Springtime in Clove Lakes and Silver Lake Parks

It’s Springtime in Staten Island, too! A couple weeks ago, I posted several pictures of tulips and daffodils, pear trees and cherry trees, from Brooklyn and Manhattan. A friend of mine noted that I missed Staten Island, a especially grave oversight because I happen to live in Staten Island.

With the FDR Boardwalk here closed since Hurricane Sandy, my Brooklyn Half Marathon training has brought me to Clove Lakes Park and Silver Lake Park, which, like parks across the city, are bursting with brilliant yellow, pink and white blossoms. I’ll post some pictures below, but first, some background on the parks.

Clove Lakes Park is the more heavily used of the two parks, with a steady stream of runners and walkers taking advantage of its paths and recreational facilities that stretch from Victory Boulevard north to Forest Avenue. Centuries ago, a brook flowed through this area to the Kill Van Kull; but over the years, several dams have been built to create the lakes and ponds that now give the park its name.

The city acquired the land in the early 1920s, and in the 1930s, it was developed as a city park. Today, Clove Lakes Park is home to playgrounds, ballfields and an ice skating rink. It is also home to the oldest living thing on Staten Island, a more-than-300-year-old tulip tree, which drew a small crowd of admirers taking pictures of it Saturday morning.

Just to the East and almost adjacent is Silver Lake Park. To me, this park has a fascinating history. As I run along the serene paths on a Saturday morning, I try to imagine what this park once was:

Silver Lake has a long history of both recreational and commercial uses. During the 19th century, a casino and saloon existed on the lakeshore and several companies harvested its ice. Staten Islanders used the lake for boating and ice skating in that era, and in February 1897, Silver Lake hosted the National Skating Amateur Championship races.

Someday, I’d love to dig up pictures of the saloon and casino that once existed here.

Exactly 100 years ago, the lake was drained, and converted to a working reservoir, the endpoint of the city’s Catskill water supply system. The body of water currently at the center of the park no longer holds potable water (though it is clear enough to see rocks under a foot or two of water); it instead serves as drainage for underground storage tanks.

A picturesque causeway bisects the lake—so instead of running a 1.3-mile lap around the lake, I prefer to use the wide, paved causeway and run a 1.6-mile figure 8.

Silver Lake Park is also home to a golf course. I wonder, though, how many of the golfers know the history of the ground beneath the 18th fairway:

Land from Marine Cemetery, a nineteenth-century burial site for the Marine Hospital Quarantine in Tompkinsville, was added to the park in 1924. In 1928 the land was converted to a golf course, and in 1994 researchers discovered documentation linking the site to its past use as a cemetery. Today it is thought that perhaps several thousand immigrants, including many Irish escaping Ireland’s Potato Famine, who died from contagious diseases after landing in the United States are buried under the 18th fairway of the golf course.

On that uplifting note, here are some pictures of the two parks, showing off their Spring colors:

Silver Lake Park
Silver Lake Park
Silver Lake Park
Silver Lake Park

Silver Lake Park

Silver Lake Park

Silver Lake Park
Silver Lake Park
photo 2 (9)
Clove Lakes Park

St. George: Neighborhood of Possibilities

St. George, Staten Island
St. George, Staten Island

On paper, the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island seems to have it all:

  • Commanding views of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline.
  • A ferry, rail and bus transportation hub linking Manhattan to almost every neighborhood of Staten Island.
  • A complex of century-old municipal buildings designed by the architecture firm Carrere & Hastings.
  • A baseball field that is home to the New York Yankees’ minor league team, the Staten Island Yankees.
  • A 1920s-era vaudeville theater that seats 2,800 people and has, in recent years, hosted Tony Bennett, the B-52s, k.d. lang, Cyndi Lauper, Rosie O’Donnell and the Jonas Brothers.
  • A historic district encompassing 78 homes and a Roman Catholic Church designed in the Romanesque Revival style.
  • One of Staten Island’s two farmers’ markets 

It sounds like a great place to live and visit. But while walking through the neighborhood, I can’t help but feel frustrated. The Staten Island Yankees don’t sell nearly as many tickets as the Brooklyn Cyclones, across the Narrows. Many of the homes in the area are poorly maintained. A long promenade just East of the ferry terminal is full of crumbling, abandoned buildings, waiting to perhaps someday be the home of a National Lighthouse Museum. Most telling: The Staten Island Ferry is one of New York City’s most visited tourist attractions, and yet nearly all tourists who arrive in St. George turn around and take the ferry back. And I can’t blame them.

Last Saturday, I took a walking tour of St. George through the Municipal Art Society. Led by lifelong Staten Islander Georgia Trivizas, the tour brought about a dozen people along the waterfront and through the historic district. I was the only Staten Islander on the tour. The others were inquisitive, asking questions and trying to learn more about this borough. But I wondered whether they saw anything that would prompt them to return.

Better days should be ahead for St. George. It may soon be home to the world’s largest Ferris wheel and a 100-store outlet mall. Most Staten Islanders I know oppose the project. I have supported the Ferris wheel since the idea was unveiled last September. It will give tourists visiting Manhattan a reason to spend some time in Staten Island. They will ride the wheel and then enjoy our restaurants and views. (I was less sold on the outlet mall idea, until Trivizas pointed out on the tour that outlet malls in the New York City area are a huge draw for European tourists. I’d be more inclined to support a project that will draw tourists on foot than one that would draw locals by car—though I’m sure both will shop at the mall.)

Perhaps, too, the buildings that are designated to someday be the home of the National Lighthouse Museum will be put to good use. The promenade is gorgeous, leading to an old pier and new residential developments. But the space is desolate now, and wasted. Whether they become a museum—or shops or cafes, they have potential.

St. George has all the ingredients for a thriving, successful neighborhood, a neighborhood that people want to visit. Let’s build the wheel and restore the architecture.

View of New York Harbor from St. George
View of New York Harbor from St. George
National Lighthouse Museum
Promenade that soon may be home to a National Lighthouse Museum
Richmond County Bank Ballpark
Richmond County Bank Ballpark

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

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?

Staten Island’s boardwalk and Hurricane Sandy

Dedicated in 1939 and renovated in the late 1990s, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk in Staten Island’s South Beach neighborhood has been one of my favorite places to run for the last several years. But since Hurricane Sandy, which damaged many boardwalks in New York and New Jersey, the boardwalk has been closed.

As far as I can tell, the boardwalk itself is in good shape, but the storm pulled many of the ramps away from the boardwalk, twisted the guardrails that run under the boardwalk, and pushed a lot of sand inland.

The area has an interesting history that precedes the building of the current boardwalk. From the city’s website:

On June 30, 1906 the Happyland Amusement Park opened its boardwalk doors. Taking full advantage of the summer closings of most Broadway theaters, Happyland’s amusements, stage productions, and vaudeville shows attracted thirty-thousand visitors on opening day. The amusement park continued to draw summer crowds for many years with attractions like the Japanese Tea Gardens, the Carnival of Venice, and the shooting gallery. Though the boardwalk resort thrived throughout the 1910s and 20s, fires, water pollution, and The Great Depression (1929-1939) took their toll on the beachfront resort area and the crowds eventually disappeared.

In 1935 the beachfront property was vested to the City and underwent renovations as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) Works Progress Administration (WPA). Providing jobs for Depression era workers, the WPA also revived the community of Midland Beach. By removing the deteriorating music halls, carousels, and shooting galleries, the project made way for the present two and a half-mile long boardwalk. In 1939 it was dedicated to the former New York governor and president and has since continued to undergo periodic renovations and neighborhood improvements.

I asked some parks department workers today when the boardwalk might reopen, and they said Memorial Day. That’s a long way away, and I know many of us runners will miss the boardwalk between now and then, especially as the weather warms up in May and June. And it’s not just runners who will miss the boardwalk, but also walkers, cyclists and the fishermen who fish off the end of the pier in Ocean Breeze.