Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lost in History vol. 65: Staten Island Adventures!

We here at Lost in History delight in adventures within the outer boroughs. Especially when said adventures take us to places we haven’t been before; little known secret gardens and hardly-visited museums that revel in the urban idiosyncrasies that make NYC such a marvelous place to live and work. What better excuse to forge such an excursion then being asked to do exactly that: run an all-day adventure to parts unknown, courtesy of Flux Factory! Which is exactly what happened this past Saturday.
Flux Factory is an arts space with a sense of humor located in Long Island City, Queens. Previous installations have included Grizzly Proof – a multimedia show involving various artists’ interpretations of a Grizzly-Bear-Proof suit; and NY NY NY – another multimedia show in which artists recreated the Queens Panorama of the City of New York, and which your author engaged the masses in a psycho-geographical trivia. For their current show, Going Places (Doing Stuff), Flux was taking the project outside, by asking various artist-performers to invent their own adventure, stuff a buncha people onto a cheese bus without revealing too much of the ensuing journey, and take off. Flux asked yours truly to kick the summer-long series off, and informed the participants that the tour would a) stay within the five boroughs, b) last all day, and c) be led by a native New Yorker and licensed NYC tour guide with “knowledge of New York City and a rambunctious personality (that) make him the greatest guide you could wish for.” Aw shucks.
25 people met up at the City Reliquary Museum and Civic Organization in Williamsburg at half-past 11am, to peruse the museums holdings before the adventure began. Flux had been smart enough to ensure that our cheese bus had A/C so we wouldn’t swelter, and our driver was a very friendly Haitian gentleman named Marcus. As soon as we hit the BQE westbound, it was pretty clear where we were going – not to the Bronx or Manhattan or Queens. And although we were driving through Brooklyn, we sure weren’t going to spend our time there. We were headed to NY’s smallest borough in population (less than half-a-mil) but the 6th largest island off the coast of the country; the one, the only, the 40% Italian – Staten Island!
First stop on our magical mystery tour was the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Grotto, in Rosebank, right near the VZ Bridge. Built in 1937 by the local fraternal order, the Grotto is a handmade collaged and stucco’d outdoor sculpture built from concrete, seashells, bicycle reflectors, religious statues and ceramic chips, dedicated to their namesake saint. Open year-round, the Grotto in Rosebank is quite powerful, and as a work of handmade, devoted, religious art, it is also the first Traditional Cultural Property listed in NY State.
Second stop was the Castleton Hill Moravian Church Labyrinth, farther inland on Victory Boulevard. Contrary to what many people think, a labyrinth is not a giant three-dimensional walled-in maze designed to lose its travelers. Instead, a labyrinth is a flattened two-dimensional path that, through it many twists and turns, will always present a way out. This particular one was laid out on the courtyard of the Church, and acts as a meditation tool; as one walks the labyrinth, one should experience peace and spiritual enlightenment. While various members of our adventuresome group strove for those lofty goals, by taking their turns in the 90-degree heat, assisted by the very friendly Pastor Lynnette Delbridge, other intrepid SI explorers marched down the block to order a half-dozen pies from the legendary Joe and Pats Pizzeria. Ricotta with broccoli rabe; Pepperoni; Scungilli with fresh garlic; cheese-free with arugula with cherry tomatoes and onions; plain; those Staten Islanders sure know how to craft heaven into eight slices loaded with fresh toppings.
We voraciously attacked our pizza back on the bus and headed off to adventure number three, deep in the heart of the island atop Lighthouse Hill – arguably the highest natural point on the Eastern Seaboard (although this is a long-running argument between the residents of Lighthouse Hill and the residents of Todt Hill). Amidst the opulent mansions and private driveways snaking up and down the gorgeous land lies the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. A publicly funded institution with as idiosyncratic a history as its location, the entire place deserves its own Lost in History column, and will receive one, in due time. However, there’s more adventure to our Staten Island, so after a 45 minute docent-led tour of the tiered gardens and art & antiquities collection, we headed off.
Rumor has it that there is a privately designed, privately owned Frank Lloyd Wright house atop Lighthouse Hill. I had never heard of such a thing until Moe, another tour guide and New-York-ophile, inquired of Jessica, the docent. She obliges and gives walking directions, so off we march through the lush SI forest to find the thing. In the midst of the hunt it begins to downpour, but Marcus, ever-ready at the helm of the cheese bus, picks us up and we manage to find the home. It looks like a Maine summer house at the edge of a lake, but one that got left in a medieval stretcher a bit too long.
We also discover the Victorian lighthouse that gives the Hill its moniker – the towering monstrosity is just chilling in another privately owned backyard.
The adventure is almost over – adventurers are getting Staten-Islanded-out. We attempt to find the Conference House, which is in Tottenville at the absolutely southern-most point of NY State. On Sept 11th, 1776, this country estate, the only surviving pre-Revolutionary manor house, acted as the final meeting place between the American and British Forces in a futile attempt to call off the War. Unfortunately, thanks to a series of dead-ends, and a busload of hungry, sun-stroked, tired, cranky, non-islanders, we said screw it, and made our way to Killmeyers Bavarian Beer Hall and Garden – the oldest beer hall cum restaurant in the borough. It was there that we feasted on schnitzel, bratwurst, hefeweizen, German Chocolate Cake, and raised a collective toast to the amazing, underappreciated, overlooked and friggin enormous Staten Island. And it only took two hours to get back to Brooklyn. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but not for aother couple of years. I love you Staten Island!
more pictures can be found here on my Flickr page.


rosina. said...

marry me matt levy.

no, serious.

Red Storm Drum & Dance Troupe said...

did you know that president william howard taft was on staten island in 1913.