The Ghosts of Staten Island

staten-island
Photo Credit: scorestatenisland.org |

“..Staten Island itself had already been victimized as kind of a dumping ground for New York City: its garbage was dumped there, its mentally ill were warehoused there and the borough itself was ignored. “It’s like nowhere else in the world,” Ms. Brancaccio said. “But when you’re not paying attention, bad things are going to happen.” – Long Shadows of a Borough’s Bogeyman, John Anderson, New York Times, May 30, 2010

I finished cleaning out my recently deceased parents’ house on Staten Island this week. Cleaning out the home that you grew up is always a heart wrenching experience. When it’s the home that your 85 year old father was born in and lived his entire life in, it’s even more heartbreaking.

Living now in New Jersey, I often refer to myself as growing up in New York City, which would technically be correct. However, if I said that I grew up in the City, I would consider that lying as everyone knows that would be in reference strictly to Manhattan. So most times I just say I grew up on Staten Island and although my accent has waned over the years, it’s never really gone away.

It always comes back when I encounter another Staten Islander and we share “wherebouts?” to understand if we know any of the same people or grew up near each other. When I point out that I grew up in Travis, even to a long time resident of the Island, they often need a further explanation of where it is.

Travis is a lost town in a city that seems to be structured so that no one can get lost. It’s one of the furthest points of New York City. A place that came into being because Polish immigrants found that they could get work in the factories of New Jersey through a commute by rowboat on the Kill Van Kull.There was also the option of finding work in the linoleum factory that now houses one of the primary power plants for all of New York City (the town was originally called Linoleumville).

It’s usually when I mention that Travis is where the landfill is, that most people will actually acknowledge that “now I know where it is”. Growing up with the world’s largest landfill in my back yard (actually two blocks from it, but it feels like your back yard especially in the heat of summer) was really something that didn’t fully impact me until I read a story of how astronauts could actually see it from the sky, much like the Great Wall of China (a story that turns out to be false).

My father’s house is a small house on land where his family raised turkeys. I remember days as a child spent waiting for the bookmobile to park in front of the city park next to my house. I remember taking out the copy of The Red Balloon so many times that the librarian actually walked to my house and told my father that he should buy me my own copy.

I still remember an ice man coming into town to deliver ice to Babe’s Bar and stopping in front of the park on a hot summer day to distribute chunks of ice to all the kids. Although this was the sixties and most people had refrigerators, I thought ice men were necessary just like the knife sharpener who would travel through town clanking his bell for customers.

I will often tell friends of how as kids we would play ‘scramble’ each Election Day in the schoolyard. I’ve learned over the years that this was a unique experience for those in Travis and yet as a kid I thought that this was as American an experience as having a massive parade on the Fourth of July (that parade, conducted in Travis each Independence Day is now one of the longest running parades of its kind in the country).

Scramble was an expected experience for all Travis residents, adults and kids alike. Voting on Election Day was conducted at the public school (PS 26).Entering the schoolyard, those adults seeking to vote had to travel through a gauntlet of school aged kids who would taunt everyone by yelling “scramble.”In order to ultimately get into the school to vote, adults would have to throw a handful of change to get the kids from blocking their way to the door. No one was ever entirely blocked from entering the school but those who didn’t toss change were taunted even louder when they left the school to return home after voting. The real excitement was when someone would yell “silver” indicating that nickels, dimes and quarters were included in a toss. I can still remember the joy of walking to the penny candy store with my old sock filled with change.

During my recent visit to my parents’ house, I encountered an event in Travis that I had never seen before – the opening of a hotel. On the perimeter of the long closed (except when 9/11 called it back into duty) landfill was a brand new Comfort Inn. Rather than heralding its views of the world’s largest landfill, it highlighted clean rooms and low rates. I thought of how my parents would never see the tourism boom that will take place as not only the Comfort Inn, but an unfinished hotel as well next to it, would fill up with visitors seeking the allure of Travis. The fact that it’s a stop right off of the Expressway may have more to do with its allure than the landfill tours, but two of them?I’m sure they’ll fill up for the 4th of July parade. Maybe.

Staten Island, like Travis, has changed drastically in the time since I left it for good in the eighties. Much of what I knew as a child no longer exists. This had been apparent to me each time I would visit my parents and now it was even clearer as I packaged up the memories from their house.

The borough formerly known as Richmond has shed much of its past and seems committed to moving on, which is a good thing. Kids would never be able to play ‘scramble’ now but it’s fine with me that the landfill is closed.Even with the real estate bust, selling my parents’ house will be easier than it would’ve been had the landfill still be in operation.

Yet I fear that too much of Staten Island’s past has become lost and it seems clear that most of the residents want it that way. A recent article in the New York Times further punctuated the loss of the island’s past and how people want to forget and bury at least, the bad memories of the past. The article told about a planned showing of a documentary called “Cropsey” at the College of Staten Island. The film documents the story of disappearing children from a state mental institution known as the Willowbrook State School and the conviction of an employee of the institution in one of those cases.

Willowbrook was the place that a brave young reporter by the name of Geraldo Rivera was able to shut down by revealing the abhorrent treatment of its residents by the same people who were employed to help them. As a child growing up on Staten Island, I was keenly aware of the Willowbrook State School. It was a place that I saw close up and first hand every day that I went to high school.

As a rider on the R112 (remember this was the borough of Richmond, thus the R), my daily trip would take me through the gates of Willowbrook and for a couple of miles I’d be driven around the State Institution as the bus would pick up and drop off workers. Each of these days, I saw what Geraldo reported: naked children rocking mindlessly on the lawn while workers smoked and joked with each other oblivious to the kids, residents running away from workers who would catch up to them and would beat them as if no one was watching, and the occasional resident who tried to get on board a bus and just stood in the doorway not with a look of “save me”, but a look of emptiness that still haunts me to this day.

Because of Rivera’s reporting, the place was closed and buried with it were the horrors that existed there. Now on the same property, the College of Staten Island has risen in order to provide students with the ability to learn the skills to better their lives and those of others on the island. The article notes the intention of the filmmakers to screen the initial viewing of the documentary, “Crospey” at the College.

There are those, however who want this awful past to remain buried and are protesting this planned showing. I was struck by the quote in the article of a website writer who is quoted in the article referring to the story of the documentary, “You create a scenario where people assume it’s fake..and then you blow their minds with ‘It’s all true!’”

There are those who would love to think that Willowbrook wasn’t true. But it was. I saw it. Geraldo saw it.

Years from now, when it’s a park with two operating hotels doing bird tours, people will forget that Travis was once home to the world’s largest landfill.Many will doubt my stories of ‘scramble’ and have no idea what I meant by a bookmobile. But I remember.

As I move my parents’ belongings to where many old Staten Islanders reside, New Jersey, I realize that you can’t move the memories. My parents remembered all of the things I told you as well as many other stories that are probably lost forever. Like any other family, we had good times and bad times.I’ve found over the years that trying to forget the bad times also comes with the risk of forgetting the good times as well.

I realize this as I pack up the belongings and memories from the house I grew up in. I can leave Staten Island, but Staten Island will never leave me. And in the end, I’ve got to believe that that’s a good thing.

The author is Jack Tatar who was born on Staten Island in 1959 and lives in Pennington, NJ. He’s Chief Executive Officer of GEM Research Solutions and author of Safe 4 Retirement: The Four Keys to A Safe Retirement. He is undecided about attending this year’s Fourth of July Parade in Travis.

 

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