The Island In The Bay

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An energetic promoter, Erastus Wiman, probably did most to develop—and, from one point of view, to ruin—Staten Island. In the i88o’s he built a large, electrically lit amusement park on the north shore, and ran ferries to it from across the bay. Professional baseball was played at St. George under arc lights; the first Staten Island team was called the Mets. At the end of a hot day, the tired businessman from Manhattan could take his family there to dine, in half the time it took to reach Coney Island; afterward they could enjoy spectacles which, according to the Richmond County Advance , were “more pleasing than ancient Roman or Greek sports.” Opera stars sang, an illuminated fountain spurted a hundred feet in the air, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, in one season, drew a million visitors.

Mr. Wiman was bursting with ideas. He was not concerned with society people, writers, antique Dutch families, or political refugees. He saw the Island as a logical home for “the salaried man of small income, forced to see his wife restricted to the cramped accommodations of a city apartment house, and his children depending for a playground on the sidewalks or streets.” In effect, he anticipated some of the worst housing reforms of the New Deal and after. For $500 down and $2,000 additional payable in installments (with the mortgage insured), he offered to build homes on tree-bordered streets with parks.

And as the Island began to fill with small holders, society began to drift away. (Only the Vanderbilts still returned, and that solely to be buried in the family vault in the old Moravian cemetery.) Fox hunts gave way to excursions by open trolley car to beer gardens and beaches. A respectable middle-class culture grew. The Island opened its own hospitals, for which churches took up collections and to which the public brought such appropriate gifts as fruit, flypaper, and whiskey. From upstate, the Island persuaded a Lutheran institution, Wagner College, to come and settle on the Cunard estate, which was up for sale. Wagner was strong on the classics (its students used to sing, “Latin’s a dead language, as dead as it can be,/It killed off all the Romans, and now it’s killing me"). Now it could boast that its new campus held the soil of thrt countries, for Cunarders had brought over British anu. Dutch turf as ship’s ballast.

In 1898, after Albany enacted a new charter for New York City, the county of Richmond became one of its boroughs, and henceforth it was bound to be overrun. The wonder is that for so many years it has kept some of its rural air. Its last herd of cattle was sold just five years ago, and it has been only a decade since the Island’s farms supplied New York markets with a million dollars’ worth of fresh produce annually. With the aid of greenhouses the rich, mucky soil could be made to produce four crops a year.

There are still two or three farms, although years ago farmers began to be discouraged by the acid fumes drifting across from industrial plants in New Jersey. Pollution from neighboring boroughs, which closed down the oyster beds, has now stopped the clam diggers too, and made most of the beaches unsafe for swimming. But there are still traces of the old sporting life—for example, a group that likes to call itself the Sheriff’s Posse and gallop about the South Shore in cowboy chaps and spurs. There is even a practicing blacksmith. But by and large the Island is now another bedroom for Manhattan.

The commuters who make up its population are nearly all middle-income people, living in one-family houses, and singularly peaceful. The crime rate is much the lowest per capita of any of the five boroughs, with an average of only one murder a year.

The old independent spirit is not quite dead. In the state legislature some ten years ago, a Staten Island representative tried unsuccessfully to introduce a bill divorcing the Island from New York City. The Island could not exist without the rest of New York City- even its water is piped under the harbor from Manhattan. And the City spends far more on the borough of Richmond than it receives in taxes. The preposterous five-cent ferry ride is possible only because of a generous subsidy.

And in any case, the handwriting on the wall was far too clear, for by 1965 a vast Verrazano-Narrows bridge—named jointly for the Island’s discoverer and for the body of water it crosses—joined Staten Island directly to Brooklyn and the roar and smell of traffic. It is not what the Islanders need—either no bridge at all, or at most a railroad bridge to speed commuters to work by connecting into the city subways—but an automobile bridge, which will probably ruin what is left of any rural charm. Land speculation has broken out, tall apartment buildings are beginning to cut off the views from the hillsides. Before the end of the century the Island may hold millions of people living under the expressways along which other millions hasten on noisy journeys. It has become part of the general American nightmare of the exploding city.

In a community thus threatened, there are two possible kinds of defensive action. Citizens can work through official channels, for instance, for better zoning, more parks, or less pollution. But even individual action—unofficial, sometimes amateurish—can show astonishing success in saving what no one thought could be saved. At least, it has been so on Staten Island.