Staten Island, like its larger, cooler, better-looking brother, Manhattan, is an island borough of New York City. Unlike Manhattan, which is populous (not to mention popular), Staten Island has been largely uninhabited since the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Today, Staten Island serves principally as a final opportunity for drivers from the rest of New York City to come to their senses and turn back before entering New Jersey.
Staten Island—the southernmost of New York State’s 61 counties (the other 60 regularly ranking as nicer places to visit in annual surveys)—was discovered by Dutch explorer Arthur Kille, a man wealthy enough to fund his own expeditions (not like those guys who needed the support of this Italian king or that Spanish queen). Kille arrived on the island and attempted to name it for himself, but he met with opposition from the natives who were already living there and who had their own name for the place, which has unfortunately been lost to time.1 When the stranger came ashore, he extended his hand in friendship to the natives and declared, “Me, Arthur Kille.” The natives responded with a friendly but meaningful, “We kill Arthur,” extending their own hands, which held wooden spears and stone daggers. The parties quickly reached an agreement: Kille was permitted to name the tidal straits separating Staten Island from New Jersey2 in return for a promise that, other than being the nominal starting point, Staten Island would not be trod upon by runners of the New York City Marathon after the inevitable consolidation of the boroughs in 1898 (as foretold by tribal seers). Years later, in 1975, then-Mayor Abraham David “Jim” Beame approved the renaming of the municipal unit coextensive with Staten Island to “Rich Man County” in Kille’s memory (the natives long since having been relocated by force elsewhere).
Staten Island is approximately 59 square miles. Many New Yorkers find amusing the suggestion that much of that area is covered in garbage imported from the rest of New York City. The truth is that most of Staten Island is covered in refuse; less than 1% is something other than landfill. The remainder of this guide will discuss that tiny, tiny part.
The history of Staten Island is almost entirely devoid of any items of any interest whatsoever, with the following few exceptions:
In 1671, to encourage expansion of the Dutch settlements there, the English (to whom the Dutch had previously ceded Staten Island) resurveyed and increased the size of the lots along the southern shore of the island. These lots were settled primarily by the Dutch and became known as Nieuwe Dorp (meaning “New Village”), later became anglicized to “New Dorp.” So there is a place on Staten Island called New Dorp. New Dorp is the home of Fire Department of New York Engine Company 165—nicknamed the “Toxic Avengers.” You can’t make this stuff up.
During the American Revolutionary War, British forces under Lord William Howe evacuated Boston and sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. From Halifax, Howe prepared to attack New York City (which then consisted entirely of the southern end of Manhattan Island.) General George Washington led the entire Continental Army to New York City in anticipation of the British attack. Howe used the strategic location of Staten Island as a staging ground for the invasion. Over 140 British ships arrived over the summer of 1776 and anchored off the shores of Staten Island at the entrance to New York Harbor. The British troops and Hessian mercenaries numbered at about 30,000. Howe established his headquarters in... wait for it: New Dorp ...at the Rose and Crown Tavern near the junction of present (this is just too much!) New Dorp Lane and Amboy Road. Can you even imagine telling someone that your address is “24 New Dorp Lane, New Dorp, New York?” That’s just plain ridiculous!
In the 1980s, the idea of seceding from New York City was popular among Staten Islanders. In 1993, 65% of voters voted in favor of secession. The State Assembly put the kibosh on the plan, though. The heated incident gave rise to the popular slogan among those in favor of leaving the City, “Nothing secedes like success... which we didn’t have.”
In addition to the main island, Staten Island also includes several small uninhabited islands:
The highest point on the island proper, the summit of Todt Hill, is also the highest point in all of New York City. From the top of Todt Hill you can see many, many places you would rather be.
According to a 2009 survey, Staten Island’s population was 75.7% White, 10.2% Black or African American, 0.2% American Indian and Alaska Native, 7.4% Asian, 4.6% from “Some other race,” and 1.9% “Undecided.” These numbers are especially odd in light of the United States Census Bureau estimate that as of July 1, 2009, exactly ten people live on Staten Island.3
Without any doubt whatsoever, the single best feature of Staten Island is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry, one an engineering marvel, the other a true bargain, each a way to get off Staten Island.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a double-decked suspension bridge that connects Staten Island and Brooklyn (q.v.). The bridge is named for Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano-Narrows, the first known European navigator to enter New York Harbor. (This almost did not come to pass. In the final year of the bridge’s construction, the President of the United States was assassinated—by a lone, deranged gunman acting entirely on his own without the knowledge or support of any other person or institution, and certainly not the F.B.I. or the Cuban government—and there was much public support for naming the new bridge after the nation’s late, lamented leader. The president’s soon to be late, lamented brother intervened and instead what had been known as Idlewild Airport was renamed John F. Kennedy International, much to the chagrin of the family of Nathaniel Parker Idlewild, who had built the original airport with his own two hands.)
Each of the bridge’s two suspension towers contains 1,000,000 bolts and 3,000,000 rivets. If you have time while visiting New York City, you might consider counting these for yourself.4 The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world from when it was built until 1981, when it was surpassed by the Humbug Bridge in the United Kingdom. The British thought they were pretty clever indeed, until they realized that they had to alter their designs for the RMS Queen Mary 2 to permit her to pass under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at high tide. So America wins again.
Staten Island Ferry
There’s a popular tale told on the island: A depressed young woman was so desperate that she decided to end her life by throwing herself into the ocean. When she went down to the docks, a handsome young sailor noticed her tears, took pity on her, and said, “Look, you’ve got a lot to live for. I’m off to Europe in the morning, and if you like, I can stow you away on my ship. I'll take good care of you and bring you food every day.” Moving closer, he slipped his arm around her shoulder and added, “I'll keep you happy, and you'll keep me happy.”
The girl agreed, for, after all, what did she have to lose? That night, the sailor brought her aboard and hid her under a lifeboat. From then on, every night he brought her sandwiches and fruit, and they made passionate love until dawn.
Three weeks later, during a routine search, she was discovered by the captain. “What are you doing here?” the captain asked. She got up off the ground and explained, “I have an arrangement with one of the sailors. He’s taking me to Europe, and he’s screwing me.”
“He sure is, lady,” said the captain. “This is the Staten Island Ferry.”
The New York Times has described Staten Island, on what can only charitably be described as a slow news day, as a “haven for artists and musicians,” many of whom have fled debt collectors in other boroughs.
Snug Harbor Cultural Center
Once a rest home for insane seamen,5 now a popular site for weddings, is an 83-acre city park, designated as a National Historic Landmark District, located on the northern shore and considered Staten Island’s “crown jewel.” Fully 93% of all culture on Staten Island is to be found at Snug Harbor, in the following sub-institutions, specifically.
Staten Island Botanical Garden: In 2005, the SIBG was among 406 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The money was not doled out equally, however, but rather in proportion to the institutions’ respective annual number of visitors. Accordingly, $19 million was given to Flashdancers Gentlemen’s Club in Manhattan, on Broadway between 52nd and 53rd. The Staten Island Botanical Garden received enough to buy two Hydrangeas and a PVC birdhouse.
Staten Island Children’s Museum: If you like children, and especially if you like them behind glass, you’ll enjoy this museum.
New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden: The materials for the garden were shipped from China to Staten Island in the Spring of 1998. A team of 40 artists and artisans from Suzhou constructed the garden, which features three ponds and a waterfall, curved walls and walkways, two pavilions, a xie (a building, half of which hovers over a lake), several bridges, numerous paintings and exemplars of calligraphy, and of course much vegetation—trees, shrubs, and flowers. The grounds are exceedingly beautiful... a model of elegance—infinite space in an enclosed area.
Unfortunately, you will almost certainly not get to see any of it, as the Chinese Scholar in question is a 33-year-old man named Gongwu who values his privacy and simply can not afford to have his dissertation research interrupted by gawkers intruding on his study space if he’s ever going to earn his Ph.D. in Computational Biology.
The remaining 7% of culture on Staten Island can be found in varying amounts among the following:
Historic Rich Man Town
Historic Richmond Town is an open-air museum located near the geographical center of Staten Island. Formerly the county seat and commercial center (which included the former courthouse of Rich Man County), the site now contains other former commercial and governmental buildings. Additional structures, such as farm buildings and homes, were relocated from other parts of Staten Island to make Historic Rich Man Town a complete sham village, featuring more than 30 historic buildings. And an annual chili cook-off.
Staten Island Zoo
Staten Island has had a zoo since 1936, when federal convicts completed a three-year WPA project. Someone thought it might help the United States out of the Great Depression to build an eight-acre facility for animals kidnapped from other continents. The Zoo had an initial focus on reptiles, in particular snakes. The Zoo’s focus has broadened since its inception, but the collection of rattlesnakes is still considered among the largest and most complete in North America. Every ten years, however, the Staten Island Zoo’s snakes are released from captivity. They are not returned to their natural habitats; they are simply released.
The Zoo is currently working on several renovations. A new carousel and leopard enclosure are being designed. It is not yet clear whether this will be a combined attraction.
National Lighthouse Museum (Aborted)
Staten Island was selected as the future site of the National Lighthouse Museum. The museum never got off the ground, however, and after more than ten years, the committee responsible for planning the project officially disbanded in the Fall of 2009.6
As is the case with men, women, and children the world over, those who live on Staten Island look to professional sporting events to distract them from the horrors of life on Earth. Staten Islanders have three sports clubs to call their own.
Staten Island Yankees
The Staten Island Yankees (nicknamed the “Baby Bombers”) are a “Short-Season” Class A Minor League affiliate to the New York Yankees. The most interesting thing to happen in the ball club’s history took place in 2004, when a fan who visited the gift shop at Rich Man County Bank Ballpark and purchased what she believed to be a complete set of miniatures of the entire active roster of the team took them home only to discover that she had in fact bought the actual players.
Staten Island Cricket Club
According to this organization’s promotional literature, “The Staten Island Cricket Club is a cricket club on Staten Island.” Incorporated in 1872, it is the oldest continuously operating cricket club in the United States. It is possibly the only currently operating cricket club in the United States, in large part because cricket is not popular in this country. Not unlike Staten Island itself.
New Dorp University Fighting New Dorps
(See New Dorp University, below.)
Colleges and Universities
Enrollment in school through the fourth grade is mandated by law for all residents of New York City. Staten Islanders who do not enter the workforce (or military) at age 9 and who graduate from high school might choose to attend college in the borough itself (as might those who are not from the island, for reasons not just unknown but unimaginable). Staten Island is home to two occasionally accredited institutions of higher learning.
College of Staten Island
The College of Staten Island is one of the six colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY). The college offers only one degree: a Bachelor of Science in Sanitation Engineering. Because of the unique focus of the school, however, the campus boasts a world-renowned sculpture garden, featuring numerous free-standing works of art, all made of garbage. The collection includes, among other pieces:
New Dorp University
New Dorp University is a private, co-educational, national liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 2,400 students and a campus located atop Grimy Hill. Prominent buildings include Main Hall, Central Hall, and Principal Hall, all built in the collegiate Gothic style. NDU is listed in the Princeton Review’s annual Best 366 Colleges guide. The school’s educational opportunities are nothing to write home about, as evidenced by the popularity of such majors as Biological Sciences, Business, Psychology, Sociology and Theater... but the school’s athletic programs are wildly popular.
The New Dorp University Fighting New Dorps field male varsity intercollegiate teams in baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, lacrosse, tennis, and track & field. There are women’s teams as well. (In 2009, NDU announced the discontinuation of the men’s wrestling and women’s volleyball programs. Riots ensued.) The football team’s home venue is New Dorp Stadium, while the basketball team plays its home games at the New Dorp Sports Center for Sports.
The NDU campus has been featured in the 2003 film School of Rock starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack. The literal school in the movie (the “Horace Green School,” as opposed the figurative, titular school of rock) is New Dorp University’s Main Hall building.
Actually, there is only one library on Staten Island: The federal government maintains a mirror site of the Library of Congress here, containing a duplicate copy of every single item housed in the three buildings that compose the main Library in Washington, D.C. Every one of the more than 32 million and other print materials in 470 languages... more than 61 million manuscripts... the largest rare book collection in North America, including a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and a Gutenberg Bible (one of only four perfect vellum copies known to exist)... over 1 million U.S. government publications... a million issues of world newspapers spanning the past three centuries... 33,000 bound newspaper volumes... 500,000 microfilm reels... over 6,000 comic book titles... countless films... 4.8 million maps... sheet music... 2.7 million sound recordings... more than 13.7 million prints and photographic images including fine and popular art pieces and architectural drawings... the Betts and Cassavetti Stradivarii... are all here, on Staten Island!
Not open to the public.
1 Some historians believe to have found artifacts suggesting that the island was referred to as “Shaolin” by a clan known as “Wu-Tang.” ↩
2 One of these straits, the one separating Staten Island from mainland New Jersey (as opposed to the Bayonne peninsula) is sometimes called Staten Island Sound by geographers. New Yorkers, however, know that the true Staten Island Sound is a plaintive moan of utter despair. ↩
3 100% identified themselves as “Miserable.” ↩
4 If you come up with a different number, please call the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority from one of the emergency telephones located on the upper roadway. ↩
5 Thomas Melville, a retired sea captain and brother of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, was an involuntary resident. Others include Horatio Hornblower, Captain Crunch, Captain Merrill Stubing, and Smee. ↩
6 The demise of the National Lighthouse Museum project in turn made it too dangerous to bring the traveling International Maritime Museum exhibit to Staten Island. ↩
Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.