Excerpt from The Staten Island Advance by Virginia Sherry, December 18, 2008:
Who would ever think to explore all 22 stops along the Staten Island Railway, and transform the experience into a creative project?
Tompkinsville artist Mary Bullock did.
For weeks earlier this year, she rode the railway line, disembarked at every station, and took thousands of photographs of anything within walking distance that struck her discerning eye.
"It was an overwhelming thing - I had to keep reminding myself that I was in New York City," she said.
The culmination of her work is "Postcards from the Rails: Journey Along a Path Apart," which premiered last Sunday at the SHOW Gallery at 156 Stuyvesant Pl. in St. George. The subtitle is recognition that the railway does not connect to any other line, and traveling it "reveals strong local identities along its length."
Ms. Bullock designed 23 postcards - one for each neighborhood along the railway's stops on the North, East and South shores, from St. George to Tottenville, and a wry card that introduces the project. The 22 neighborhood cards feature color photos on one side, and text on the reverse, filled with facts and personal impressions gathered during the eyes-wide-open journeys.
"It was very revealing - I was amazed that no two stops were alike," she told the Advance. She was also surprised that from the platforms of each station there was "not a chain store in sight," with only one exception.
This project is made possible (in part) by a Premier Grant from the Council on the Arts & Humanities for Staten Island, with public funding from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Click on the headline to visit postcardsfromtherails.com
Here is a sampling of what she found along her journey:
This bucolic lakeside scene is just a few minutes’ walk from the Railway Station. Staten Island has a large number of surprisingly “rural” spots. The owners of the houses around this lake, and another one nearby, are members of a long-standing private community.
Also near the Station are various storefronts and a small shopping center.
Southeast of the Railway Station, just one block off busy, commercial, Hylan Boulevard is a low beige brick building. It’s Sunday. Under an American flag, multicolored triangles flutter over a courtyard. In the enclosed patio a sign asks, “Please take off shoes.”
Through the doorway is another world, a Sikh Temple. You are greeted by men in turbans and women in brightly colored saris and veils. They invite you to stay for the ceremony, hear musicians play beautiful ragas, and share a meal.
The area surrounding the Dongan Hills Station boasts two other barber shops/salons in addition to Frank’s, pictured here. The saying goes: You find the good in church, the bad in prison, and the real in the barber shop.
There is also a corner business with two huge plate glass windows but no external signage. If you peer in you see “Lee’s Tavern” in gold letters over the bar mirror. Some say their thin-crust pizza is the best in the Borough.
DeRosa & Sons Pastosa Ravoli is a Staten Island institution. The store signs on Richmond Avenue may list every version of pasta known to man. Pasta is made fresh on the premises and they offer a gluten-free product line.
Next door is Joyce’s Tavern, an Irish Pub. Though 64 languages are spoken by Staten Island’s burgeoning ethnic population, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans remain major groups.
Excerpt from The Staten Island Advance by Virginia Sherry, December 18, 2008:
Some of the postcards are tributes to the individualistic small businesses that are clustered around the stations: Sudsy's Bagels in Pleasant Plains; DeRosa & Sons Pastosa Ravioli in Eltingville; Sports Heroes and Legends in Great Kills; the Net Cost Russian Market in Oakwood Heights; the Grant City Tavern, and Frank's Barber Shop in Dongan Hills.
Exploring near the New Dorp station, the artist saw New Dorp Lane as an "upscale shopping street with plenty of glitz and glamour: "Staten Island's Rodeo Drive."
Her postcard for Tompkinsville is a montage of storefront signs along Victory Boulevard, the major commercial artery, with its rich mix of Sri Lankan, African, Polish, Caribbean, and Central American businesses. She found the street "arguably Staten Island's most ethnically diverse shopping area."
Ms. Bullock hopes that her project "will encourage pride and preservation," particularly because "the economic downturn has given us a reprieve from development, a chance perhaps to once more rethink our destiny.
"There is a way of life here on Staten Island that is worth preserving - New York City as it used to be, a city of small neighborhoods, before the obscene real estate boom transformed so many thriving communities into high-priced ghettos and the big chains eviscerated local small businesses," she observed.
As a North Shore resident, Ms. Bullock rarely traveled on the railway. Her project fell into place last year, when she went by rail to Dongan Hills for a routine test at Staten Island University Hospital.
For her return trip, she decided to walk to the next station in Old Town and get on the train there. As she approached the station, she smelled "a wonderful spicy aroma," and saw a woman in a colorful sari stirring a large pot on the grounds of a one-story beige brick building. The artist asked if she could buy lunch. A man wearing a turban replied: "You can't buy it, but we'll give you lunch."
The artist removed her shoes, entered "another world" and found herself enjoying the hospitality of a Sikh temple. She discovered that the building was formerly an American Legion hall, with the elaborate logo still prominently intact on the spotlessly clean terrazzo floor.
Stumbling across something as interesting as the temple, in such close proximity to the railway station, got Ms. Bullock thinking about "what I would find near other stops."
Mary Bullock was born in Detroit, Michigan, first lived on Staten Island in 1980-81, and returned permanently seven years ago.
"I'm still an outsider," she told the Advance, affording her an advantage in exploring the 22 stations with "fresh eyes." She was attentive to details that others, more familiar with the territory, might easily overlook.
Richmond Valley station, the 19th stop from St. George, "has a house so close to the tracks the resident could lean out a put cream in a rider's morning coffee," she wrote on the back of this postcard. "There is no accommodation for pedestrians on either side, just 'country' roads with stands of native plants growing aside small streams."
Atlantic station, the 21st stop, has a platform so short that "only the last car in both directions will open," she noted.
The Pleasant Plains postcard includes an observation that the railway "is embedded in neighborhood life all along its length. Young people often meet in the last car of a particular train and get off at an agreed-to station."
Other postcards highlight architecture in Tottenville and Prince's Bay; natural vistas in Bay Terrace and Grasmere, and waterfront views in St. George, Stapleton, and Clifton.
WEB SITE TOO
As part of the project, Ms. Bullock also developed a Web site that includes a gallery of additional photos and succinct, informative commentary. For current and former Islanders, it is well worth a visit to enjoy what the artist calls her "outsider's view" of the 22 communities along the railway. The address is: www.postcardsfromtherails.com.
"When people look at the postcards and the Web site, I hope they realize what we have here," she said. "It's a small town feeling, and it's very precious. I hope that we don't lose it."
Ms. Bullock's project was funded in part by a Premier Grant from the Council on the Arts & Humanities for Staten Island, with public funding from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.
Ms. Bullock views the postcards and accompanying Web site as a "work in progress." The project "got me addicted, and I've just started to scratch the surface," she said.
Just in time for last-minute holiday gifts, boxed sets of the 23 postcards are $10 each, available at SHOW Gallery 718-524-0855. They can also be ordered over the Internet: log on to www.paypal.com; click on Send Money; and send payment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Virginia Sherry is a freelance reporter. She can be reached through the Advance at email@example.com.