Ann and Alastair Wood from Edinburgh, Scotland, were slightly familiar with Staten Island when they got on the Ferry in Manhattan last week.
Some time ago, someone visiting their hometown came up with a Scottish tune, or “reel,” and named it for the borough.
But another family — of four, from Texas — knew nothing about Staten Island, except that a ride across the harbor aboard the Ferry was a must.
And a Manhattan resident who wanted to show off the Big Apple’s skyline to her niece, in town from India, knew enough to get her guest aboard a Ferry boat too.
All eight now know a lot more — especially about the borough’s North Shore. They were among 20 adventurous souls last Wednesday who stepped off the Ferry in St. George and didn’t get right back on.
Instead, they hopped aboard the “Discover Staten Island” trolley-style tour bus in its inaugural week. Along with me, a daily commuter who grew up in Manhattan, they learned a lot of memorable stuff about the “forgotten borough.”
Ben Maniaci, the tour guide, looked more equipped for an outdoor adventure than an indoor bus ride in fraying, fingerless bikers’ gloves and a pair of sunglasses that blocked out his eyes. He was well prepared, though, to lead us to some of the treasures along the North Shore.
He told us to get ready to learn about a strange land, one unlike Manhattan or Brooklyn, a place where “you won’t find yellow taxi cabs” along the dirt roads.
This, he said, was Staten Island.
The bus chugged slowly along what looked more like a standard highway than the rural farm road Maniaci had described, past the sleek “Postcards” 9/11 memorial overlooking Manhattan and Gerardi’s Farmer’s Market, in New Brighton.
Once we turned into a residential neighborhood en route to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, though, I began to get a better sense of the rural atmosphere to which Maniaci had first alluded.
Leafy trees shaded the sidewalks and rows of old Colonial and Victorian houses stood proud, preserved for hundreds of years and still inhabited by families today.
“This place would make a great amusement park,” Maniaci said of Snug Harbor, the first main attraction of the tour, pointing to expanses of open green spaces and the school group that had gathered on one of the large, lush lawns. We went on to pass rose gardens, fountains, an arboretum filled with over 300 species of plants native to Staten Island, and the vintage Governor’s Mansion.
In between the other “big sights” — Fort Wadsworth and the absolutely charming Alice Austen House — there were lots of opportunities to glean gems of Staten Island trivia from Maniaci.
Did you know that:
*** The Staten Island Zoo in West Brighton has the largest reptile collection in the country?
*** The man who “really” invented the telephone but couldn’t afford the patent hailed from the borough’s East Shore, Rosebank?
*** Confederate spies worked out of St. Mary’s Presbyterian Church in West Brighton during the Civil War?
*** Joni Mitchell’s lyrics in “Song for Sharon” reference her trip to the Mandolin Brothers’ West Brighton guitar store?
Maniaci also spoke in depth about the Island’s Dutch heritage.
I always knew there had to be something here, something that made people want to live and work here, but why was it that I’d never thought to explore it? Why is Staten Island so widely thought of as the ugly quintuplet? Is it that there are so many things to do in Manhattan that it never seems worth it to leave? Is it that public transportation is less extensive here than in the other boroughs, where folks rely on the ready-access subway system?
Upon disembarking, the responses from my fellow passengers seemed to mimic mine: They were pleasantly surprised and conscious of the fact that had they immediately caught that Manhattan-bound ferry or, in my case, not been sent out on this assignment, they would have missed out on something significant.
The consensus seemed to be that Staten Island could be everybody’s cup of tea, if only they took the time to check it out.
By the time I got back to the office and found myself typing “Alice Austen” into Google in hopes of seeing some of her 9,000 photographs, I realized I had been converted.