the operation of the notorious Fresh Kills landfill. Resentment culminated in an active secession movement that peaked in 1993, when 65 percent of borough residents voted to leave New York and create an independent city. Though that municipal reorganization never happened, Staten Island remains a unique and anomalous place. Adventurous meeting attendees might find a trip to this outer borough a very interesting way to spend some time.

The cheapest, best, and most enjoyable route to the island is by ferry. From the Broadway and 50th Street subway station, take the 1 train downtown. The last stop, South Ferry/Battery Park, is a very short walk from the Whitehall Terminal, where you can catch the free Staten Island Ferry (for route information and schedules, see New York City has operated the ferry as a public enterprise since 1905. Approximately 65,000 commuters and tourists a day make the 25-minute trip to and from St. George on Staten Island. The city eliminated the ferry fare in 1997, and the previously dingy and foreboding Manhattan terminal received an extensive facelift in 2005. The ferry offers unparalleled views of New York harbor, the lower Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines, and the Statue of Liberty.

Riders will arrive at the St. George Ferry Terminal, which underwent a $130 million renovation in 2005. Regular commuters complain bitterly about the congestion and confusion surrounding parking and access, but visitors will find that the curved 40-foot high floor-to-ceiling glass and aluminum wall offers a stunning perspective on Manhattan and the Hudson River. The architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum (HOK) designed the facility, which emphasizes light, open space, and energy efficiency. A recent addition to the spacious waiting room consists of two eight-foot tall, 1,600 gallon fish tanks maintained by the Staten Island Zoo, which hold hundreds of tropical fish. The spectacular ferry trip itself, used as a potent symbol in such films and television shows as Working Girl and Sex in the City, offers enough satisfaction to justify an outing.

Visitors who venture out on land will discover some unanticipated treats in St. George, an eclectic urban neighborhood where housing styles range from Queen Anne to Victorian to converted warehouses, with social service shelters for homeless citizens also in evidence. The January weather and hilly terrain will probably preclude visitors from strolling along the waterfront esplanade, visiting the neighboring minor league baseball stadium, or setting out on foot into the neighborhood. The uphill view from the ferry terminal across Richmond Terrace, however, allows a glimpse of the area’s most attractive public buildings. Borough Hall (10 Richmond Terr.) was designed by the prominent architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings, whose other projects included New York Public Library. This 1906 three-story French Renaissance building contains a massive mansard roof, an imposing clock tower visible from the harbor, and a grand marble lobby with a significant series of WPA murals by Frederick Charles Stahr that illustrate local history. The neighboring Staten Island Supreme Courthouse (18 Richmond Terr.), also designed by Carrere and Hastings and opened in 1919, provides a neoclassical contrast, with its six giant Corinthian columns.

AHA visitors with limited schedules might make best use of their time exploring one or two nearby historic sites. The Alice Austen House (2 Hylan Blvd., 718-816-4506, is located two miles south of the ferry terminal, and can be reached by a 15-minute bus ride. Take the S51 bus from the ferry terminal to the corner of Bay Street and Hylan Boulevard and walk one block east to the water. Alice Austen (1866–1952) emerged as one of the most important documentary photographers on the New York scene during the late 19th century, and became one of the first women photographers in the United States to work outside a studio. Her natural curiosity and eclectic interests resulted in images that offer remarkable insight into New York cultural history. She captured the social life and leisure pastimes of her upper-middle-class female friends and acquaintances, extensively documented government processing of immigrants at the Quarantine Station just south of her home, and photographed street people and local characters ranging from fishmongers to newsboys. Her house, named Clear Comfort, was built in 1690 but modified over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. It sits virtually beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, on bluffs overlooking New York Bay, and its exhibits document Alice Austen’s life and times. The museum is open all year, Thursday–Sunday, from noon–5 p.m. Suggested donation $2.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center (1000 Richmond Terr., 718-448-2500, offers another interesting option. Take the S40 bus from the ferry terminal along Richmond Terrace for approximately 10 minutes and tell the bus driver that you want to exit at Snug Harbor. Established in the early 19th century as a rest home for “aged, decrepit, and worn out sailors,” this 83-acre site included 50 structures by 1900. It developed into a sprawling philanthropic institution that housed enterprises ranging from a working dairy farm to a music hall to a sanitarium. Its 28 landmark buildings, featuring excellent examples of Beaux-Arts, Renaissance revival, Second Empire, and Italianate architecture, were designed by some of New York’s finest architects. Since 1976, Snug Harbor has served as a center for the visual and performing arts. Visitors can roam the grounds and explore such institutions as the Staten Island Botanical Garden (718-273-8200, with its noted New York Chinese Scholars’ Garden; the Noble Maritime Collection (718-447-6490,, which seeks to preserve art and artifacts concerning the distinguished marine artist John A. Noble; and Art Lab (718-447-8667,, a school of fine and applied art that offers public exhibitions and programming.

Staten Island might not appear synonymous with the term “isle of joy” that Lorenz Hart applied to Manhattan in his ode to that borough, but it can provide for an interesting excursion and offer a different perspective on New York life and history.

Peter J. Wosh is the director of the Archives and Public History graduate program in the history department at New York University. His most recent book is Covenant House: Journey of a Faith-Based Charity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and he is currently researching a history of Manhattan College in the Bronx. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.