Hoffman and Swinburne Islands Up Close

Swinburne Island

Created with landfill in the 19th Century, Hoffman and Swinburne islands are those mysterious tree-covered patches of land off the East Shore of Staten Island. They were built to quarantine immigrants (after Staten Islanders burned down two quarantine hospitals in Tomkinsville in 1858).

I look at the islands often while running on the FDR boardwalk, and I think of what they once were and of what they almost became—Robert Moses wanted to build dry land connecting them to the mainland of Staten Island. And I have always wondered what these islands look like up close.

Last weekend I was able to approach the islands, as part of New York Water Taxi’s Audobon Winter EcoCruise to see winter birds and harbor seals. The smaller Swinburne Island was the more interesting of the two, as it serves as a temporary home for some of the 300 seals that take up residence in New York harbor in the winter. Though none were on dry land, several seals were in the water, bobbing their heads up to take a look at the strange yellow catamaran that paid them a visit on a blustery Sunday afternoon.

You can see in the pictures below that Swinburne is also home to ruins. According to our guide (and some blogging kayakers), Hurricane Sandy took a toll on the island. Last year, the ruins of three buildings stood on the island; now only one and a third of a building stand.

The last trip of the season will be March 3. But if you miss that, New York Water Taxi also offers summer Ecocruises.

Gulls in Erie Basin
Gulls in Erie Basin
Passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Hoffman Island
Hoffman Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
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Locations from “Wiseguy” and “Goodfellas”

Though I had seen Goodfellas as a teenager, it was only this month that I watched the movie as a New Yorker. And as a student of New York City history, I immediately downloaded Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, the Nicholas Pileggi book on which Martin Scorsese based his 1990 film.

A former crime reporter with the Associated Press and New York magazine (and husband of the late Nora Ephron), Pileggi made it easy for me to pinpoint many of the book’s locations, from the taxi stand in East New York, Brooklyn, where, at the age of 12, Henry Hill began his work with Paul Vario, to Hill’s home in Rockville Centre, where he was arrested in 1980. Though much of the action takes place in Brooklyn and Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island make some appearances as well (for example, Jimmy Burke did time as a teenager at Mount Loretto Reformatory on the South Shore of Staten Island—the same Mount Loretto that Francis Ford Coppola used for exterior shots from the baptism scene at the end of The Godfather).

I made a Google map of locations mentioned in Wiseguy. You can access it here or see it below. Fans of the film might also be interested in this map assembled by Eater that shows many of the restaurants used in the filming of Goodfellas.

Staten Island’s Wild Turkeys: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

Staten Island turkeys
Wild turkeys along Seaview Avenue in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze neighborhood

Did you know Staten Island had a turkey infestation?

Friends of mine on the other side of the country have a difficult time believing me when I tell them I have wild turkeys in my New York City neighborhood. But anyone who has ever driven down Seaview Avenue in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze neighborhood knows that it’s true: Hundreds of wild turkeys roam the streets, sidewalks and front yards around Staten Island University Hospital.

The following are five facts about Staten Island’s turkeys that you probably didn’t know:

  1. They began as pets—nine of them. The Daily News reported, “Ocean Breeze’s turkey terror began in 1999 when a local resident liberated her nine pet birds at nearby South Beach Psychiatric Center.” Of course, since then, they have become a huge nuisance for residents, as Dongan Hills resident Marian Besignano of Alter Avenue told the Staten Island Advance last year:

    Mrs. Besignano recalls that the first sightings of wild turkeys in Ocean Breeze occurred about 12 years ago. “When we saw one big turkey and three babies, we called the Advance, and a photographer came and took a picture,” because it was so unusual, she said.

    She felt sorry for the birds, and fed them. “And the woman photographer from the Advance wanted to buy food for them,” she remembered.

    “If I knew then what I know now, I never would have fed them!” she said.

  2. They’re a hybrid species—and this makes it all the more difficult to find them a home. The Staten Island Advance reported, “The state DEC says recent photos of the turkeys here show feathering that indicates they are hybrids, likely a blend of domesticated turkeys and special captive-bred wild turkeys.DEC has so far been unable to find any facilities willing or able to take the turkeys that would be able to keep them separate from wild turkey populations,” the report continued.
  3. A local resident has offered to relocate them. Greg Ruggiero of Dongan Hills told the Staten Island Advance last year that he would donate $5,000 to cover their humane transport to a safe, new home (as well as a store-bought Butterball roaster for every turkey successfully relocated). But at the time the article was written, no facility could take the birds and keep them separate from others (see No. 2, above).
  4. They’re as famous as drunken baboons in South Africa. The humor website cracked.com ranked our infestation on a Biblical scale, up there with flying carp, hordes of African snails and other phenomena from the far reaches of the world.
  5. Our residents are split on whether we should harvest the turkeys and serve them at local homeless shelters. In October 2011, the Staten Island Advance reported:

    Less than a month before Thanksgiving, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released its long-simmering “Experiences and Attitudes Toward Turkeys: A Richmond County Survey,” conducted by Cornell University by mail and phone with 451 residents of Dongan Hills, South Beach and Ocean Breeze.

    A DEC spokesman was unable to provide a price tag on the survey — but here’s what was learned:

    Sixty-one percent of respondents reported seeing turkeys daily and 25.5 percent weekly.

    But how to manage them presents a split decision: A combined 51 percent answered that harvesting some of their meat for local food banks is “very,” “moderately” or “slightly” acceptable.

    But 47 percent flat-out say no way.

So for now, the turkeys remain. They survived Sandy. They survive Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving. They even survive Hylan Boulevard. A few weeks ago, near Cromwell, I almost honked at the car in front of me for not moving when the light turned green—and then I realized, we were stopped to let the turkeys cross.

These reports include sporadic stories of the turkeys being angry or aggressive. Thankfully, among the dozens of times I have run past them on Seaview Avenue, none has tried to attack me. They either ignore me or walk away slowly.

A few years ago, I saw them outside my home on Delaware Street in Dongan Hills Colony. They hung a right at Dalemere, probably heading to the Chapin woods. I wonder what would happen if they had continued on and settled in the yard of a Todt Hill estate?

What Could Be More New York?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a strong and moving tribute yesterday to his predecessor, Ed Koch. Among the many lines that caught my ear was this:

“As you know, Ed will be buried at Trinity Cemetery in Upper Manhattan. Just think about it: a Polish Jew in an Episcopal graveyard in a largely Dominican neighborhood. What could be more New York – or even more Ed Koch.

It reminded me of some notes I made several years ago while writing a story about Astoria’s Greek community for One magazine. On a single block of 30th Avenue, between 34th and 35th streets, I observed the following businesses, each with its own ethnic roots:

Go Wasabi, Alexandria Jewelers, Cyprus Deli, Thai Angel Kitchen, Aladdin Sweets and Delicatessen, Gandhi Haute Cuisine of India, Casablanca Hair Salon, Zen Nails, Flemings Pub, and the Law Offices of Latos, Latos and DiPippo.

Again, what could be more New York?

More on Astoria, one of my favorite neighborhoods for grocery shopping, in a future post.

Grand Central Terminal Turns 100

Grand Central Terminal

This 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal has been in the news for a few weeks here in New York City. While I missed much of WNYC’s reporting on the subject, I commemorated the anniversary by taking a 2-hour Municipal Art Society tour of the station yesterday, and by reading much of the 100-year-old New York Times special section, a PDF from the archives that the Times made available last week.

Here are five interesting facts I picked up in the last couple days:

  1. The Glory of Commerce sculpture above the 42nd Street entrance weighs 1,500 tons and was carried up in sections in June 1914. Designed by French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan, the final, full-size piece was carved in Long Island City, Queens.
  2. The Grand Central Oyster Bar also turned 100 yesterday. Though, like the station, the restaurant fell into decline in the 1970s, it has been in almost continuous operation over the last 100 years. Having heard what the station was like in the 1970s, I couldn’t imagine a restaurant as nice as the current oyster bar being in the station. Sure enough, it wasn’t that great of a place to eat. Owner Jerome Brody describes the decline of the restaurant, before he assumed ownership in 1974:

    With the decline of the long-haul passenger train system, came the decline of the restaurant. It had no position among New York restaurants, and while thousands of commuters passed by everyday, very few went inside to eat.

    In 1974, when I was approached by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to take it over, the old restaurant had been bankrupt and empty for two years, having become in its last days not much more than a sad, old coffee shop. Reluctantly, I inspected what remained of its former grandness. The elegant marble columns you see in the restaurant today were then painted aquamarine over wallpaper. The wall covering was yellow Cello-tex™. The furniture was upholstered yellow, in unsettling contrast with the red table cloths.

  3. Charles Mingus proposed to his second wife, Sue Graham, in the whisper gallery just outside the Grand Central Oyster Bar. I have never tried the whisper gallery, where two people can stand across the room from each other and hear each other’s whispers carried across the vaulted ceiling–but plenty of others were trying it yesterday.
  4. The use of ramps in a public building was fairly new. It was seen as an efficient way to move large amounts of people from one floor to the next, without the inconvenience (and danger) of stairs. The New York Times described the ramps in its Feb. 2, 1913 edition:

    The infinite pains taken in this respect is used as an illustration of the care taken in every detail. When it was decided that inclined walks should serve as the footways leading into the huge subterranean station, the idea was borrowed from the sloping roads that led the way for chariots into the old Roman camps of Julius Ceasar’s army–no pains were spared to arrive at just the proper angle of inclination.

  5. For 25 cents, you could store your bags, and then change your clothes in a private dressing room, with a maid or valet to assist you. Again, from the Feb. 2, 1913, New York Times:

    Should the woman passenger want to primp us still more, or if she should want to return after a shopping tour to change her costume for a social function, she may have her suitcase or her trunk, for that matter, sent to a private dressing room, for the use of which, with a maid in attendance, she will pay 25 cents …

    The man with two days’ business or pleasure to crowd into one can reserve a dressing room at the barber shop, leave his suitcase there all day, rush back at 6 o’clock to get into evening clothes, with the aid of a valet if he wishes, all for 25 cents. A haberdashery adjoining the barber shop is ready to replace a lost collar button or supply anything else needed. Here, at least, men are accorded equal rights with woman.

And there you have it. If you want to learn more, join the Municipal Art Society on one of its weekly Wednesday tours of Grand Central Terminal.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal