In what was probably our last marathon Key to the City day, Lynn and I spent Saturday on Staten Island searching out the four locks there. They were spread from the northernmost neighborhood to the very southern tip of NYC. And I'll freely admit, we blended right in with the locals by taking a car. The island is so big there's now way we could have traversed all of the stops in one day using only the busses and single light rail line.
I'm sure I don't need to explain the stigma that is Staten Island. It's not so much called the "forgotten borough" because it slips under the radar as it is because most New Yorkers wish they could forget it. I'd been to Staten Island once before, and while the experience was too painful to record in the blog, that trip was referenced in this old post. Ok, truth is, that trip happened before this blog existed--but I liked the "too painful to record" line too much not to use it. Still, there are some truly beautiful places on the island. Some lovely beaches, fascinating former military bases, and as I learned on Saturday, some very historically significant sites.
Setting off in the morning, we first headed to the neighborhood of Elm Park. This stop was another community garden, named after local Joe Holzka. It used to be the site of an illegal casino, but was eventually turned into a source of neighborhood pride. Our key opened the gate to a gazebo in the garden to relax in--that is, if the gates to the garden itself were not locked. We discovered, unfortunately, that the garden is only open on alternating Saturdays. Oops. Undaunted, we smelled the roses through the chain-link fence and moved on.
Near the approach of the Bayonne Bridge, a few miles west of the first stop, is the Staten Island Buddhist Vihara. Vihara, I later learned, is the Sanskrit term for monastery, though this was a house like all the other houses in this residential neighborhood. Our key was to open the lock to the "garden maintained by the monks" behind the house. The gate was wide open, but a typed note on the gate welcomed us to wander the garden, meditate, and come inside for tea. We did wander the garden, and were especially interested in the Bodhi tree they had, directly descended from the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
A little nervous, we rang the bell and were welcomed inside by a monk in orange robes. He eagerly showed us into the shrine room with a large statue of Buddha surrounded by flowers and incense. The floor was empty, but for stacks of pillows along the walls, and the ceiling was everywhere covered in soft paper lanterns. We suddenly felt like we were intruding on their lives. We tried to ask questions and engage the monk showing us around, but he seemed--not unwilling, not unfriendly--just not engaged in talking too much with us. I'm not sure if this was a language barrier, or if we were upsetting a typical Saturday morning at the Vihara. We tried to politely and quickly thank him, put our shoes back on, and excuse ourselves.
By this point it was time for lunch, so we opted to drive down to the very middle of the island near where our next stop, a bus tour, would begin. This took us by the Staten Island Mall, the destination of my first fateful trip into Staten Island. Being the most suburban-like part of NYC, and since we were near a real suburban-like shopping mall, Lynn was hoping for an Olive Garden for lunch. Would you believe that although there are two Olive Gardens in Manhattan, there is not a single one in Staten Island? I'm amazed, too. Still, we found another typical suburban chain we hadn't been to in ages, Outback Steakhouse. Closed. Next door was another, closed. Who knew Staten Island didn't wake up before 1pm on a Saturday? We finally ended up at TGI Fridays. Oh yes, yes we did.
It was then time to meet the bus for our third destination, Freshkills Park. Why a bus? Well, the park isn't technically open yet, though they're giving tours of parts of it to let the public know what's going on. Freshkills Park is more commonly known by its previous name, Freshkills Landfill. It received most of NYC's daily trash from 1947 to 2001, and is the largest landfill in the world. As our guide said, if you lived in or visited NYC during the fifty-four years it was open, your trash is in there somewhere. Today the landfill is closed, and almost completely capped off. The city is turning it into a 2,600 acre park, the largest in NYC. The tour was pretty interesting, we drove up onto two of the capped "mounds" and saw the views out over most of Staten Island. Meanwhile, our guide told us the history of the landfill, trash collecting in NYC, and how the Parks Department is slowly turning it into what will be great parkland with lots of amenities. Our key unlocked a case in the front of the bus, inside of which were the largest pair of binoculars I'd ever seen. Through them we could just barely make out the Lower Manhattan skyscrapers in the haze off in the distance.
Sitting in the row behind us on the bus, was a couple from London on--if you can belive this--their honeymoon. Yes, they crossed the Atlantic to honeymoon in the least interesting borough of NYC on a pile of garbage. Well, mostly. She's working on a sewage reclamation project in London that will create a park around a terribly-polluted stream in the East End, so they worked this little side trip into their otherwise quite romantic NYC holiday. We got to chatting with them, and enjoyed our time on the tour bus even more for it. They loved the idea of the Key to the City project, so we invited them to come along with us to the final stop of the day. Quite surprisingly, they accepted.
So, off we were with our British captives--friends!--to the very southern-most tip of Staten Island, the Conference House Park
. We parked the car, and walked down a gravel path past an old stone house to a beautiful wooden pavilion right on the beach. It overlooked Raritan Bay, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. I've been to NYC beaches before in the Rockaways and Coney Island, but this was completely different. It felt more like a campground in some woodsy park far from anything that could be called city. On the beach was a woman walking her horse into the water to bathe, and shells washed ashore from the bay. Our key unlocked a door under the pavilion to let us into the space below it. There we found tickets for free admission to tour the Conference House, the stone house we'd walked past on the way.
We went up to the Conference House, and I'm so glad we did as it was the best part of the whole day. Walking around the house with our British friends, I learned that the guy was an architect. It was incredible to circle this old house with him as he thought out loud about the way the stones were set, pointed out where windows had been removed, and clearly discerned what was original to the house and what was added on or upgraded later. We managed to get in on the very last tour of the day (it was late afternoon by this point), with a couple other people who were clearly also enthusiastic about history.
I've always taken an interest in the history of places I've lived, and New York has been a veritable treasure chest. I love finding little pieces of history everywhere here and learning their stories. I've read extensively on the city's origins, the early settlements, and its role in American history. A big part of that role was during the Revolutionary War, where in the Battle of Long Island George Washington famously lost NYC to the British and retreated north. That battle occurred where I currently live
, and during his retreat Washington made fortifications in northern Manhattan where I went to grad school and where Gracie Mansion
would eventually be built. It's a fascinating story of how the American patriots nearly lost the Revolutionary War, or as our new British friends insisted on calling it, the Civil War. Ah, perspective.
Somehow, though, I missed the Conference House
. I'd never read about it, and indeed had never even heard of it. Built as a country manor sometime before 1680, by the time of the Revolutionary War it had been commandeered by Lord Howe, commander of the British naval fleet in America. Howe had been somewhat sympathetic to the colonists in the past, and so he was chosen to engage in the one and only session of peace talks between the two sides. A peace conference was brokered between Howe and the Continental Conference to occur at Howe's residence. On September 11, 1776, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge rowed across the bay from New Jersey, and were led up to the Conference House. They met with Howe in the parlor to the left when you walk in the front door. There's no official record of the discussion, but after three hours, the three politely refused Howe's offer of peace, and so the war raged on for another seven years before the British conceded their colonies to the new United States of America.
The house itself was just as fascinating as its story. Our tour guide was the caretaker of the house, and lived in a part of it that had been added on in the nineteenth century. She was new, the usual guide hadn't shown up that day, and it was the last tour of the day, which meant we were all very relaxed and she was hilarious. She led us through the main and upper floors of the house, where period furniture and everyday items were placed as if someone lived there still. Down in the basement kitchen, quite unlike every other historic house I've ever toured, we were encouraged to look around and touch things. Three hundred year old pots and pans? Check 'em out! Eighteenth century contraption in the corner? We have no idea what this is, come play with it and see if you can figure it out! It was awesome. If for any reason you go to Staten Island, take this tour.
Our planned destinations all visited, it was time to return to more familiar territory. Our new friends had become good friends, and so we went out to dinner with them in our neighborhood. And naturally, ice cream followed. The cool thing about this Key to the City project has been going to all of these places I'd never visit otherwise. But the best part is meeting all of these amazing people along the way.View Key to the City - Staten Island 8/21/10 in a larger map