New Exhibition Explores How New York City’s “Forgotten Borough” Has Evolved and Shaped the City for Over 350 Years

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From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661-2012 Opens on September 13th at the Museum of the City of New York.

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Byron Company, Bathing, Midland Beach, 1899

From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661-2012, an exhibition opening on September 13 at the Museum of the City of New York, looks at the individuals, communities, institutions, and city agencies that have shaped Staten Island’s development over the past 350 years. Through compelling case studies, the exhibition examines not only the emergence of Richmond County as its own place, but also the Island as a landscape that shaped and was shaped by the larger historical forces of New York City.

Strategically located at the entry to the world’s greatest harbor, Staten Island has served as a breadbasket for New York City; a pleasure ground of estates and sporting grounds, including cricket, tennis, and foxhunting; a refuge for the needy at charitable institutions such as Sailors’ Snug Harbor; a center for early industrial activity at Linoleumville and Factoryville; an international port with ship-building facilities; and a place people call home, from early suburbs to public housing developments. From Farm to City tells these stories through a series of case studies highlighted by historic maps, photographs, and original objects, as well as contemporary photographs by Jeff Liao.

Susan Henshaw Jones, RonayMenschel Director of the Museum said, “Staten Island’s colorful history makes it a valuable lens through which to view the dynamics of the development of New York City and the larger metropolitan area. This exhibition also encourages visitors to think critically about Staten Island’s future, by shedding light on its fascinating past.”

The exhibition was made possible by a generous grant from the Richmond County Savings Foundation.

From Farm to City is organized in four sections – Farms, Pleasure Grounds, Suburbs, and City – based on the major typologies that have shaped land use patterns on Staten Island at various moments in its history. The ever-changing ideas behind these land uses – what they looked like spatially, the needs they addressed, their relationships to one another – are examined.

Farms

Farming on Staten Island has generally loomed larger in myth and memory than in reality. The Island’s marshes, its rocky soil, and hilly terrain made land development a challenge. But in the 19th century, Staten Island’s farmers benefited from their proximity to Manhattan’s growing markets, and in turn the food produced in Richmond County became an important part of the regional agricultural infrastructure that allowed New York City to grow and prosper.

By the turn of the 20th century, the number of farms on the Island had grown to nearly 400, even as the land devoted to agriculture was already decreasing. As suburban and urban development proceeded on the Island, the amount of land under cultivation shrank, and the last commercial farm closed its doors in 1979. Today, this agricultural tradition continues on farms that explicitly recall the Island’s agricultural past, such as Historic Richmond Town’s Decker Farm, Clay Pit Pond’s Gericke Farm, or Snug Harbor’s new Heritage Farm.

Object of interest: Fanning Mill winnowing machine, 1800.

Pleasure Grounds

In the 19th century, important parts of Staten Island’s agricultural or undeveloped landscape were transformed as they became sites for recreation for all social classes. Large tracts of land became private estates or private clubs where the wealthy enjoyed nature and sport; key locales along the waterfront became leisure grounds where working people from Richmond County and the region could find entertainment and escape from the heat and crowds of the

As the City of New York on Manhattan Island grew into the nation’s most important port and most populous urban center in the first half of the 19th century, Staten Island presented itself as a respite from the ills of the industrial metropolis, an escape from the crowds and the diseases of “the City.” Estates like Seguine Mansion overlooking Prince’s Bay and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s “Homestead”; organizations like the Richmond County Hunt Club and the New York City Yacht club; amusement enterprises like South Beach’s “Happy Land” and Bachmann Brewery’s Midland Beach; even charitable institutions like Sailors’ Snug Harbor all took advantage of the open space and natural beauty on Staten Island.

These open spaces that had been left largely undeveloped took on new meaning the late 20th century. After Richmond County became one of the five boroughs of the newly consolidated city of Greater New York in 1898, the Island’s pastoral image took on new meaning as its residents fought to retain its bucolic sense of place. Beginning in the 1960s, citizen activists and environmentalists lobbied both city and state government to cordon off the Island’s undeveloped land from future development, a debate that still rages today.

Object of interest: “Great International Yacht Race” photographic print, 1870.

Suburbs

Commercial steam ferry service between Manhattan and Staten Island, inaugurated in 1817, helped transform New York’s landscape by providing a residential alternative to living in the commercial and artisanal quarters of lower Manhattan. On the Island, developers responded to New Yorkers’ growing fears that the city had become a disease-ridden den of vice and sin, overrun by undesirables – immigrants, radicals, and the poor – by developing new bedroom suburbs. But the new suburbs were not only residential districts. Entrepreneurs built new work places on the Staten Island in the hopes that its bucolic landscape would provide a positive moral influence on workers while isolation from the growing labor movements in Manhattan would provide factory owners with more control over their laborers.

At the turn of the 20th century, suburban Staten Island changed again, in part because of transportation improvements and new infrastructure. Entrepreneur Erastus Wiman gained control of both the Staten Island Railroad and the North and South Shore ferry lines in 1886 to create a new transit hub, which he named St. George. After the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964, the automobile suburb of single-family homes eclipsed the other suburban forms, and today it remains the dominant residential pattern on Staten Island.

Object of interest: Little Farms Staten Island New York real estate brochure, 1909.

City

Staten Island’s history has always been inextricably linked to history of the larger city and region. The Island helped connect the booming metropolis to markets along the East Coast, provided sanctuary for the wealthy and growing middle class, and provided housing for workers who made their living in what was fast becoming the nation’s leading urban center. Many Staten Island residents, political leaders, and developers imagined their home as the antithesis of “The City” even while they remained deeply intertwined with the metropolis.

Ever since 1898, when Staten Island residents voted 5,531 to 1,505 in favor of becoming a borough in the newly consolidated New York City, the Island has wrestled with its identity as part of an urban center, debating issues of density as individuals, institutions, and the city competed to have their idealized visions and perceived needs become reality. Today, new arrivals are reinvigorating the downtowns of the north shore of Richmond County and helping to redefine what it means to live an urban life on Staten Island.

Object of interest: General map of the borough of Richmond with a preliminary plan for a street system, 1901.

The exhibition’s case studies will challenge visitors to think critically about how development needs – jobs, housing, transportation, health and welfare, and later recreation and preservation – have changed over time and, as a result, how the Island’s imagined and realized landscapes have been built and rebuilt in response. By thinking about development as a process, the exhibition provides visitors with the tools necessary to take a more active and critical stance in current debates over land-use and planning on Staten Island today.

Online Component

As a companion to the Museum of the City New York's 2012 exhibition, From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661-2012, the Museum is creating a new website to explore the landscape of Staten Island through a curated collection of historic maps and images. The site, Mapping Staten Island, which will be available online via mcny.org, guides visitors through a chronological sequence of historical milestones that showcase a unique set of richly detailed maps and atlases drawn from an array of cartographic archives. Visitors will be able to compare maps from different periods of time, as well as unrealized plans for the Island, exploring the development of the Island over time, as well as roads not taken.

Complementing the many layers of map imagery, a selection of photographs and drawings drawn from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York will overlay the Staten Island geography, allowing visitors to explore learn more about the history of specific places. In addition to curated contributions, website users will also be invited to submit their own stories of Richmond County, in text and images, to be featured on the public map interface.

This portal into the stories of Richmond County will be a unique resource for building and exploring the living history of Staten Island. The site is a production of Human Nature Projects, the web development team responsible for themannahattaproject.org

From Farm to City is presented in collaboration with the Staten Island Museum and the Staten Island Historical Society/Historic Richmond Town, and it will remain on view through January 21, 2013. The exhibition was curated by a team led by the Museum of the City of New York’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director, Sarah M. Henry, and Guest Curator Liz Mcenaney, with consulting curator Ryan Carey and curatorial consultant Adam Zalma. The exhibition was designed by Pure + Applied

About the Museum of the City of New York

Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. The Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City, and serves the people of the city as well as visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections.

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Meryl Cates - Communications/ Press
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