Museum Exhibit Spotlights “the Forgotten Borough”

MANHATTAN — A new exhibit opening this week at the Museum of the City of New York spotlights Staten Island. The exhibit, titled “From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661-2012”, tells the story of Staten Island’s development over the last 350 years.  The purpose of the exhibit is to show that Staten Island, often referred to as “the forgotten borough,” is both an integral part of New York City and a unique island with its own identity.

“There is this long standing connection between Staten Island and New York,” said McEnaney. 

Guest curator Liz McEnaney says that Staten Island’s story cannot be told chronologically.  Instead, the museum traces Staten Island’s history through the story of its land.  Images by photographer Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, along with vintage photographs, graphics, and historical artifacts arranged in four parts – Farms, Pleasure Grounds, Suburbs and City – visually narrate the history of Staten Island. 

The exhibit begins with the Island’s agricultural history.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Staten Island’s farms provided food to Manhattan.  In the early twentieth century, the Island’s cheap land prices made it a haven for Greek, Italian and Irish immigrants seeking farmland.  Downtown businesses catered to these immigrants.  

“Staten Island made the development of Manhattan possible,” said guest curator Liz McEnaney.

As agricultural production decreased, Staten Island’s open lands became a playground for Manhattan’s wealthy residents.  New means of transportation made the Island more accessible to New Yorkers.  Wealthy New Yorkers came to Staten Island to hunt foxes and play tennis and cricket.  America’s first tennis match was played on the Island in 1874.

Eventually, working and middle class families found amusement in Staten Island, too.  German brewers built resorts to market their beer.  Staten Island became a refuge for Manhattan’s needy.  Orphanages and hospitals were opened.  Seamen retired to Sailor’s Snug Harbor. 

In 1898, Staten Island became part of New York City.  But in spite of being part of such a large urban metropolis, the Island is still wrestling with its identity.  McEnaney says that the balance between land conservation and development is a big factor in discussions about identity.  Even though Staten Island is part of New York City, the Island has resisted many of the city’s rapid development projects. 

“There’s this inherent island-ness to it.  It developed at its own pace,” said McEnaney.

The last part of the exhibit encourages visitors to think about Staten Island’s future. 

According to the exhibit, immigration to Staten Island increased 120 percent from 1990 to 2010. McEnaney says that today, Staten Island has the largest Sri Lankan community outside of Sri Lanka.  The area is also popular with Liberians.  McEnaney hopes that visitors to the exhibit will consider “the possibilities of these new communities.”

“It’s an interesting moment for the island,” says McEnaney.

The exhibit opens Thursday, September 13 and will run through January 2013.

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