“It takes a special person to want to visit Staten Island,” says tour guide Georgia Trivizas. After all, NYC’s most residential, least-populated borough is hardly known for its touristic appeal. A largely suburban, blue-collar island — accessible from Manhattan by a ferry and somewhat less convenient train — the unassuming Staten Island has long been the butt of jokes by more urbane Manhattanites. “The first thing to do in Staten Island?” more than one New Yorker I polled joked. “Get on the ferry and leave.”
But for those willing to explore, what Georgia calls the ‘unknown island’ has an uncanny appeal. The (free) ferry ride itself offers some of the most spectacular views in New York (especially at sunset). Tourists gather on one side of the boat with their cameras, craning their necks towards the Statue of Liberty as it comes into view; across the deck, the commuters — old white men in Mets caps or Yankees T-shirts, elderly Sri Lankan women doing their knitting — don’t even look up.
The port of St George, where the ferry first docks, has a jarring beauty. The Beaux Arts buildings by the waterfront — although faded and dotted with dollar stores and shuttered delis — retain their bones, if not their shine; the Victorian, Gothic and Queen Anne homes mingle with brash Italian-American restaurants (‘Nonnas of the world, unite!’ reads one awning) and neon-lit, nautical-themed diners. At the waterfront Karl’s Klipper, under unseasonal Christmas lights, I order a red velvet cake and unlimited free refills of stale coffee from a perpetually exasperated waitress.
But it’s the St George Theater, a five-minute walk up the hill from the ferry, that serves as St George’s real highlight. Built in 1929, when the area was still a bastion of Gilded-Age wealth, the former vaudeville theatre and cinema is a dizzying kaleidoscope of gold mouldings and red velvet, faux-European frescoes and stained glass: newly restored in 2004 after nearly three decades of disuse. In Manhattan, such a splendid building might well be kept under meticulous scrutiny; here, the usher takes pity on me one Friday afternoon and allows me to walk right in, wandering alone under the proscenium arch.
Staten Island’s historic sites, however, aren’t limited to St George. A 10-minute bus ride down Richmond Terrace, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, a former home for retired sailors spread over 83 acres along the Kill Van Kull strait on the island’s North Shore, features 26 of New York City’s most striking examples of baronial 19th-century architecture, from temple-style Greek Revival mansions to red-brick cottages. Today, the complex is a museum, featuring a contemporary art centre, music hall, and perhaps most strikingly, the Chinese Scholar’s Garden — a walled floral display imitating the gardens of Suzhou. Further south, in the neighbourhood of Rosebank, the Alice Austen House — which dates back to the colonial era — doubles as a memorial to one of New York City’s most iconic photographers: a Victorian bohemian famous for her strikingly honest portraits of New York City’s working class.
Yet according to Georgia — whose appointment-only tours (email@example.com) are a one-woman paean to the borough — Staten Island’s finest asset is also its least known. One-third parkland, its forest, wetland and pond hiking trails are among the city’s most expansive.
In recent years, too, Staten Island has seen a cultural regeneration. Signs across the ferry port advertise new waterside luxury developments in the cheerily titled ‘best value borough’ — more significant than ever now that price hikes in parts of Brooklyn, once the destination of choice for value-seeking young professionals, outpace Manhattan. The Italian-American eateries like iconic Joe and Pat’s and the locals’ haunt Lee’s Tavern — now stand side by side with a growing number of Sri Lankan and Mexican cafes; the Flagship Brewing Company, which opened in 2014, has brought craft beer culture across the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge. The Snug Harbor Cultural Center, too, has done its part to attract younger visitors: a new crop of summer events include rooftop film screenings and performances of new plays. Nearby, parts of the 19th-century, still-working Atlantic Salt Company depot have been repurposed as an installation art space for the annual LUMEN Festival.
“People don’t realise the diversity that’s here these days,” says Georgia. “It’s completely different from how it was it was 20, 30 years ago.”
Now the rest of New York just has to notice.
Read more of the New York cover story in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)