Monday, June 30, 2014

Hopping over to Staten Island: Snug Harbor Gardens and Alice Austen House

Staten Island was the only New York City borough I'd never been to - until today.

The best way to get there is with the free ferry that leaves the southern tip of Manhattan. Some people just ride the ferry back and forth for the amazing views of the NYC harbor, Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor's Island, bridges connecting different islands… Like here, you see a bunch of helicopters against a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge:


And here's the Verrazano Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island (with a Manhattan-bound Staten Island ferry passing us by in the foreground):


You can't not take a photo of the Statue of Liberty too. It's a compulsion.


The ferry terminal on Staten Island conveniently has a bunch of bus terminals radiating off of it, with buses ready to take you to different parts of the island. This visit we stuck to the northeast part of the island, first taking the S40 bus to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. Crossing the two-lane road from the S40 bus stop to the back entrance of Snug Harbor is a treat, because there are no traffic lights and crosswalk, and cars are zooming at you from both directions (in one direction hidden by a bend in the road). So you've got to time things just right and then hustle.


Some initial impressions of this place: Its shabby and lovely, sometimes leaning more towards one, sometimes more towards the other, sometimes an even balance (shlovely?). It's clearly well-used by the local community. There's a playhouse, a couple of small museums, some venues for art workshops, some gardens and fields. When we visited, there was a Polish festival with lots of food and people giving speeches and singing. Nearby, there was a noisy 1st birthday party underway. Plus people taking wedding photos in another location.

Here's one pond with yellowish water and some turtles and fish and a flaking replica of a lighthouse (or maybe a chess piece). Also, a horde of dragonflies.


A rose garden with a few resilient bunches of roses still vividly in bloom, and a decaying fountain.


The greenhouse looked promising, but it was dead silent inside except for the eerie whine of a machine. Plants were growing over the very narrow paths, and it would have been difficult not to step on them. We didn't linger.


For sure, we overlooked some parts of this garden-park-culture compound. But one part we didn't miss out on was the Chinese Scholars Garden.

If you walk the perimeter of the Chinese garden complex before going inside, you can enjoy an overgrown bamboo path. I loved the aroma, and it would have been atmospheric, inspiring meditation, except you could hear the 90s pop music from the 1st birthday party and what sounded like auditions for Eurovision from the Polish festival.


To get into the garden complex, you need to pay five bucks. Silence would have made for a better experience but I still liked walking across the different chambers, paths, bridges, all strung around a pool of water.







Would I go out of my way to return to Snug Harbor? Probably not (or maybe I'd give it a try in the spring, I don't know). But I'm glad I saw it and its shloveliness.


Back to the S40 bus stop. The bus took us back to the ferry terminal, and from there we switched to the S51 bus. It heads south on Bay Street, running parallel to the east coast of Staten Island. We got off at Hylan Boulevard, walk down a quiet residential street, and arrive at Clear Comfort, the old family home of Alice Austen.


Austen was a gifted and prolific photographer, who as a child in the 1870s took a keen interest in photography, a gift nurtured by her family. With cumbersome photographic equipment, she wound up taking thousands of striking, pioneering photos depicting street life, work, leisure, immigration, travel, portraits… offering both artistic and historical interest, as they give us glimpses into life in the late 1800s, early 1900s (across different socioeconomic classes). One photo that made me smile depicted some of her friends pretending to be drunk on ginger ale and lemonade. Usually you don't see such silliness in Victorian-era photos. People mostly look humorless and stiff (partly due to the difficulties of taking a good photo back then). I liked the playfulness.

Alice Austen, Alice Austen watches her World, 1910.jpg
Alice Austen, Alice Austen watches her World, 1910.

The Clear Comfort property is now a small park, open until dusk every day, with excellent views of NYC harbor, including the Verrazano Bridge.



So after stopping by the small museum, which displays some of Austen's work along with rotating exhibits of modern photographers, you can relax outdoors for a bit.


On the walk back to Bay Street along Hylan Boulevard, I enjoyed looking at the houses. Some of them give off a maritime vibe that reminded me of Portland, Maine.


Pretty flowers too, in some of the gardens.


The garden gnomes and angels seemed fine with having their photo taken, though the naked mermaid gave me a suspicious look.


Back on Bay Street, the bus was late by 20 minutes. No shade at the bus stop, either. You can either start fuming in the heat, or detach your mind and feel pleasantly spaced out. I chose being spaced out. The laundromat across the street began to look fascinating.

And then the bus came, took us back to the ferry terminal, and we were off to Manhattan.


I hope to return at some point to see other parts of Staten Island, namely the Greenbelt, with its miles of hiking trails and wetlands, woods and meadows. I'd need to give it a full day, to make time for the subway, ferry and buses, back and forth. I think it would be worth it. I've only scratched the surface of Staten Island.