By Dominic Hinde
The Staten Island Ferry is one of New York’s best known but cheapest tourist attractions. Contrary to the lack of enthusiasm for public transport beyond the city limits, by necessity New York subsidises the double-deck ferries that ply the mouth of the Hudson river between the lower tip of Manhattan and the huge island of inner suburbia. Taking the ferry costs nothing, connecting the rest of New York to its ‘forgotten borough’ across the estuary.
Most on the ferry are foreign tourists looking for photos of the Statue of Liberty and the immigration centre on Ellis Island, as well as the vistas of Manhattan’s skyscrapers impossible from elsewhere. As the boat noses up to the Staten Island terminal the passengers are shown off and made to do a quick circuit back to the departures hall for the return trip. Since the threat of terrorism entered the psyche of the City and Federal governments, the boats were identified as prime targets and each crossing ends with a full sweep of the ferries to check for bombs or stowaways. The departure hall meanwhile is patrolled by Homeland Security staff with sniffer dogs and submachine guns. They stop and search anyone they think suspicious.
One floor down are the remains of a once grand station with more platforms than it could ever need, the terminus of the Staten Island Railway. Cut off from the rest of the New York Transit system, it is the city's loneliest and least glamorous subway line. Converted from the remains of a once extensive system that encircled the New York and New Jersey docklands, today the railway is a single line running through the sprawl of Staten Island’s eastern side. The trains are infrequent and slow, and the people who ride them are either rush hour commuters or those unable to afford a car. Surprisingly few of those riding the train are headed for the ferry to Manhattan, which is a different world.
Staten Island has not yet been invaded by hipsters and property speculators like the rest of New York’s inner suburbs. The front of the St George terminal faces onto a high street that belongs farther up in the hinterland of New York State and Connecticut. Cut price businesses advertise deals in block letters and the tiny US National Lighthouse Museum occupies a single building on a run down lot of former maritime and naval buildings.
As the railway clatters along the coast people climb on and off, hopping a few stations at a time. Nobody is making the full journey to the Tottenville terminus. Two guys get on, punting obviously stolen toys and pills, and immediately provoke the ire of an elderly passenger. “You’re scum, get the hell outta here, you should be ashamed,” he screams. Soon the whole carriage is involved and people jump up from the plastic bucket seats. When the train stops again the guys leave and run off up the station steps.
The middle of Staten Island is an endless grid of cheaply built wooden buildings, obscuring the views of New York’s Lower Bay where it inches out towards the open Atlantic. Embankments and building backs line the route between stations as the train rattles along. The whole system, like much of New York’s transit, is in desperate need of a complete upgrade. The stations are all hopefully named, either reflecting the aims of suburban utopia or, as in the case of Arrochar and Annandale, trying to recall something of the romance of another island.
The crumbling state of public infrastructure is a leitmotif of any trip around the US, and Staten Island has America in miniature. In the yards of the clapboard houses signs supporting candidates in the Presidential primaries stand next to basketball hoops and parked cars. At the far end of the line there are no ticket gates, you merely wander straight from the platform onto the small-town streets of Tottenville, past trains lined up in the sidings. Across the water in New Jersey transit trains rumble across a bridge and diving birds circle the bay on the lookout for food.
The buffer stops of the Staten Island Railway face directly onto the water, the shoreline unkempt. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 the tip of Staten Island saw the worst of it – storm surges and winds ravaging its waterfront properties with nothing to stand in the way. Boats were tossed from the water and the sea pushed inland. The railway’s workshops were covered in debris and floodwater, whilst whole houses were demolished.
The very tip of the island is a park-cum-flood defence scheme, with huge publicly funded sandbanks and reed beds stretching out beyond the trees to limit the damage from future storms. At the entrance to the reserve is a plaque commemorating those killed by Sandy, and New York has had to concede that its old pattern of sprawling right to the city limits might not be sustainable in an age of climate shocks and extreme weather. Homeland security is as much about barrages and reed beds as it is about armed police and sniffer dogs.