The north shore of Staten Island

Our Staten Island Adventure
July 13, 2009

Yes, the mysterious island to the south is Staten Island. Pickles of the North and I went there after our radio program on July 13, 2009. Since Pickles is a native of the North Pole she's fascinated by some of the places that we native New Yorkers consider mundane.

We'd gone to Staten Island once before, in May 2007. But it was an unseasonably cold day and it was not a fun trip. I was not dressed for the cold morning and I froze for the entire, short, walk. This time it was warm and Summery, so I didn't suffer during it. We also had a digital camera along for this walk.

On this page I'll try to describe what we did on our little adventure to that mysterious southern island across the water.

So we rushed down to the Staten Island Ferry's Whitehall St. Terminal from WBAI's headquarters on Wall St. It was before dawn but since it was mid-July there was already plenty of light.

A Very Fast Bit of History

Staten Island was uninhabited until the Lenape tribe moved in some time late in the 16th Century.

In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed into the future harbor and named the first thing he saw “Staaten Eylandt” after the Dutch parliament, which was financing his expedition. The name became Staten Island after the English took over the area and, among other things, renamed New Amsterdam in honor of the Duke of York. In 1683, Staten Island was renamed Richmond County, after the Duke of Richmond.

There is the story of a dispute hundreds of years ago about whether Staten Island should be administered by the State of New York, of which it had been considered a part, or New Jersey, from which it's separated by the narrow bodies of water called the Kill Van Kull and Arthur Kill. The story says that the issue was decided by variously a yacht race or the ability of a boat's captain to get his sailboat around Staten Island in less than 24 hours. Nobody knows if any of these stories are true, but it's a story that's been told around New York for well over a century.

In 1898, a referendum vote was rigged by the Republicans and the five counties of Kings, New York, The Bronx, Queens and Richmond became the five boroughs of Greater New York. And so Staten Island became a part of what we now call New York City. In 1975, the name of the island was formally changed from Richmond to Staten Island. Everyone had been calling it Staten Island for a couple of hundred years anyway.

With the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, Staten Island got a lot more “developed.” The population soared as the island, which had only been accessible from the rest of New York by the Staten Island Ferry became a lot easier to get to and people moved in like mad. And this is the Staten Island Pickles and I visited.

The gaping maw of the Staten Island Ferry slip
Pulling away from the slip at the Whitehall St. Terminal

We just made it onto the ferry. This boat was named the Guy V. Molinari, after the Staten Island politician of the same name. We hardly had time to get up to the hurricane deck, the topmost deck of the ferry boat, before it sounded its horn and started to pull away from this slip.

In the photograph you can see the two levels of retractable ramps that they use to get hundreds of people on and off the ferries within minutes. There's a guy in a booth inside this complicated berth and he controls the ramps.

Getting over to Staten Island this early in the morning from Manhattan is quite easy, and the boat isn't crowded at all. The hurricane deck is the best place to go if you want to get good views and take photographs. Going to Staten island it's best to go up to the starboard hurricane deck, on the right side of the boat. This way you're closest to the sights most people want to see. On the way back the starboard side is probably a good bet too, even though on this bidirectional ferry the right side coming from Staten Island is the opposite side from the right side going to Staten Island.

R. Paul Martin getting his shots
R. Paul Martin, back to the dawn, taking photographs

I'm sure that in inclement weather this exposed part of the hurricane deck is pretty unpleasant. In the cool dawn of this particular morning we only had one other person up there, sitting on the outside of the enclosed area, with us. It was a pretty pleasant ride up there.

Pickles of the North took a photograph of me shooting away on the hurricane deck. The Sun has just risen and I'm exhibiting some pretty poor posture as I try to frame shots with the digital camera. I figured that if could just scrunch down and squint hard enough I might be able to see the LCD display on the back of the camera.

One thing I discovered was that bracing your camera on the railing in order to steady it so you can get better photographs just doesn't work. That whole ferry boat is vibrating like mad for the entire voyage across the harbor. The Canon A580 digital camera I use has a 4x zoom. When I try to take zoomed photographs I usually try to brace the camera against something in order to steady it. I figured out that this was a good idea after shooting loads of free hand shots that turned out all blurry. Well, the photographs I took on this the Staten Island Ferry ride were all free hand shots. That railing vibrated vigorously enough that it might have broken the camera!

3 East River bridges in the pre-dawn
The Manhattan towers of the 3 East River bridges right around dawn

I took this photograph on the right looking back up the East River before we got too far across the harbor. The Staten Island Ferry follows a set route for each leg of its journey and sometimes you only get a few seconds at one angle or another. You have to get your shot in then or you can forget it.

Here we see the Manhattan side towers of the three East River Bridges. On the left you can see the Brooklyn Bridge, the southernmost, oldest and most famous of the three bridges, in the middle is the Manhattan Bridge and just visible on the right is the very top of the tower of the Williamsberg Bridge.

Unlike the other bridges the Manhattan side tower of the Brooklyn Bridge is not resting on bedrock. The bedrock was too deep for the technology of the day to reach so after digging down to a depth of 78 feet the builders just put the basement stones down in the mud and hoped for the best. That tower was completed in July 1876, so far so good.

The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry

And dawn caught the Statue of Liberty abreast of the Staten Island Ferry.

Lots of tourists pay wads of money to get on some of the big tour boats so they can get a shot of this American icon. But a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry gives a better view of the statue.

I've gotten quite a few photographs of Liberty Enlightening the World from Battery Park, but they're all photographs from the side and from quite a distance. Here I got a face-on shot which I could really only get from a boat on the water. And I think that the expensive tourist boats don't have any parts that are as high up as the hurricane deck of the Staten Island Ferry.

When Pickles and I went to Staten Island a couple of years ago I'd noticed how close the ferry got to the Statue of Liberty. But we didn't have a digital camera then. This time I knew that I was going to try to get a good shot of the statue. Getting better photographs of the statue than I've been able to get before was one of the reasons why I went on this trip.

I took quite a few photographs of the Statue of Liberty on this trip. I think this one is the best face-on shot I got. Yeah, a real photographer with a better camera could get a photograph that's a whole lot better, but this is the photograph that I've got.

So our ride on the Staten Island Ferry continued and we saw the harbor traffic waking up with the Summer dawn.

I don't think that New York Harbor has the same amount of deep draft shipping traffic that it used to have in my youth, but it's still a very busy waterway and things are going on 24 hours a day. There are all sorts of small ferries zipping around, some docking at Pier 11 which is visible from the windows of WBAI. You also have the fanciful water taxis, which are painted to look like the yellow Checker cabs from half a century ago.

There are tug boats pushing barges, and pushing some odd looking things I still can't identify, around in the harbor. We saw a number of container ships being ministered to by the squat but powerful tugs.

There are places in the middle of the harbor where they have oil barges tied up. I'm not sure if that's just a staging area for them or if there's a pipeline that goes from that part of the harbor to the New Jersey refineries' storage facilities that line the western side of the Upper New York Harbor.

There are always all sorts of things moored in New York Harbor.

There are also a lot of security boats of all sorts in the harbor these days. We've always had police boats and the U.S. Coast Guard has had a headquarters right next to the ferry terminal for a long time. But after 9/11 the number of security boats multiplied quite a bit. We have medium sized boats and we have a bunch of small, red hulled security boats, many with 7.62 mm machine guns mounted fore and aft. I remember early one Winter morning after a radio program Pickles of the North and I were down at Battery Park with Uncle Sidney. He was in his violin playing phase then. We were looking out at the harbor from the rail along the Battery Park promenade for a while. I had to rush off to “empty nature's cistern” as they used to put it, and while I was gone a couple of those red security boats took quite an interest in Pickles and Uncle Sidney.

The New York Harbor Detention Facility for Elves
Left: Elfin Lighthouse — Right: The New York Harbor Detention Facility for Elves

As we neared Staten Island we saw this tiny lighthouse. In the photograph on the right you need to look at the green buoy in the immediate foreground to get an idea of just how tiny this lighthouse is. I'm not sure that a person could even stnd upright inside of it.

Pickles of the North and I decided that this was the lighthouse for elves. And that low, concrete structure just to the right of it must be the place where they imprison elves who have committed some sort of infraction. Yeah, that must be it. If you're an elf that thing must be as far from shore as Alcatraz is, proportionally speaking.

si_20090713_11 (14K)
A Dredging Operation Just Off the Shore of Staten Island

New York Harbor is not only dynamic in terms of maritime traffic of all sorts it's also always changing as a result of both natural and human activities.

There are all sorts of examples of abandoned piers around the harbor, and the Hudson River moves significant amounts of sediment downstream. That sediment tends to fall out as the river water slows down upon mixing with the tidal estuaries of the harbor.

So here you can see a dredging operation going on just off the shore of Staten Island. Nearby are the ruins of a large concrete pier. So I don't know if this dredging operation is preparatory to the building of some new pier in this area or if it's just making sure that the ship channels aren't filling up with silt.

I've seen an operation similar to this in the lower harbor, just off the north shore of the Rockaway Peninsula. There's always something going on in the harbor.

The Staten Island Temple of Apollo
On Staten Island They Worship Apollo in This Temple

As you approach the St. George Terminal on Staten Island there's this very noticeable building that's obviously been there since before the borough's population explosion. After you get off the ferry this place is still a prominent building in that area.

This large, Greek revival building (I'm not an architect but it looks like Greek revival to me) has no signage on it to say what it is! There's nothing in writing on it at all, from what we could see. Maybe some other part of it has signs that inform people of what it is. But since it presents itself so prominently not only to anyone near the north shore of Staten Island but also to anyone who's approaching the least populated bnorough Pickles of the North and I decided that this must be The Temple of Apollo on Staten Island.

We hadn't known that they worshiped Apollo so ostentatiously on Staten Island, but it looks like they do. They have some extensive netting over the building, perhaps on some days they rent the place out to the worshipers of Neptune.

In any case, this is one of the oldest buildings we saw in the St. George neighborhood. There's a lot of “development” going on now, and some of it is obviously stalled. We figure that the building boom is suffering a hiccup from the economic crash that started last year.

Some of what's been built in this area in the last few years is pretty hideous looking. in fact there's a lot of hideous looking architecture being thrown up throughout Greater New York these days. Of course to some folks it's probably beautiful stuff.

Staten Island 9/11 memorial
The View Though the Staten Island 9/11 memorial

So after Pickles and I left the ferry terminal we walked along what they call a “greenway” along the northwest shore of Staten Island. This is an area that's been turned into a little park, a place where you can walk or ride a bicycle and get some really good views of New York Harbor.

Of course you also get some rather unflattering views of the harbor and Staten Island along this walk. That dredging operation up close is probably not something that will make it into brochures designed to get tourists to flock to any part of the city. And those decaying or completely ruined and abandoned piers and other structures just off shore are not going to attract many.

I don't mind seeing the abandoned piers and all. I consider them to be akin to seeing a rotting log in a forest. The log had been a tree, but the tree died, fell down and now the various living things in the forest are feeding on it and recycling it. I like to know what the abandoned structures used to be. Finding that out can be difficult sometimes.

The “greenway” goes right along part of the shore of Staten Island. But there's a road that runs right next to it and at a couple of points you have to remain alert to cars whipping along very close to where you're walking. Some patches of open ground have been allowed to go wild and so some of the paths through the “greenway” are overgrown with weeds.

The Staten Island “greenway” extends from the west side of the ferry terminal to Jersey St., which presents the pedestrian with a rather industrial and abandoned looking end to the walk. There are some parts of this “greenway” that must be, um, interesting late at night. And some parts might be downright dangerous.

After just a little bit of walking we came to the Staten Island 9/11 Memorial.

Staten Island lost 267 of its residents in the 9/11 attacks, specifically the ones that destroyed the twin towers.

The official title of the memorial is Postcards. It was designed by Masayuki Sono. It's made of two vertical structures that at once sort of look like wings and yet seem to be made to look like envelopes from the side. I guess the artistic vision is that these two symbols are melded in the memorial.

The two vertical structures are supposed to frame exactly where the twin towers used to be seen from Staten Island. This aspect of the memorial requires that you be a bit to the south of the Postcards structure in order to appreciate it. The view in the photograph to the left seems to capture the artist's intention in that regard.

9/11 memorial from the side
Side View of One of the Wings or Envelopes of the 9/11 memorial

What I guess are the postcards of the memorial are located on the inside. One site refers to them as “commemorative stamps.”

You can walk between the twin wings of the memorial and inside are small plaques, the post cards or stamps of the memorial, and on each one is the name and date of birth of the Staten Island resident who died in the 9/11 attacks. Attached to the side of each plaque is a profile of the person being memorialized. I suppose that they got these profiles from photographs of the people.

It's a very effective way of bringing this case of mass murder to a human level. We see the tall monument with the cantilevered wings or envelopes and then on the inside we see the names of those who died in the building whose former place on the Manhattan skyline is framed by the memorial.

Of course there's also a standard granite plaque in the ground at the site of this memorial. The white wings of the memorial can be seen from the ferry as you approach Staten Island.

Pickles of the North contemplating the memorial
Pickles of the North Contemplating the Names on the Memorial

Pickles of the North and I stood there for a while contemplating this memorial and what it means. Some of the small plaques inside the memorial were broken. I don't know if the damage was caused by weather, accidents, common vandalism or what might have been considered a political statement by some diseased mind. I'm not sure what the plaques are made of. I'm seeing what may be conflicting statements on Web sites about their composition. I hope that they can repair what's been damaged.

And speaking of what the memorial is made of, I have read a site that says that the wings are made from a composite material that sounds to me like it incorporates plastic in its construction. As the first decade of the 21st Century nears its close we are seeing evidence of the temporary nature of many things that have been made of plastic. Will this memorial even be around in, say, 50 years? I won't be here to see one way or another but I wonder if people are being short sighted with this memorial.

In any case the Staten Island 9/11 Memorial is a sobering reminder that the world we live in is not a peaceful place and that New York City has been and remains a target of attack. And thus we come to tolerate the quick little boats that dash around the harbor with machine guns mounted fore and aft. What a world.

Manhattan skyline from Staten Island
The Manhattan Skyline from Staten Island

We continued our journey through the Staten Island “greenway” and got to see just how impressively close to New Jersey this fifth borough is. In fact Staten Island wouldn't be an island at all if the Hudson River hadn't been blocked eons ago. It is thought that either the glacial moraine that we now call Long Island, including Brooklyn and Queens, blocked the river's egress at the Narrows or else an ice dam formed for a while to block it. In that time the Hudson River carved its way over the lowest land in the vicinity, which is how the Kill Van Kull and Arthury Kill formed. Otherwise there wouldn't have ever been a controversy about what state Staten Island should be a part of because it would still be a peninsula on the New Jersey coast.

The“greenway” walk ends at Jersey St. It's not exactly a picturesque terminus. We then walked up a short hill and walked back via Richmond Terrace. It was from there that we got the photograph of the Manhattan skyline as viewed from the south through a hazy Summer morning.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge As Viewed From the Staten Island Ferry

So we went back to the ferry terminal and caught the 8:45 AM ferry back to Manhattan. It was the Guy V. Molinari again! We got up on the hurricane deck. The Sun had been up for hours by then and the hurricane deck was baking under it. There isn't that much to photograph on that side of the ferry route, but the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is an exception.

I remember when they were building this bridge. Hell, I remember going over to Staten Island on the ferry in the mid-'50s. During the brief time when my father had a car we'd drive it onto the ferry and ride over to a very rural Staten Island where we'd rent a rowboat and go fishing. After the old man had to give up the car I think my Uncle brought us over there. After 9/11 vehicles were prohibited from going on the Staten Island Ferry. There are too many examples of car bombs going off around the world to risk it.

When it was completed in 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Much was made of the fact that it was so long that the engineers had to take into account the curvature of the Earth when they were designing it. Some folks have claimed to be able to see the bridge's towers leaning away from each other. Since the tops of the bridge's towers are only 1.625 inches farther away from each other than the bottoms are, I don't think I can credit such claims. A factoid that I find interesting is that owing to the thermal expansion of the steel in the heat of the Summer the roadway can be as much as a dozen feet lower than it is in the cold of Winter.

Lower Manhattan from the ferry
Lower Manhattan and 120 Wall St.

So I took more photographs from up on the hurricane deck. Brooklyn was mostly in silhouette because of the morning Sun angle.

We got to see plenty more ships, boats, barges and other things moored all along this part of the route. There's a lot of stuff parked in the harbor at any one time.

As we approached the end of the approximately 5.2 mile run to the Whitehall St. Ferry Terminal the boat gave me an angle so I could take this shot of lower Manhattan. Besides the newer, taller buildings I also have Battery Park and the ferry terminal itself in this photograph. And if you look at the right hand side of it you can just make out the eastern side of 120 Wall St. where WBAI is located. You can tell 120 Wall St. from the other buildings because of the many “setbacks” it displays. The newer buildings managed to finagle their ways around the setback law.

There are old photographs from the '30s that show 120 Wall St. as a lone skyscraper on the eastern edge of Manhattan. It has so much company now that it would be totally obscured were it not at the very limit of where buildings can be built. And of course it's dwarfed by the newer buildings.

One thing I found out a couple of months ago was that 120 Wall St. occupies the place where Murray's Wharf used to be back in the late 18th Century when the eastern edge of Manhattan was back by the then aptly named Water St. Murray's Wharf was where George Washington landed on April 23, 1789, in order to walk down Wall St. and take the oath of office at Federal Hall as the first President of the United States.

All 3 East River bridges
All 3 East River bridges, plus a small ferry boat

Owing to the angle the Whitehall St. Ferry Terminal makes with the harbor the ferry has to swing around in a loop in order to line itself up with the slip. This maneuver gave me an opportunity to get the last photographs of our trip. In this one you can see the towers and most of the main suspension cables of all three East River bridges. And you can see one of the little ferries charging across the bow of the ferry boat we were on. Yeah, that's one complicated waterway.

And so that was our Staten Island adventure after our program on July 13, 2009. We talked about it all on our July 27, 2009, program. We may have another Staten Island adventure in the future. We're looking for where we could go on our next visit to that southern island of mystery.

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