Unlike the urban north shore of Staten Island, the quiet town of Tottenville is so peaceful that it barely feels like a part of New York City at all. Once the sun sets cars are rare to spot and few people roam the small streets. The colonial town lies on the southernmost tip of Staten Island and almost all of its buildings and houses are colonial and are filled with history as far back as pre World War I. At one point Tottenville had a thriving economy and quickly became a small cultural center for Staten Island. Fishing, farming, oystering, and even amusement parks were all found on the shores of this small town. However, what one must understand is that the untouched land is what comes first and shapes everything from the economy to the buildings and people.
Tottenville is surrounded on three sides by water. On the south and east lies the Raritan Bay and Arthur Kill waterway lies to the west of the tip. A terminal moraine indicates the farthest advance of the Wisconsin glacier by the Tottenville waterway. Upon visiting the shoreline now, one can easily see across to New Jersey, where huge industrial buildings and uncountable amounts of smokestacks take over the land.
However, during horse and buggy days and before the land became industrialized Tottenville was plush with farmland, flowers and oak trees. “In the 1830s and 1840s the area that would become Tottenville was almost entirely woodland” (Shepherd 2008, 49). Mrs. Mary Hillard recalls, “ The atmosphere seemed pure and clean. The trees and gardens were more luxuriant. We had lovely pine woods and beautiful woodlands in which in early spring we picked arbutus, white and purple violets, laurel and wild magnolia. There were even pond lilies. Fields and fields of buttercups, daisies and clovers for youngsters to walk in just grew. The main industry was oystering” (Joline 1950, 42). In these times the water was clean and filled with oysters and an array of fish “including river herring, shad, sturgeon, bluefish, weakfish, bunkers, porgies and fluke” (Shepherd 2008, 49).
Unlike the polluted waters today, the waterfront was clean and attracted many tourists in the beginning of the 18th century with the opening of the Seabreeze Amusement Park. However it was quickly closed down because of rowdy crowds. “Today the area has been absorbed by the bay. Pilings of the former dock can be seen at low tide” (Shepherd 2008, 149). From that time on there seems to be a continuous decline in the flourishing landscape due to increase pollution of the water and air. “Water pollution would soon necessitate the closing of the metropolitan area’s oyster beds” (Shepherd 2008, 173). Shellfish beds were shut down due to sewage pollution in the water, and typhoid fever was traced in oyster beds. 1927 marked the end of oystering in Tottenville, and New York City in general. The rise in industry in New Jersey and the winds coming towards Tottenville was a detrimental combination. “Tottenville adjacent to New Jersey’s heavy industries suffered because prevailing winds carried pollutants to Staten Island” (Shepherd 2008, 187). To the residents of Tottenville the change was noticeable and unbearable. “Acrid haze brought a sharp tickling sensation in the throats of observers and made breathing difficult. The source of the haze was traced to factories in New Jersey” (Shepherd 2008, 182).
By the 1960s people became concerned with the pollution of the area and developed community organizations to solve the air and water issues. “In 1963 the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act. It was the first federal legislation to address the problem” (Shepherd 2008, 187). More recently, in 2005 trees and brush were removed to create clean pathways in Conference House Park. “It is encouraging to see that waters around Tottenville are cleaner each year. Lemon creek clammers who harvest clams from the waters off Staten Island find that oysters, though not plentiful, are once again growing there” (Shepherd 2008, 210).
Although, it seems that the rise and fall of Tottenville’s landscape has come full circle, there still needs to be a great amount of tidying up of the environment. Especially on the western point, at Tottenville Shore Park, the beaches are covered in bottles, cans, wrappers, and tons of garbage. The beaches along the southern and eastern tip by Conference House Park are cleaner, perhaps due to less industry and more privately owned property in that area. It is the sad truth that the landscape will never be as lush and the air and waterwill never be as pure due to the constant rise of industries and factories. However, it is great to know that the organizations have helped clean up the water and air, but this is only the beginning and efforts should continue in order for our environment to not regress to how it was in the 18th century.
Joline, Benjamin Franklin. Tottenville in Retrospect. Privately Published by the Author: 1950.
Shepherd, Barnett. Tottenville: The Town the Oyster Built – A Staten Island Community: Its People, Industry and Architecture. Ashland, Ohio: Book Masters, Inc., 2008.