October 31, 2015. A beautiful fall morning. Eleven o'clock, before the serious Halloween mayhem begins.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
In the Rosebank neighborhood on Staten Island's eastern shore lies Alice Austen Park, site of the Alice Austen House, a New York City Landmark and National Historical Landmark. Named for Alice Austen, the documentary photographer who lived there for much of her life, the house has an original section that dates from the 1690s.
The house has more park to bask in – 15 acres of green – than many of New York City's historic houses do.
A path along the water offers a good look at the Verrazano Bridge.
Skip down to the actual waterline and things look a little rougher, though picturesque in their own way.
Here's a look south:
The adjacent Buono Beach, the former Penny Beach renamed for a Staten Islander killed in the Vietnam War, remains mostly closed after sustaining damage from Hurricane Sandy.
Alice Austen Park also appears to be home to another historic structure, the McFarlane-Bredt House, a onetime home to the New York Yacht Club at 30 Hylan Boulevard. I didn't know about it until after the fact, didn't notice it when I was there, and am not even sure what it looks like because different houses turn up on an internet image search. But I'll be sure to seek it out when I return to visit the Alice Austen House itself.
All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Another very large Staten Island park unknown to most New Yorkers, Silver Lake Park presents an interesting mix of natural beauty and utilitarian planning and design.
Unlike parks that advertise a small pond as a big attraction, like a little pearl in a very large oyster, Silver Lake Park is dominated both aesthetically and geographically by its namesake body of water, a sizable reservoir that evolved under human hands from a natural lake.
Stretches of peaceful grassland with some really nice old trees greeted us as we entered from the north. These are just London plane trees, ubiquitous in New York City, but these particular guys have grown some noticeable personality over the decades.
And look! An apple tree!
It doesn't take much to get us city folk excited. Later we came upon another one: Look! An apple tree! And this one has red apples!
A big chunk of Silver Lake Park is a public golf course. The 18th fairway is believed, says the Parks Department website, to contain the remains of "perhaps several thousand" 19th-century immigrants who died from contagious diseases after being housed in the Marine Hospital Quarantine in Tompkinsville, including many refugees from Ireland's Potato Famine.
I'm imagining the kids in the next photo sneaking onto the course through the gap in the fence (on the left side of the above photo) to practice chip shots when no one's looking. You know. As kids will do.
Or ghosts of the dead immigrants using it to come in and out at night. Everyone knows ghosts hate to climb fences, right?
In 1913 the Board of Water Supply drained the original lake and created a reservoir to serve as the endpoint of the city's Catskill water supply system. (Infrastructure junkies interested in how engineers piped water from the Catskills to Staten Island can detour here.)
No longer a working reservoir, Silver Lake is used today for drainage of two huge underground water-storage tanks system built in the 1970s – two of the world's largest, in fact, with a capacity of 100 million gallons. That's a lot of flushes.
Infrastructure. Boring, right? Probably ugly, right?
Seems you're not supposed to swim in the reservoir. But fishing looks to be OK.
Elsewhere in the park, water gets more excited.
But I got more of a kick out of walking across the reservoir's divider, which you can see in the background of the picture with the fisherman above. Here it is from a closer vantage point.
The structures on the divider bear the engraving "CITY OF NEW YORK CATSKILL WATER SUPPLY" above the New York City seal, with its beavers, flour barrels, and windmill evoking the time of the early Dutch settlers.
Peering inside the structures doesn't reveal much. And they're locked up pretty tight. I don't think even the ghosts from the 18th hole could slip through these bars.
The view from the barrier gives you a good sense of the size of the reservoir.
By contrast, there's nothing too spectacular about the "park" part of the park. A staircase from one level to another. A dog run.
Winding paths. More trees. The moon.
When it was created more than a century ago, Silver Lake Park was envisioned as Staten Island's answer to Central Park and Prospect Park, vast sculptured masterpieces too inconveniently located for Staten Islanders to visit often. It is nothing like those parks.
But it has its own beauty – infrastructural at it may be. And it did fulfill the vision of park visionary John De Morgan, who, addressing the New York State Assembly in Albany in 1900, asked on behalf of his fellow islanders for a place "Where…their children [can be] kept from the contaminating influence of the saloon."
I didn't have a single urge for a whiskey the whole time I was in Silver Lake Park.
All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media
Monday, October 5, 2015
This former estate on the east coast of Staten Island is one of New York City's most serene and beautiful waterfront parks. The elegant sign at the entrance to Arthur Von Briesen Park is a good clue in itself.
Signs don't always reflect the aesthetic of what's inside, of course. But the handsome lettering and stone wall suggest this place belonged to someone of means, and the park's sweeping paths and green lawns evoke the upper-crust life too.
Arthur Von Briesen wasn't a typical rich gentleman, though. In 1876 the German immigrant and Civil War veteran helped found the German Legal Aid Society for the benefit of poor German immigrants. Later he became its president. In 1896 it evolved into the (just plain) Legal Aid Society, offering free legal services to cityfolk wherever they came from.
"Von Briesen argued," says the Parks Department website and historic sign, "that the benefits of democracy should be available to all, regardless of nationality. Immigrants, he believed, made better citizens when they are treated justly." It's wisdom some of today's public figures might do well to take to heart.
Look northward and there's the lower Manhattan skyline.
Look south to Fort Wadsworth and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
After Von Briesen died in 1920 the estate lay fallow until his heirs donated it to Parks. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had the decrepit remaining structures demolished, and the park opened to the public in 1949. A renovation in 2001 has left us with the park in its present state, with some of Von Briesen's red oaks, horsechestnuts, and tulip trees lingering.
My favorite quote from the historic sign reads: "Frequent attempts to add active recreation facilities to this site failed as Parks determined that the site remain 'the most beautiful passive park in the city.'" It's hard to argue with that.