Once on this Island

An expedition to the Dark Borough

By Jennifer Sluka

In the spirit of taking our urban experience “to new heights,” we dispatched crack travel cataloguer Jennifer Sluka to the New York City Borough you’ve probably never heard of. 

On a warm day in May, a friend and I boarded the free ferry to Staten Island at Manhattan’s southern tip. As the vessel made its way, the buildings of Manhattan and the sprawl of Brooklyn grew small in the distance.

We hopped on a bus at the ferry terminal to visit the first item on our agenda, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, recommended to us by a friend. On this ten minute bus ride, we rode past countless gas stations and auto repair shops. We were in a very different place, evidently.

The bus stopped directly in front of the archway that marks the entrance Cultural Center, a complex of 19th-century buildings and manicured lawns. We seemed to be the only people there. Entering the visitor’s center, a columned, courthouse-like building, we found a young woman sitting at a desk with what appeared to be an igloo behind her. The igloo, made of plastic bins, was part of that day’s featured exhibition: “Fluid–Essential For Life.” Art about water. The highlight was a magnificent hydropowered Rube Goldberg-like sculpture.

The art gallery is but a part of the Snug Harbor complex, which also boasts large and diverse botanical gardens. We pranced across lawns, strolled through greenhouses, found a farm, and wound through a hedge maze before arriving at the Chinese Scholar’s Garden. Within the confines of this bamboo forest, you’ll find everything from opulent meeting rooms to glittering koi ponds and rocks sculpted to resemble mountain ranges.

During our visit the Snug Harbor Cultural Center was almost completely deserted. Perhaps May isn’t high tourist season. Or maybe Staten Island is too far for most people. Or maybe no one thinks to go unless they already live there. After staring, in peace, at some waterfalls, we decided it was time to move on.

It turns out Staten Island is huge. We had to take an hour and a half bus ride to get to our next destination, Historic Richmond Town, located in the middle of the borough. Again the bus ride passed through habitats foreign to Manhattan: houses with yards, forests.

Historic Richmond Town is a living history village, where houses and shops from the 17th and 18th centuries have been preserved, and men and women in colonial dress reenact life in colonial times, showcasing crafts like basket making and tinsmithing.

Unfortunately, the buildings were all closed by the time we got there, and, like Snug Harbor, the town was deserted. We were again taken aback by being alone with a tourist attraction.

After our brief visit to Historic Richmond Town, we decided it was time to head back to the noise and structure of Manhattan. We stopped at a pizza restaurant in a strip mall for some not so great pizza before heading to the Staten Island Railway.

It was dark by the time we got back on the ferry, and we were able to see Manhattan and Brooklyn all lit up ahead. We looked back at the much darker Staten Island, wondering whether we would ever return to this strange, quiet place, only an hour and a half away, but so, so far.

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