Tuesday, February 24, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 4) - Staten Island

 So far, the first three days have taken in some classic sights of the city. Even the trip to Brooklyn Heights doesn't venture too far off the beaten track. So now that you've gotten your feet under you, it's time to check out New York's forgotten borough. Day 4 heads to Staten Island. This day's itinerary will be written with an eye to the future however. By summer of 2017, the shoreline of Staten Island will be very different.

Day 4 - Staten Island

Morning: Staten Island is often considered the forgotten borough of New York. The island's busiest hub is five miles across the harbor from Lower Manhattan. The only connections to the rest of NYC are the Verrazano Bridge to Brooklyn and the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan. In fact, there are three bridges to New Jersey, making the island much more connected to the nearby state than the rest of its own city. In addition, the island is much more suburban than the rest of the city. More cars, fewer apartments, and more single-family homes. But there's still some awesome coastline and some great food to be had, so it's time to hop on the ferry,
   The Staten Island Ferry is one of my indispensable New York experiences. There's plenty of nice harbor tours, but the ferry is truly part of the commute of tens of thousands of Staten Islanders. It's a blue-collar kind of commute. The snack bar reaches the height of its culinary prowess with bags of popcorn. Best of all, the city-operated boat doesn't need to pay liquor taxes, so $3.50 tallboys of Budwesier make this one of the best floating bars in America. The ferry used to carry a small fee, but political protest by Staten Islanders in the 90s led to the fare being eliminated. So now, one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world is free for all passengers. The ride begins at Whitehall Terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan. My strategy on the ferry has always been to ignore the crowds going to the front decks and west railings and instead to park myself on the rear decks where you first board the ferry. There are multiple decks and any of them will do, though the bottom deck is almost always nearly empty. Standing on the back deck, the city recedes slowly from view. The skyscrapers that begin as looming behemoths gradually shrink. Before long the Statue of Liberty comes alongside the ferry and the reward for waiting to see her is no jostling crowd to compete with for the great views.

A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on

   On the other side of the harbor lies the seaside neighborhood of St. George, the small commercial hub of Staten Island. There's currently not much going on at St. George, but that's all about to change. The north shore adjacent to the ferry terminal is the future site of the Empire Outlets and New York Wheel. The outlet mall is scheduled to open in 2016 and I would bet it will become in immediate hit. Visitors to New York from outside the country often spend hours travelling to the outlet malls outside the city and will now have a much more convenient option. Not to mention, Staten Islanders will probably be attracted to the low priced shops, especially located so close to their commutes. But the real daring development is the New York Wheel.

The future Staten Island Ferris Wheel

   At 625 feet tall, the wheel will be the world's tallest when it opens in 2017. Though Dubai is currently building an even taller version scheduled for a 2018 opening. But no matter, the wheel would immediately become Staten Island's dominant feature. It will not only be taller than any SI building, but taller than the top of Todt Hill, which at 401 feet is actually the tallest peak on the Atlantic coastline of the U.S. south of Maine. With unimpeded views across the harbor and out to sea, the wheel is going to have some incredible vistas. And since many visitors are already riding the Staten Island Ferry, it shouldn't take too much convincing to draw crowds to the wheel right next to the ferry terminal. I'm really excited about it, and it will make a great first stop in S.I. once it opens in two years time.

Lunch:  Most visitors will never see anything of S.I. except what is right next to the ferry. But Staten Island covers 50 square miles or so. So let's grab a bus and see some more of the island. There is an above-ground subway line (The Staten Island Railway) but it doesn't really pass by the most interesting parts of the island. So city buses make a good way to get around, especially since the metrocard works on S.I. buses and every other bus in the city. Most lines on Staten Island don't run more than every half hour though. So make use of the MTA's Bustime app or website, which give you real time data on where buses are on the road. Happily, at the ferry terminal the buses leave on schedule. So find the S51 bus and hop aboard. You will pass through the neighborhoods of Stapleton, Clifton, and Rosebank before either skirting or passing through Fort Wadsworth. Once the bus has passed under the highway and left Fort Wadsworth, exit at Lily Pond Ave and McLean Ave. Two blocks south on Lily Pond Ave is tiny Galesville Court, and at the end of the short dead end is Basilio Inn.
   Staten Island is almost 30% Italian-American, the largest percentage of any county in the country. In particular, neighborhoods on the South Shore are almost entirely Italian-American. So it's no surprise that Italian food is the island's specialty. Basilio Inn is one of the the island's oldest Italian eateries. The 1921 restaurant is a bit like dining at someone's home. The house sits at the end of a short dead end and despite the big sign, doesn't really seem like a restaurant as you approach it. And while the dining room is standard restaurant look, the back garden is the real winner. The garden is filled with vegetables, herbs, and grapes that go straight to the kitchen and into your glass or plate. And the bocce courts date back to the old days when locals would gather for food, wine, and a game in the yard. In short, it's Staten Island at its best: humble, unassuming, unchanging, and delicious.

Afternoon:  It's only a 10-minute walk from Basilio to the ocean. Head south on Lily Pond Ave and turn onto Ocean Ave. Walk past the quaint houses and bungalows until you hit the sand of South Beach. This is no slouch of an urban beach. The beach is lined by open ocean on one side and a 2 mile boardwalk on the other. It's a center of summer on Staten Island as cool water and fun events draw locals from every neighborhood all summer long. Looming to the left is the massive span of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the U.S. It marks the entrance the the protected waters of New York Harbor, and marks the moment when Staten Island first became connected to the rest of the city when it opened in 1964.
   By walking up to the base of the bridge, you will have entered Fort Wadsworth. This former military base dates back to the war of 1812 and now belongs to the National Park Service as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The grounds are open year-round until dusk and make a great spot to explore the shore, and the defunct military structures. The highlight is the Civil War era fort, Battery Weed. It hugs the shoreline in the shadow of the bridge and provides a dramatic photo spot from the bluff above.

A photo posted by igotdib (@igotdib) on

   The visitors center at Fort Wadsworth is closed indefinitely, but there are signs to help you learn and find your way as you wander the grounds. Make sure to check out Mont Sec Avenue, where many of the officer's homes were located. Eventually you'll make your way to the north gate on Bay Street and head into the neighborhood of Shore Acres. The area was first developed as a gated, upscale community in the 1930s. There's even evidence of the old gates on Bay Road and Shore Acres Road. But today, the area contains a lot of Staten Island's unimpressive housing stock. Lots of plain mid-century suburban homes, shoddy looking duplexes, and gaudy mansions. There are, however, some of the Victorian houses that sometimes gives Staten Island a look of San Francisco-East, especially along Belair Road, Hope Ave, Tompkins Ave, and Bay Street. It's worth a wander around these old streets for some of Staten Island's more historic and stately homes. At the north end of the neighborhood is Hylan Boulevard, head to the right on Hylan towards the harbor.
   At the end of Hylan Street is the Alice Austen House Museum. The museum represents a compelling confluence of history as one of the oldest homes in the five boroughs as well as the home of photographer Alice Austen. The home was originally a one room Dutch farmhouse from 1690, but the Austen family extended it to more sizable gothic proportions in the mid-19th century. Alice lived there much of her life and photography was her passion. She was a very talented amateur in the days when being a photographer was far more labor intensive than choosing the right instagram filter. Her work is a wonderful chronicle of life in New York and on Staten Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And her house is a beautiful relic and peaceful Eden on the waters of the Narrows.

Dinner:  There's a few options for dinner. One is to stay in Rosebank, the neighborhood north of Shore Acres. The walk from Alice Austen House along Edgewater Street is one of the few true working waterfronts left in NYC. Nautical supply stores remain open and the New York Harbor pilots who steer the massive container ships through the harbor are based here. But it's not charming. The buildings are often abandoned and unkempt. Amazingly, after 10 minutes you'll see a Hess Station and in a three story rowhouse next door on Bay Street is Zest, a charming French brasserie. The garden is one of the prettiest backyard dining experiences in the city and the menu would put some Manhattan French spots to shame. Across the street is Maizal if you want a more upscale take on the food of Staten Island's large Mexican immigrant community.
   If that's not your scene, head back to St. George via the S51 bus or the Staten Island Railroad from the nearby Clifton station. Once back in hilly St. George, there's a couple of good options. Across the street from the county courthouse is Beso, a nice option for Spanish tapas on Schuyler Street. And if you haven't had your fill of Staten Island's local Italian cooking, head to Enoteca Maria on Hyatt Street, just up the hill from Borough Hall. Here the claim to fame is that a different Italian Nonna (grandma) from the island makes dinner every night.

Evening: Staten Island isn't known for nightlife. The nearby St. George theater is a beautiful restored historic theater but their offerings are sporadic. The better bet is to get to the outlet shopping you missed out on during the day. After all, it doesn't make sense to carry your shopping bags with you all day. Better to do the shopping last thing. But for a finale, you've got to ride the ferry back to Manhattan. Just enjoy the twinkling lights of the Lower Manhattan skyline as the ferry slides closer to Whitehall slip. Back to reality.


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