Let’s face it: Even for New Yorkers, Staten Island is the forgotten borough. Manhattan is the once-cool hotspot that’s been taken over by Brooklyn, Queens is where your uncle lives or you think of retiring to while the Bronx is stupidly seen as a lawless netherworld (when, in fact, it’s rich with history and has lots of nice spots). But Staten Island? It’s the forgotten stepkid of NYC, and that’s a shame.
Starting out from Battery Park, a free ferry ride that takes you past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty takes you to SI in about 25 minutes. Once you hit the dock, a 10-minute bike ride or three stops on the local Staten Island rail will take you to the Rosebank section of the borough, on its Eastern side, and one of the great hidden pleasures of all of NYC: a beautiful park and great historic site to boot.
Once upon a time in the late 1800s, there was a brash young woman named Alice Austen who took up the then-unladylike vocation of photography, taking her first professional photos at 18, circa 1884. Her whirlwind life took her from the society pages to poverty as she lugged a 50-pound camera along with her through the early 1900s. When she fell on hard times, Austen had to sell her SI home (also known as “Clear Comfort,” which her grandfather bought in 1844), though her work experienced a revival shortly before her death in 1952. The house was headed for the wrecking ball when the Staten Island community stepped in to save and restore it in the mid ’80s, not only getting it a place in the National Register of Historic Places but also a designation as a New York City Landmark even before the restoration took place.
Nowadays, the Alice Austen House has a quaint interior that replicates the Austen family’s living space and has exhibitions of her extensive photo library along with slideshows and videos detailing her work, not to mention some wonderful old-time postcards of Austen’s work that you can buy there (I have several on my wall).
What’s really so serene and beautiful about the place is the exterior. Along with a long porch in the front of the house, there’s a large grassy lawn just beyond with trees lining the edge of it with a small wooden bench surrounding it that overlooks the thin waterway strait called the Narrows, which carries the cruise ships and cargo ships by.
Just beyond that, you’ll see downtown Manhattan in the distance to your left and to your right, the massive Verrazano Bridge, which serves as a gateway from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Back on land and just below the Alice Austen House lawn, a small slope takes you to a gravel pathway with a thin strip of beach in front of it where you’ll occasionally see people fishing. Just a few steps south is a huge green meadow with gentle slopes and other trees surrounding its outskirts. This is where you can bring a blanket and sprawl out to enjoy a nice lunch or just soak in the peaceful, quiet surroundings.
It almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? It’s an amazing oasis in the middle of NYC, a great unknown treasure there. I’ve made several trips to the park over the years, and I’ve never seen it crowded. And though I’m almost reluctant to give up this wonderful secret for fear that it will get overrun, I have a soft spot for the place that’s much more powerful — I want to give it the credit, love and support it deserves. Once you see it and experience Alice Austen Park, you’ll understand why and feel the same way.
And if it’s a nice day on a summer weekend, you’ll probably see me there, too. Bring the chips, and I’ll bring the dip, OK?
Jason Gross is social media manager for TheBlot Magazine.