Staten Island: The Outer Borough’s Outer Borough Revealed in New MCNY Show

“Staten Island was the place to be,” remarked Liz McEnaney standing before a display of silvery photographs from the 1880s.

Verrazano Bridge under construction, December 4, 1970 (Museum of the City of New York).

“Staten Island was the place to be,” remarked Liz McEnaney standing before a display of silvery photographs from the 1880s. She paused a moment, as if tasting the oddness of the words, before inserting a disclaimer. “In some senses.”

Indeed, as we gazed at well-born New Yorkers horseback-riding, yachting and frolicking on the Staten Island beaches with all the  élan of Lartigue’s French aristocrats on the Riviera, we were inclined to agree with Ms. McEnaney, a guest curator at the Museum of the City of New York. Our prejudices and those of almost everyone who lives in the other four boroughs notwithstanding.

The museum, mindful of said prejudices, opens “From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661-2012” this week, a new exhibit looking at the history and development of what the museum generously terms “the forgotten borough.” (“Willfully ignored” seems more apt for an island that was, until 2001, the repository of much of the city’s garbage. Not that the Island seemed to be lusting for tourists, with a $12 toll both ways on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.)

But now you can learn all about Staten Island without ever having to set foot there. At least until the exhibit closes in January.

Ms. McEnaney, who led The Observer on a tour of the almost-finished exhibit Wednesday morning, confessed that before she started researching the exhibit she numbered among “the Staten Island ferry riders,” eager for a free boat ride, but with no intention of disembarking until the boat returns to Lower Manhattan.

While big swaths of Brooklyn and Queens have been reclaimed by bright young things, Staten Island has yet to undergo any such transformations. Its mobster reputation, suburban style (84 percent of households own a car) and the infamous Fresh Kills landfill—a veritable mountain range of trash that was only slated to accept garbage for 3 years when it opened in 1948, but remained active for the next 63. The borough’s most recent brush with fame was a starring role in Cropsey, a documentary about several local children who disappeared in the 1980s. The Island’s insane asylums and rumors about satanic cults featured prominently.

The exhibit focuses on four historic stages in the borough’s past—as a farming community, pleasure grounds for the rich (and place to stow the city’s sick), suburban stomping grounds and finally, the exhibit suggests more than a little hopefully, a city where anything could happen. Or more realistically, a city where at least something might happen.

As we walked through the exhibit, The Observer was repeatedly confronted with our own ignorance of Richmond County. It was really quite stunning.

Some of the surprising things we learned: the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club introduced the U.S. to lawn tennis and hosted the country’s first tennis game in 1874, when the island was flush with fox hunts and country estates and society balls (artifacts of interest: a Victorian bathing costume, photos thereof). It seemed more like an island off the coast of England than Manhattan.

This was before the working and middle classes started spending their holidays in Staten Island, bringing with them their middle-class pastimes and habits. Naturally, the rich promptly abandoned the Island for tonier precincts that the city’s hoi polloi had have a harder time visiting.

Not that the working class were the only factors pushing the wealthy to enclaves like Newport and Quogue—the tuberculosis sanitariums and other facilities for the ill of mind and body made Staten Island something less than an appealing tourist destination. Two of the stranger artifacts in the exhibit are the repulsively alluring tubercular lungs of a child and an adult.

The following eras were less bucolic, as the Island embraced its suburban qualities, hosting the people and industries that served Manhattan (one of the subtle arguments of the exhibit is the way that the borough—so seemingly apart—was both shaped by and integral to the growth of Manhattan).

Artifacts of interest: amber-colored glass beer bottles from the George Bechtel Brewing Company, wooden barrels from the Rubsam & Horrman’s Atlantic Brewing Company and rolls of linoleum from Linoleumville, America’s first linoleum factory, which opened in 1874. (Workers lived in the unimaginatively named Factoryville.) Advertisements for housing developments boast about the easy subway commutes to Manhattan (the subway linking Staten Island to the rest of the city was aborted in 1923). In fact Staten Island remained cut off from the rest of the city, but not New Jersey, until the Verrazano-Narrows bridge was built (artifact of interest: a length of cable used in the construction of the bridge)—a factor that may help account for the borough’s continued isolation from the larger cultural tides that washed over New York. The relationship between Staten Island and the other boroughs has often been a fraught one—65 percent of residents voted to secede from New York City in a 1993 referendum (the ballot initiative was nixed by Albany).

As we neared the end of the exhibit, Ms. McEnaney turned to us and explained, over the loud power tools whirring in the background that “we felt we couldn’t have an exhibition about Staten Island without talking about the future.”

The future was, as it so often was, vague (arts festivals? a redeveloped waterfront? urban farming?). Although we did find the plan to turn the now-defunct Fresh Kills into a huge park three times the size of Central Park fascinating. What did one have to do to make this work? How can so much trash be hidden? Is it possible to feel oneself in nature when one is walking over mankind’s manufactured debris?

And then a reporter cut right to the heart of the matter—a question we had been asking ourselves all morning—why should a person go to a museum on 104th St. and Fifth Avenue to learn about Staten Island. Why not just go to Staten Island?

Of course, the Museum of the City of New York is predicated on the idea that there is a value in interpreting our urban experiences rather than just experiencing them. It is a museum about places that, with the exception of the past, you can easily visit. Of realities rather than fantasies. Ms. McEnaney answered that one could glimpse Staten Island in one fell swoop and curiosity stoked, visit some of the many cultural institutions who had loaned their artifacts to this exhibit. Optimistic? Perhaps. But why not dream of a bright future for the forgotten borough?

Still, these things have their limits—a fact that the curator was forced to confront with the following question—would Staten Island ever be glamorous again?

Ms. McEnaney hesitated before responding, pausing to consider a question that we had all already answered in the negative—Staten Island is Staten Island, after all.

Deftly, she replied with another question: “Who am I to say what glamor is?”

Staten Island: The Outer Borough’s Outer Borough Revealed in New MCNY Show