Call of the Island
IF New York is a city that never sleeps, where does one go for much needed quiet or rest?
Visitors and Manhattanites need not venture far, Staten Island (SI) is just a ferry ride away.
The birthplace of pop diva Christina Aguilera, the island is the greenest and most suburban of New York’s five boroughs (the others are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx) and the least populated, with less than half a million residents.
An estimated 1.8 million tourists make a round-trip on the SI ferry annually to view the Statue of Liberty for free but few actually stop by and tour the island.
It is sometimes a forgotten borough; remembered on those rare occasions for the wrong reasons – its dumps and mobsters, no thanks to the filming of The Godfather here three decades ago.
The local folks are peeved with the negative image and would have you know that their landfill has been closed for eight years and they have the city’s best parks, lowest crime rate and highly-educated people.
There are miles of pretty beaches, sprawling golf courses, theatres, historical and cultural attractions apart from the much touted “best pizzas in the world”.
To create more awareness on their island, Staten Island New York (SINY) was conceived last summer by a group of prominent business and civic leaders.
“We want to create an atmosphere where people want to come here, live here, and work here. We want SI to be a popular ‘staycation’ destination,” said SINY executive director Larry Ambrosino who hosted an island tour for a group of foreign journalists recently.
The former high school principal joked about being tired of garbage talk and “everyone thinking you’re the Sopranos’ kid brother”.
Impressive: The Seguine Mansion in Lemon Creek Park is one of the grandest 19th Century homes on Staten Island.
The third generation Ambrosino whose grandmother migrated from Italy in 1900, proudly lives up to the island’s motto, “SINY – Proud of it!” He considers himself a true blue Staten Islander and more American than Italian.
Unlike other boroughs, SI does not have an extensive subway network that makes it easy for visitors to move around. Realising this, SINY has launched coach tours from the St. George ferry terminal to transport visitors from the terminal to their destinations.
“We need to get people from here to there,” Ambrosino explained.
SINY has also installed a giant video screen in the Whitehall Ferry Terminal (on the Manhattan side) to promote places like the newly merged Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, Fort Wadsworth, the Staten Island Zoo, the Alice Austen House, Tibetan Museum, the St. George Theatre, Lorenzo’s Cabaret at the Hilton Garden Inn, Historic Richmond Town and the Staten Island Yankees.
Since November, visitors can tour SI’s scenic parks, South Beach (the island’s own version of the French Riviera) and historic Richmond Town or participate in nature walks.
There’s even a “Staten Island Pizza Tour” featuring popular local pizza joints like Denino’s, Lee’s Tavern, Joe & Pat and Jimmy Max.
During the press tour, journalists were taken on a tour of some of NYC’s best parks in SI, conducted by none other than New York City Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe himself.
Benepe’s top picks are:
Peacocks like this one roam freely around the Seguine Mansion in Lemon Creek Park.
● Conference House Park
The 106ha park has breathtaking views of Raritan Bay. It is rich in history; there are four historic houses, including the Conference House where Benjamin Franklin met English leaders during the Revolutionary War Peace Conference in 1776.
● Lemon Creek Park
Visitors can tour the grounds of the 171-year-old Greek-revival Seguine Mansion. Those who are adventurous can visit the park’s red clay bluffs, which are the tallest ocean-facing cliffs in New York state.
● Clove Lakes Park
Staten Islanders considered making this area a park as early as 1897, a year before the consolidation of New York City.
The northwest section of the park is home to the island’s 300-year-old tulip tree which managed to escape the extensive logging and clearing when settlers opened up the area. Tulip trees are known for their straight trunks from which Native Americans carved canoes.
Other interesting sights in Clove Lakes Park include the outcropping of serpentine rock at the crest of the hills. The spine of SI is a broad ridge of serpentine, formed during the Ordovician period (435-500 million years ago) when heat and pressure altered rocks rich in magnesium and iron.
Those interested in visiting Staten Island or its parks can check out www.sinewyork.org and click on the Staycation link.