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Not far from the madding crowd: green spaces and secret places of Staten Island.

Green Spaces and Secret Places of Staten Island

Behold this scene of serenity: exquisite blossoms of white water lilies speckle the royal blue surface of a pristine lake, The silence is broken only by the raucous chatter of a kingfisher, A graceful great blue heron, four feet tall, stands motionless on the opposite shore, Not a sign of humanity in this secret place.

To get to this sublime spot, you walked two miles through stately forest, passing several other secluded ponds. Your destination on this 35-mile trail network is Mt. Moses, with its outstanding 360-degree panorama of wooded hills, as far as the eye can see. Sounds like the Catskills or the Adirondacks?

It's New York City, or more specifically, the unknown borough of Staten Island. Long a butt of jokes, more often simply ignored, Staten Island has been the "overlooked borough" since it was incorporated into New York City 100 years ago. For a long time, Staten Island was simply the "place where the ferry from Manhattan goes." People joke that "no one really lives on Staten Island" or that "it is just a place you pass through on your way from the Verrazano Bridge to New Jersey." By the 1980s, it gained the notoriety of possessing the largest landfill on earth, Fresh Kills, which is scheduled to be shut down by 2002.

Few are aware that the Staten Island Greenbelt is nearly four times larger than Central Park in Manhattan. Staten Island boasts the highest ocean cliff in New York State, the highest point on the Atlantic Seaboard south of Maine (Todt Hill), and one of the only ancient forest groves in any eastern city. It has more than seven miles of wild canoe trails, New York City's only hilltop 360-degree natural panorama, 17 wildlife hot spots, and dozens of picturesque ponds in 7,000 acres of parkland. Even more remarkable is that these are all reachable by public transportation.

Sprawling across the center of the island is the nearby 3,000-acre Greenbelt, Staten Island's scenic centerpiece. Its broad swath of green winds six miles from north to south and nearly four miles from west to east. With 35 miles of woodland foot trail, 20 wild lakes and ponds and seven major hills, one would think it would be heavily visited in such a densely populated place like New York City.

However, a walker on its marked trails will usually encounter only a few people -- and sometimes no one at all. "I can't believe I'm in New York City" is a common remark by people who are introduced to this very remarkable place.

The Greenbelt's most important asset may indeed be that it offers New York City's 7.4 million citizens a variety of tranquil refuges to soothe the soul, and to get away from the hectic life of the city. The worries of traffic, crime, grime and litter begin to disappear as you step off onto one of the many Greenbelt foot trails.

The Greenbelt hides many beautiful and secluded spots. Mt. Moses, a 110-foot high pinnacle, not only offers the city's only 360-degree natural panorama (with views of up to 16 miles), but also a major place to view the fall migration of hawks, and the best place in New York City to admire a broad expanse of flaming fall foliage. One of its curious features is a large boulder on its north slope with mysterious rock inscriptions, unknown and inaccessible until its discovery in 1997.

Also in the Greenbelt, Bucks Hollow is a favorite place for wildlife. Centuries-old ruins of a homestead lie crumbled and tumbled on the sharp crest of the nearby Heyerdahl Hill. Add to this its legends of ghosts and of Revolutionary War spies. Follow the Blue Trail south and you come to Richmond Town, New York City's only historic country village. Among its 30 historic buildings is America's oldest school-house (1695).

The latest addition to the Greenbelt, the 23-acre former St. Francis Seminary, was acquired with money from Governor Pataki's Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act with the support of local elected and civic leaders. The parcel includes a reflective pond, a majestic old woodland and knobby glacially formed hills.

At the south tip of Staten Island is the environmental oasis of Mt. Loretto-by-the-Sea, 125 acres of sweeping meadows that recall the pastoral landscape of the past century. Here is found the highest vertical ocean cliff in New York State (90 feet) and a wild beach. The spectacular red cliffs were formed by Ice Age glaciers millions of years ago and now tower over an uninhabited, mile-long beach. The continued conservation of this key open space has been the subject of ongoing negotiations involving DEC, the private Trust for Public Land and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York which has owned the property since the 1880s.

With the relentless pressure of urban development in one of the most densely populated and largest cities in the world, how is it possible that Staten Island's greenspaces escaped the bulldozer? Until 1898, when Staten Island was incorporated into New York City, it was a sleepy collection of scattered villages and farms (one farm still survives). Population growth and development remained slow because Staten Island was isolated and reachable from the city only by ferry. World famous naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who lived on Staten Island in the 1840s, wrote, "The whole island is like a garden, and affords very fine scenery." Naturalists, writers and the wealthy esteemed Staten Island as a place to reside because their "country borough" offered hilltop vistas of the Manhattan skyline.

All of that changed with the completion of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Staten Island Expressway in 1964. Rapid, unplanned development immediately followed and one-third of Staten Island quickly lost its semi-rural setting. The natural area in central Staten Island (the Greenbelt) was scheduled to be bulldozed to make way for parkways.

Staten Island park lovers rallied and launched a campaign which convinced Governor Nelson Rockefeller to agree to set aside High Rock Girl Scout Camp as a public park. Although the cloverleaf connections to the two highways already were built, Staten Island park supporters, especially the Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, stymied the highway construction for two decades. The fate of the 3,000 acres of the Greenbelt remained in limbo.

Finally, in 1984, the Greenbelt was created. It combined several smaller existing parks in highway right-of-way corridors, as well as state and privately owned woodlands, into a quilt of green spaces.

The dedication of Protectors of Pine Oak Woods and its allies is actually a continuation of a long Staten Island tradition. Because of its country setting across from Manhattan and Brooklyn, it has an early history of homegrown naturalists. Besides the short-term residency of Thoreau, Staten Island was the longtime home of Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned as the "father of landscape architecture" and the designer of 150 parks across the country including Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and Niagara Reservation which contains Niagara Falls, the first state park in the nation. His 1690 homestead still stands in Staten Island.

Another Staten Island naturalist was Nathaniel Lord Britton, founder and first director of the New York Botanical Gardens and author of the "bible of botany," The Illustrated Guide to the Flora of Northern U.S. and Canada. William T. Davis followed in the early 1900s. Besides being the world authority on the cicadas, including the 17-year "locust," he established New York City's first wildlife sanctuary, now part of the Greenbelt. He also co-founded the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences which houses major museum collections and is the Island's center of activity for nature and art lovers.

What the Greenbelt has accomplished for central Staten Island, the Bluebelt promises to provide for southern Staten Island. The Bluebelt is really a series of belts of natural areas and parks. The concept was to buy up wetlands, floodways, ponds and adjacent woodlands to enable them to absorb flood waters and prevent flooding of streets and homes. Today, a dozen Bluebelt parks and open space areas have been purchased. The cost of their acquisition is dwarfed by the savings of taxes and insurance that would have had to pay for sewage projects and annual flood damage. The icing on the cake is that prices of homes adjacent to these parks are enhanced and numerous neighborhoods now have their own preserves in which to enjoy recreation, wildlife and exceptional beauty.

The first and largest of Staten Island's Bluebelt parks is the 200-acre Blue Heron Park, created in 1984. In addition to its namesake resident, Blue Heron Park is home to stork-like American egrets, wood ducks, rare wildflowers and even ancient trees. There is not a hint of evidence that you are inside a city when you visit this peaceful place for renewal.

Staten Island's population of 400,000 is one-third greater than New York State's second largest city, Buffalo. Yet the numbers are very relative in a mega-lopolis like New York City. Staten Island is still less than six percent of New York City's population.

Whereas Manhattan's museums, art and architecture makes it a destination for cultural inspiration, the lily-padded ponds and hushed green cathedral woods of Staten Island offer New Yorkers a natural destination for outdoor adventure and inspiration.

Naturalists have admired its secret places for decades. Now all New York citizens can admire the natural riches of Staten Island, the country oasis in America's greatest city.

Bruce Kershner, a native of Staten Island, teaches biology and earth science at John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga, Erie County. He is the author of five books, including Secret Places of Western New York and the recently released Secret Places of Staten Island, both published by Kendall Hunt Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, (1-800-228-0810).
COPYRIGHT 1998 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:New York
Author:Kershner, Bruce
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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